On September 2, 2021, hundreds of thousands of ABBA fans worldwide tuned into a livestream event from Stratford, east London, where Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus announced their first album in 40 years, ‘Voyage’, and its accompanying live show.
A project five years in the making, ‘ABBA Voyage’ was produced in collaboration with Industrial Light & Magic, the company founded by movie mogul George Lucas, and sees Benny, Björn, Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Fältskog depicted as avatar versions of their younger selves.
‘ABBA Voyage’ isn’t a hologram show; the characters appear on a 65million pixel screen on stage at the specially-built ABBA Arena, which offers an immersive experience like no other, with 360 degree visuals, reactive lighting fixtures, moving screens and other genius effects.
As fans, journalists and VIPs gathered for its opening night, the buzz in the foyer of the impressive venue was infectious, with the likes of Kylie Minogue, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Natalie Imbruglia, Sharleen Spiteri and Elaine Paige – along with King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden, no less – uniting to witness a monumental moment in pop history.
Despite a string of dress rehearsal shows earlier in the week, details of the concert remained tightly under wraps, leaving everyone wondering whether the band had actually managed to capture the essence of themselves and bring to life ABBA as we knew and loved them in the 1970s. The stakes were high.
But as the lights went down, the stage lit up and the opening bars of The Visitors – the title track of ABBA’s eighth and final album for 40 years – rang through the auditorium, the group appeared on stage and began to perform the fan-favourite, deep cut as if no time had passed. Make no doubt about it – what you see is ABBA.
Segueing into another album track, Hole In Your Soul, the lively number demonstrates the attention to detail of the ABBAtars and their costumes, designed by B Åkerlund in collaboration with Dolce & Gabbana, Manish Arora, Erevos Aether and Michael Schmidt. From the embellishments and fringing on the band’s capes to the movements of the material as they command the stage, it’s a level of specificity like no other and a testament to the 1,000+ VFX experts involved in its creation.
The show covers the band’s impeccable catalogue from their first international album ‘Waterloo’ (1974) to their record-breaker ‘Voyage’ (2021), featuring hits like S.O.S., Chiquitita, Fernando, Mamma Mia and Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight), along with cuts from outside the ‘ABBA Gold’ canon, such as Eagle – performed during one of several ‘costume change’ moments, in which the ‘ABBA Voyage’ narrative unfolds via screen animations.
The revolutionary concert is a journey that takes a number of twists and turns; sometimes the band is surrounded by lights, effects and visuals that envelope the arena for a fully-immersive experience, while at other times they appear alone in the spotlight, with close-ups on the screens at either side of the stage, as in a traditional concert setting. Both are equally impressive, but the latter is particularly poignant, especially during the triple-hit of When All Is Said And Done and recent tracks Don’t Shut Me Down and I Still Have Faith In You, which sent chills as the 3,000 capacity arena sang along with every word.
The effects are mind blowing, but ‘ABBA Voyage’ is first and foremost a celebration of music, and the concert features a 10-piece band who inject life into the songs and even take the spotlight for a gender-flipped take on Does Your Mother Know during the band introductions.
Coming to a close with three of their biggest hits – Thank You For The Music, Dancing Queen and The Winner Takes It All – the concert ends on a celebratory note and, as the ABBAtars wave and thank the audience while exiting the stage, it is – again – as if the real ABBA are saying goodbye, one last time.
Part of the genius of the ABBAtars is in the movement and facial expression, which captures Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid perfectly, with slight gestures – Anni-Frid tilting the mic towards the audience or Benny’s handgun action on the line ‘It was like shooting a sitting duck’ on Lay All Your Love On Me – maintaining the illusion throughout the duration of the show.
All four members of the band were in attendance for the opening night, walking the red carpet and sitting in the auditorium among the crowd. Seated one block to the left of Retro Pop, Björn and Anni-Frid – who saw the concert for the first time earlier this week – stayed together, pointing and chatting during certain moments, while Agnetha – who according to reports hadn’t seen the spectacle until Thursday’s launch – smiled and clapped along, and at several points appeared to dry her eyes.
As an audience member, the show is emotional, and it’s hard to imagine how that feels for the band themselves. Anni-Frid says: “It’s hard to fully grasp that it isn’t really me, and yet it is me. I can certainly see myself in the digital figure. The gestures, the facial expressions, the eyes that express all sorts of feelings. It’s absurd, but it’s real!”
As the evening came to a close, ABBA – the real ABBA – walked out on stage for one final bow, during which the love and applause from the crowd was both overwhelming and deafening. Aside from photos, it marks the first time all four members of the group have been seen together during the promotion of ‘ABBA Voyage’.
Playing through May 2023 – and likely beyond – ‘ABBA Voyage’ is a must-see; it’s a challenge putting to words just how spectacular the show truly is and, looking back over this review, it doesn’t do justice to the awe inspiring experience the group have pulled off. If you see one show this summer, make sure it’s ‘ABBA Voyage’.
That being said, there’s only one thing left to say: truly, thank you for the music, ABBA.
‘ABBA Voyage’ is playing at the ABBA Arena in Stratford, east London through May 2023. Tickets for all dates are on sale now.