Abba Voyage

After forty years, Abba are back with an album and a huge virtual concert. But is the gig worth all the fuss around it?

What’s the Concert? Abba Voyage

What’s It All About, JG? Well, without going through the full history of Abba recording music again after forty years, basically they’ve built a bloody big stadium in the east end of London and filled it with a band and a whole heap of technology and lighting. And in this Abba Arena is a show that really isn’t quite like any other. The band members did a motion-capture concert which allowed projections – Abbatars, if you will – of them to be generated as if it were the real thing. These are, naturally, de-aged so we get a view of the band in their prime. But in using mo-cap to get a genuine performance it means you’re not just watching a CGI version of the band. You’re watching them give an actual performance, but then with a bunch of technical jiggery-pokery used to generate the show.

Note, though, the avoidance of the use of the word “hologram” here. There have, after all, been plenty of other holograms tours, mostly involving dead rappers and almost all critically panned. Obviously, it’s hard for the dead to do what Abba have done and mo-cap an actual concert, so there’s a very real distinction here between how the technology has been used in the past and the use to which it is being put here. It’s also a lot less ghoulish. Technically speaking, what the Abbatars are is not holograms in the traditional sense. Instead the producers (rather vaguely) claim that it, “blurs the line between the physical and digital”. This may seem like – excuse the pun – a technical distinction, but it means that Abba are taking a different approach. An actual live performance, captured, digitally generated, then projected using tech that’s not quite like anything anyone has used before.

Apart from anything else, their entire arena is custom-built for the experience. This isn’t a show that can simply fold away a few laptops and projectors and hit the road – the entire experience, from the arrival into the stylishly-designed bar area to the stage area itself, is a complete and unified design. Once you actually get into the stadium everything is very efficient, and as you are led and directed to your seats (or the central standing area, but I’m old so seats it is), the question remains – can a virtual gig like this possibly live up to the hype surrounding it? Just the band recording again – hugely improbable though that always seemed – was exciting enough, but this? A vast, unproven technology that they were first in line for? It’s a huge swing, and vastly ambition. So… does it come off?

Why Did You Give It A Go? I’ve been an Abba fan literally all my life. I can remember singing along to the first couple of albums listening to them on cassette in my parent’s car. I remember shoveling 10p coins into a jukebox again and again so I could hear, “The Name of the Game”. I remember not understanding why they were splitting up around the time of The Visitors when it was so demonstrable how good their material still was (seriously. The Visitors is one of the best albums of all time and deserves to be hailed as such – and indeed probably would be if it didn’t have the name Abba on the front).

It’s hard to remember now, because the band are so celebrated, but there was a time, during those dark and miserable days of the 1980s, where the band weren’t always well-regarded. Indeed, quite the reverse – the were reviled. Admitting to being an Abba fan was about the worst musical sin you could commit. Yet even then, that little flame of love never went out, through cheap re-releases and sneering dismissal and general vast uncoolness.

And then back to life they roared in the 90s, their stock only ever getting higher and higher, as critical reappraisal after critical reappraisal finally acknowledged what had always been the case – that in the end, they’re just bloody good songwriters, amazing musicians, and astonishingly gifted performers.

So yeah. I was going to see this.

Is It Any Good? Good is not remotely close to being an adequate adjective to describe it. It is absolutely fucking excellent.

The thing is, it’s very easy to be cynical about this sort of endeavor. Too old to go on tour? Can’t be bothered with the grind of slogging around the world? Why not use tech as a handy shortcut so you don’t have to bother! And yet, one of the absolute joys of Voyage is that there’s nothing cynical about it whatsoever. This isn’t some quick and handy cash-grab, it’s not some lazy excuse to wring a bit more money from fans (though there is a gift shop, if that’s your thing), and it’s not just an excuse to keep the brand going. What it is, and what it manages to achieve, is genuinely extraordinary.

Because what comes through again and again is the sheer joy of it all. Of course it’s a bit camp in places, but it’s not just some tediously-obvious camp recreation. Of course it’s all 70s fashion and wonky hairdos, but it’s not just an excuse to point and laugh. Of course it’s technology replacing the actual members, but it’s not just an excuse to let them off the hook. Everything, from the stylish cones of light that greet you when you enter the arena itself, to the geodesic wooden beams that hang with surprising architectural lightness above the bar area, through to the viewing experience itself, is designed to be a singular, unitary experience. You are guided into a world, and it’s the world of Abba, but it’s simply light-years away from the lazy stereotypes of naff kimonos and home-made dance routines – though there’s plenty of that too.

What there is in its stead is a genuine attempt to expand what the word “Abba” actually means. From the very first moment that the concert begins, as vertical strips of light blaze around the stadium and pull you in, it’s impossible not to be aware that this is something different – whatever your expectations are, it probably isn’t this. Then the slow, low, pulsing synth line strikes up and leads you into “The Visitors”, the austere, almost gothic (and utterly fucking brilliant) title track from the album of the same name. The Abbatars emerge and… from that moment you are in their world.

And what a world it is.

The styles, both in terms of the music and the visual, are constantly shifting, which is another in the very long line of things which are impressive about the concert. They could have just had the band stand on stage for an hour and a half, belting out the old hits, and called it a day. But there’s a real effort made here to push forward the idea of what a concert like this can be. Sometimes you are watching a straightforward performance piece, sometimes there’s what appear to be new music videos, sometimes there’s pure animation, sometimes entirely Tron-like computer graphics.

There’s a restlessness and energy to the presentation that never lets up, a determination to never rest on their laurels, and that’s the other thing which makes this such an uncynical proposition. At every opportunity when they could have taken the easy route, or fallen back on predictable approaches, they don’t. Every single choice made here is one that is both a part of that singular experience and also designed to enhance it. Is every single choice successful? That’s down to an individual to judge, but whatever else you can say it’s never a choice made from complacency. The band didn’t have to do this. If they did decide to do it, they didn’t have to do it in this way. But they did. And the sheer amount of thought and consideration which has gone into the presentation of every single song would, on its own, be impressive even if the music weren’t so good.

Oh and it really, really is good. Even aside from the songwriting, the other thing Voyage has going for it is an extraordinary live band. No backing takes, studio recreations or laptops getting plugged in here – instead we have a full, live band playing everything throughout the whole concert. They even get a chance to have their own spotlight – a blisteringly-good version of “Does Your Mother Know?” – that shows off just how talented they are as singers and musicians. For that track, Abba take a back seat and the live band just let rip – it’s yet another phenomenal moment in a show full of them.

How Many Of These Have You Seen? I have never seen a hologram show or anything remotely similar – probably because there isn’t anything remotely similar. This is a truly unique experience.

Would You Recommend It? Why yes, I really do believe that I might! I mean, even if you’re not a fan of the band particularly, the whole experience is so incredibly immersive it’s impossible not to get pulled along with it. The technology, too, is beyond impressive – the lighting design alone deserves pretty much every award there is in the world, and the Abbatars themselves are a genuine technological triumph. There’s occasionally the odd moment where you realize that you’re watching a recreation rather than the real thing, but what’s so impressive about the Abbatars is just how easy it is to fall under their spell. Even when they’re doing ok-this-wasn’t-done-by-the-septuagenarian-originals flips and kicks during “Summer Night City”.

Oh, that’s another thing that’s worth mentioning. The set list isn’t just Abba Gold but with a big screen in front of you. There’s a real and sincere attempt to use the full range of material the band have at their disposal. That means there’s a few numbers which wouldn’t be expected, and that’s more than welcome as well. The Visitors wasn’t toured as an album, so to get a couple of numbers from it is just wonderful. Similarly, “Eagle” was never a number likely to make the cut, yet there it is in all its glory. And it’s accompanied by an amazing animation that’s both completely unexpected and also nothing like the footage from Abba: The Movie that originally featured with the song. It was powerful enough to honestly move me to tears.

And that’s the biggest surprise of all, really. Of everything I was prepared for, I genuinely wasn’t expecting it to pack such an emotional wallop. But it absolutely does. It gets you, and I wasn’t alone in this. That’s partly because it’s such an immersive experience – the technology, the design, the live band – partly because it’s such a joyful one, but also, I suspect, because in the end the music is just incredible. Watching the band perform “When All Is Said And Done” in 2022 is a very different experience to listening to it in 1981. It inevitably carries different resonances, especially for a band that have come back together after all that time, but it’s no less powerful for it.

The two new singles, “I Still Have Faith In You” and “Don’t Shut Me Down”, also get an outing, as you’d expect. Here there’s an interesting creative choice made, because the singles are sung by the de-aged Abbatars, rather than then band as they are now. Perhaps using the as-they-are-now versions would break the illusion, but there’s still something slightly strange about seeing the new singles performed by the old (or rather, young) band. Still, “I Still Have Faith In You” is a massive beneficiary from this. The single itself is… fine. Not their best, not their worst. Taken at face value it comes across as a slightly self-aware nod to the fact that the band have been away, come back, and aren’t quite certain of how things will go – “do I have it in me?” indeed. Yet the live performance recontextualizes this, having Agnetha and Anni-Frid sing it directly to each other – these two women have, after all this time and everything they have gone through, still got faith in each other. That was completely unexpected and greatly increased my appreciation for the original song. It’s an absolutely bravura move, very unexpected, and a complete success.

Which is pretty much the concert in a nutshell. Technologically-speaking, it’s a triumph. Musically-speaking, it’s beyond brilliant. Emotionally-speaking, it’s incredibly resonant and heartfelt. Is it perfect? Well, not quite. There’s no “Super Trouper” in the setlist which is, I fear, an unforgivable sin. “Waterloo” is mostly just set to footage of the band in the 70s, which is slightly disappointing. And there’s just the odd moment where the illusion is broken. But for everything that matters, this is simply a unique and brilliant experience. The word “triumph”, like the word “good” earlier, seems entirely inadequate to carry the weight of how incredible this experience is, but that’s what it is. An absolute, complete triumph. And I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Mama mia, I would go again (sorry. You have to allow me one bad Abba lyric pun).

Scores On The Doors? 9/10 – You’re losing a mark for no “Super Trouper”, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

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