LONDON — Thousands of ABBA fans sang “Can you hear the drums, Fernando?” in unison, their voices reverberating throughout the hexagonal arena. But I couldn’t hear the drums. What I heard was the ABBA fanatic seated next to me sobbing softly with joy and loudly blowing her nose. White wine and memories of 1970s FM radio had gotten the better of her.
Meanwhile, the digitally rendered members of ABBA walked along an expansive stage and sang, “There was something in the air that night,” and I had to agree. What was in the air that night in late May was a potent jolt of nostalgia and delight. ABBA was back and performing live! Well, kind of. Sort of.
The show, called ABBA Voyage, is thrilling. It’s a delicious sensory overload and a spectacular glimpse into the future of live performance. The music is familiar, but visually it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. The avatars (let’s just get it over with and call them ABBAtars) that perform the 90-minute show, seven days a week, were created by 140 special effects wizards at George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic. Voyage was six years in the making and cost the band $175 million to stage.
Cerebrally you know the ABBAtars are not real, but try telling that to your ears, your eyes, and primarily your heart, especially when you hear the first few effervescent bars of “Waterloo.”
Couldn’t escape if I wanted to, indeed.
From the new technology used to create the ABBAtars, to the band’s candy-coated harmonies blasting out of 291 speakers, Voyage is revolutionary. No matter what you think of ABBA’s music, the technological sleight of hand used to pull off this phantasmagorical event is genuinely stunning. The show is so logistically complicated that the band needed to build its own arena to pull it off.
The arena’s exterior looks like a Scandinavian spacecraft, which is fitting because the show is a retro-futuristic journey. Inside, more than 500 automated lights add to the extraterrestrial effect.
The show opens with an unlikely choice — the title song of the band’s 1981 album “The Visitors.” It’s a sinister, grinding, electro-pop track that builds from Anni-Frid Lyngstad singing cautiously of “muffled voices,” until she hits the musical panic button on the throbbing chorus of “They must know by now I’m in here trembling/In a terror ever-growing/ Crackin’ up.”
Let’s get the important question out of the way, and no, the question is not “What’s the name of the game?” In the weeks leading up to the performance, I was worried that the ABBA spectacle would be akin to the disturbing Whitney Houston hologram show that closed at Harrah’s Las Vegas earlier this month. I was fearful I would be stepping into a slop bucket of smoke and mirrors.
I’ll be honest, the first few songs were simply weird. It took some cognitive estrangement to fully enter ABBA’s new universe. I strained my eyes for a better look at the four figures on stage. They were also projected on the giant screens surrounding the front of the arena. At one point, I was convinced that there were actors on stage who were perfectly mimicking the movements of the Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Lyngstad avatars. Once I fully understood what I was witnessing, I was ready to lay all my love on this show.
Voyage was created by recording present-day members of ABBA, now in their 70s, in motion capture suits performing their catalog of hits for five weeks in front of 160 cameras. Their facial movements were carefully recorded and then painstakingly replicated by computer. But the ABBAtars created by Industrial Light & Magic have been digitally dipped in the Fountain of Youth and brought back to 1979 (true fans will tell you it’s 1977), so what you’re witnessing is authentically and recognizably ABBA, but an amalgamation of fantasy and reality, new and old. It also helps that body doubles were used as forms for those tight-fitting digital costumes. This is ABBA in its full, pre-divorce glory.
The setlist for the show (please stop reading here if you don’t want spoilers) was a master class in pacing. Instead of slapping the audience with one favorite after another, Voyage was a slow, subtle tease. After the paranoid electronic grind of “The Visitors,” the band jumped into rock(!) on “Hole in Your Soul,” an under-appreciated track from “ABBA: The Album.”
By the time digital Andersson played the first, highly recognizable chords of “S.O.S.,” the room lit up and the ABBA sing-along kicked off in earnest. This was a concert in every sense of the word, particularly to the community of ravenous ABBA fans who have been craving the band’s return. The world may not understand their obsession, but everyone in the ABBA Arena did. I attended the show on its third night, and nearly everyone I spoke with had seen every performance. People traveled from all over the world to be a part of it.
Watching Voyage was a good reminder of why, 50 years after the band formed in Stockholm, people still want more. Pre-programmed ABBA hit a sweet spot in the middle of its set with the glossy disco of “Lay All Your Love On Me,” “Summer Night City,” “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight),” and “Voulez-Vous.” These late 1970s club hits represented the era when the band hit its international stride. The 10-piece live band that performed with the ABBAtars helped pump energy into the familiar melodies.
“Dancing Queen” and “Mamma Mia,” were played with crowd-pleasing efficiency. However, there were some large omissions in the set list (”Take a Chance on Me,” and “Super Trouper”), which lead fans to speculate that songs will be added and removed from the set to keep audiences coming back.
I have no doubt that the band will recoup its $175 million investment. The ABBA Arena was built to be disassembled and reassembled in other locations. So far, there has been no word on where it will go once it finishes its run in London. It will stay in East London at least another year, possibly longer. But after that, opportunities seem endless.
No matter what happens with Voyage, ABBA will always be an inescapable part of our lives. The Swedish super troupers disbanded in 1982 and came back with a new album in 2021. They stopped touring in 1980 but are now semi-live in London. Their music is in films, on stage, and, it seems, in our hearts.
Tickets for Abba Voyage are currently available through May 2023. Prices range from $50 to $200. A VIP lounge package is available for an additional $240. www.abbavoyage/tickets.com.