In just a few years, Norway’s Torbjørn Brundtland and Svein Berge have achieved electronic music’s holy grail — the creation of soulful, moving techno while maintaining anonymity. Much like Air, Röyksopp successfully brings chill-out atmospherics, jittery rhythms and a sense of sophistication to modern techno, but warmth sets them apart from their Gallic peers and other stars of the genre. Too sincere for irony-loving hipsters and too calm for club rats, Röyksopp occupies a niche as the thinking person’s techno duo. They are also at the head of a reluctant Norwegian dance fad, collaborating with such Scandinavian artists as the Kings of Conveniences, Anneli Marian Drecker and, most successfully, electro diva Annie.
Difficult to pigeonhole or categorize, Melody A.M. is a deceptively complex and rewarding trip through Norway’s after-club scene, alternately evoking both the area’s long winter nights and summer days. The space-age lounge trappings of “Eple” and “So Easy” give way to subtle, soulful gems like “Remind Me” (nearly perfect with its light keyboards and jazzy beats) and “Sparks,” in which the sexy torch song performance by Drecker stands as an impassioned high-water-mark of Goldfrapp/Portishead electronica. Comparatively, the lushly stark landscapes of “Poor Leno” and the yearning “A Higher Place” (both featuring Kings of Conveniences vocalist Erlend Øye) sound almost robotic and alien, only to give way to the disorienting stop-start dynamics of “Röyksopp’s Night Out.” Even at its most frigid and glacier-like, Melody A.M. is astonishingly human; “A Higher Place” seeks the same paradise that Ecstasy-popping clubbers look for, only with sweeping arrangements and Kraftwerkian android-seeks-emotion motifs replacing thudding club beats. The album also contains enough left-field flourishes (conga drums in “Poor Leno,” percussion effects in “Sparks”) and whooshing keyboards to overcome clubland monotony. Wildly experimental and unique, Melody A.M. belongs in the collections of fans of lush keyboard instrumentation, ’70s soul, new age and Boards of Canada-style strangeness alike. The US release includes an extra disc with strange, wonderful videos of “Poor Leno” and a drastic electro-dance remix of “Remind Me”.
Strange things happen in The Understanding, a breakup album which continues the debut’s genre jumping. A greater focus on club anthems and straightforward songwriting broadens the band’s appeal but sacrifices originality in the process. The conventional “Only This Moment” and “Follow My Ruin” are pleasant bits of disco fluff that resemble the Pet Shop Boys, but the weak, get-it-together lyrics are more informative than heartfelt. “Circuit Breaker,” a dance epic containing blaring synths, superb backing vocals from Kate Havnevik and an insistent beat that touches on New Order as much as Air, works much better as both pop and innovation. Röyksopp knowingly throws a bone to those offended by their pop turn with “Someone Like Me” (a downtrodden charmer that would have fit perfectly on the debut) and a series of experimental wonders: the absurdly frigid “What Else Is There?” (featuring ace Björk / Ono imitations from Kerin Dreijer), the piano-driven fugue “Triumphant” (inspired by New Order’s “Elegia”), the primitive, uplifting “49 Percent” (nothing more than a spare beat and Chelonis R. Jones gay-soul lyrics) and the regal “Alpha Male” (think Metallica’s “Orion” played entirely on synths — seriously). On “Beautiful Day Without You,” however, the duo imitates Air at its cold and boring worst, while the gasping breath sample in “Sombre Detune” is creepy and unoriginal (the Dandy Warhols used the same idea in 2003’s “The Dope”). A mixed bag and depressing throughout, The Understanding still strides forward and contains enough creativity to warrant the risks that Röyksopp takes, but also lacks the alien uniqueness that made Melody A.M. special.