Note: The following review for the ABBA Voyage concert residency features heavy spoilers, particularly on the setlist of the show, as well as some of the set design and visual elements. Given the secrecy the band have expressed wishing to keep around Voyage (phones and recording equipment were not permitted to be used inside the event), proceed reading at your own risk.
ABBA Voyage is a masterstroke of technology and virtual effects, and should really be experienced in-person, without any prior knowledge of what to expect on the night. I urge any and all who journey there to go in without knowing a thing. I didn’t, and it led to the best possible experience. Thank you.
When Swedish pop giants, ABBA, announced a new album last year – the first in four decades – the world of music was about ready to stand still. ABBA? Releasing a new record? Surely not. But that wasn’t all – Voyage, as the new selection of songs would come to be known, would also prove the start of something bigger.
ABBA Voyage would also be the name given to a year-long concert residency based at the custom-built ‘ABBA Arena’ in Olympic Park, London. With the help of Industrial Light & Magic (you know, the state-of-the-art visual effects company that George Lucas set up for Star Wars) and countless hours of work, the members of ABBA would be brought to life in their prime, set to a night of classic hits; the closest one could get to seeing them live in the 21st century.
It’s a bit tough to explain, as a concept. It’s the ultimate fusion of old and new; modern, digital technology creating lifelike, 3D models (or ABBAtars) that would be beamed onto the stage, interacting with the audience in pre-recorded segments featuring the actual voices of the band, and using motion capture to embody their actual movements and mannerisms. Selections of their greatest hits would play over the top, set to live accompaniment from an in-house band on the nights.
Though billed as ‘holograms’, or the ‘ABBA hologram thing’, the virtual avatars aren’t really holograms. It’s a combination of 160 cameras, hundreds of hours of footage and a hell of a lot of computer stuff I’m not even going to pretend to understand. The point is, the desired effect isn’t just ABBA from their younger days thrown up onto a screen. It’s not a movie you’re paying to see. It’s a virtual concert, and you’re meant to imagine that they’re real. A tough feat, in the age of the uncanny valley.
As soon as tickets went on sale, the demand to see ABBA in the synthetic flesh was overwhelming. I remember trying to get tickets for just the first week of shows and finding it impossible to even get onto the site.
But, with persistence, I found myself with a standing ticket (for the dance floor, as they call it) for the evening show on the 2nd June. I didn’t know what to expect, in all honesty – I had a few gigs around the same time from bands who were actually there in person, so I wasn’t as excited for ABBA Voyage as I probably should have been.
As you get within sight of the venue, however, it’s impossible not to feel even a pang of anticipation; the strange, bulging sides of this gunmetal beast looming into view, ‘ABBA’ plastered boldly over the front. At night, especially, when the letters are emblazoned in technicolour, you’re reminded of exactly which band you’re going to see. ABBA don’t tone down for anyone even now, and why should they? Do you remember what they donned for Eurovision 1974’s victor, ‘Waterloo’?
Indeed, the very idea of custom building a venue just for your own residency is outlandish, and something very few bands could get away with. But ABBA, a band who have gone from strength to strength in terms of public popularity, can achieve such a grandiose vision with ease.
So, the main question is, I’ve been to see it. Did I think I was watching ABBA, circa 1977, performing live?
Well, no. Of course not. To put it simply, technology hasn’t come that far yet. It’s a virtual concert. There’s only so much we can do with what we have.
But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t pretty damn close. I had to remind myself a few times that the avatars weren’t real, that they were maybe just a bit flat at times, or a bit too digital-looking. I didn’t have to keep insisting they were well-made, because they just were. At the back of the stage, lit up, they looked absolutely breathtaking, and as close to real as we can possibly get. Every flick of their hair, every graceful movement, all of it was choreographed and animated precisely.
The show begins with the deliciously dark ‘The Visitors’, a semi-deep cut from their 1981 album of the same name. It’s an odd track to kick off a ‘greatest hits’ setlist with, but – being one of my favourites – one I was ecstatic to see included. That slow build-up, that insistent backbeat before the chorus finally hits kept the audience captivated from the get-go. And with a gigantic screen that takes up the entire front half of the arena, it’s impossible not to find yourself mesmerized by something.
From the hidden gem of ‘Hole In Your Soul’ to ‘Chiquitita’ and ‘Fernando’, the visual effects built and built, trying to do outdo one another as the night progressed. The band onstage changed outfits, instruments, even joked and laughed with eachother. Large, metallic beads that pulsed with electric lighting descended from the heavens, great circular lenses dipped from the ceiling, a thousands stars illuminated around us. The set design is insane, and only something you can truly experience witnessing first-hand. As much time and care has been spent on the physical, as well as the virtual.
The band onstage came and went, as some tracks had pre-recorded pieces flash up onto the screen – ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’, for example, featured them in their TRON-esque, ‘ABBAtar’ outfits, dancing and jamming before transitioning seamlessly into another ‘live’ scene, this time to the incredibly ‘80s synth-splosion of ‘Summer Night City’.
The mystical opener of 1977’s The Album, ‘Eagle’ and ‘Voulez-Vous’ were both synced to absolutely breathtaking animated shorts, showcasing ancient relics, long-forgotten temples, statues depicting the band themselves, and untamed, magical forces. They were cryptic tales, but handcrafted to the nth degree, drawing upon the sorcery and the timelessness of a group like ABBA, captivating thousands and keeping them there, minute after minute.
‘Does Your Mother Know’ was the only song to actually be performed live, by the three female vocalists of the onstage band, who launched into the questionable powerhouse of an arena anthem. The inner cynic tells me this was to balance the dubious nature of the song’s lyrics – a track that grapples with a man finding a girl too young to have sex with, but hot enough to ‘flirt a little maybe’ with. It’s too big a hit to skip in the setlist, but too old-fashioned to have Bjorn keep his own.
Howls and screams went up as the band went from strength to strength, hit to hit, from ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!’ to ‘When All Is Said and Done’ and ‘Dancing Queen’. People shouted louder than I’ve ever heard people screech at gigs, and it became all to clear that for many fans, this was more than just years in the making. It was decades, for those sadly born after ABBA’s prime. This was their chance to see a beloved band play nearly two hours of dance-rock decadence.
The encore was ‘The Winner Takes It All’, a hauntingly beautiful ballad from Agnetha that stunned the audience into silence. For about five seconds. Then it was a standing ovation, an outpouring of love and adoration. And as the band – appearing as they do in the present day – stepped onstage in another pre-recorded reel, it was impossible to ignore: ABBA are as big as they’ve ever been, and they can’t be stopped.
ABBA Voyage didn’t feel like some weird, experimental art show, as I was worried it would. It felt like I was at a gig, because I was. We all belted the timeless tunes, the classic dance-pop anthems, celebrating what is nearly half a century of music. We basked in the glory of ABBA, just as fans did throughout the 1970s. We cried, we screamed, we grinned from ear to ear. All 3,000 forgot, if just for an hour, that this was a virtual concert. We bathed in the presence of a band like ABBA and gave rise to choral hymn after synthy choral hymn.
If you’re on the fence about ABBA Voyage, go. If it bankrupts you, if it proves an arduous journey, if it means selling your soul to the devil, do it. It won’t be around forever – planning to run in London until late May of 2023 – but the memories it leaves you shall stay eternally. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen before, and likely will again. I’ve looked into the future, and the future is already here. It’s ABBA Voyage, and it’s as big, bright and trailblazing as it deserves to be.