Having emerged from the Norwegian techno scene, Röyksopp have become well known for their snowy, clean, and gentle electronica. I first encountered the group, quite aptly really, on the soundtrack to an old snowboarding game. From then on I grew to love their truly laid back and relaxing sound. So inoffensive is their sound, and so crisp is the imagery that it evokes, that it was licensed by Apple for the welcome music to OS X back in the day.
After flirting with the Top 40 in the early 00s with singles from the wonderful Melody A.M., Röyksopp have maintained a relatively low profile. Perhaps fitting with their style, they have burbled away in the background without pissing anybody off or blowing anybody’s hair back. With the release of an album with a name a little more bombastic, The Inevitable End, and some featuring artists you will have heard of, let’s see if any of that is set to change.
Skulls, the opener, certainly adopts a more arresting stance than what I’ve heard from these Nords before. The mix includes a driving bassline that appears to be influenced by the French school of SebastiAn, Daft Punk, Kavinsky, and the like. The beat is something you’d usually expect to hear coming from a speedway racer arcade game, complete with the 80s branding and sticky steering wheel. Indeed, the vocals are taking a definite queue from Kavinsky too; by drawing attention to their own processing, they recall Nightcall quite explicitly.
The driving bassline that opens up Monument is all very Birdy Nam Nam and it feels for a moment like it’s going to be a very French techno kind of album. Suddenly though, Robyn’s on the vocal. Maybe it’s down to some kind of Scandinavian trade agreement but it’s a little strange to have the Swedish pop sensation on not one, but two of these tracks. To put this into an Anglophonic perspective, imagine if Fatboy Slim put out an album where Taylor Swift featured twice*. Bit odd, but I’ll let them get away with it because the track works really well as a dark and atmospheric, reserved pop song. To be honest, I started to miss Robyn halfway through Sordid Affair, a rather dull song packed with overwrought lyrics. The vocal feature is from the man behind Man Without Country, who produce wishy-washy, pseudo-atmospheric synth pop. In combination with Röyksopp’s sound, he sounds like even more of a pretentious idiot, and the track is basically a write off.
I was afraid for the four(!) songs on the album that feature Jamie McDermott of The Irrepressibles, a London chamber pop collective as pretentious as their name would imply. Röyksopp’s solid sonic foundation manages to keep him from straying into the dangerous land known as ‘art pop’, but he still comes off as taking away any soul or core from the track. In a facsimile of Monument, a Scandinavian pop singer does a pretty good performance over a vaguely French beat. The really unfortunate thing is that there’s little more to say than that. The track has that same hint of dark atmosphere, but not enough to really give it an edge, and the sound of the track isn’t dynamic enough to become an effective ear worm.
The bizarre thing about I Had This Thing is that it takes a handful of elements that I should really dislike, and somehow gets me to enjoy them when put together. There’s the, frankly, crap dance pop backing track, the really dull dance-y chord progression, and the uninspired vocal from Jamie McDermott - all things I’m naturally inclined against. However, I can’t help but find this one of the most listenable tracks on the album.
Rong has the most inspired production, the kind that lingers with you and delights you well after the second listen. It’s led by a naked, muffled, and arpeggiated square wave that manages to capture irritation and sadness perfectly. That works in tandem with the aggressively repetitive and simple lyrics:
What the fuck is wrong with you?
It creates an incredibly accurate representation of post-argument frustration. The strings come in toward the end of this relatively brief track to polish it all off, and it’s a solid entry halfway through this LP. From here, the album tapers off for me. There’s another appearance from Susanne Sundfør that turns into an uninspiring pop song. There’s another appearance from Jamie McDermott that boasts a great, classically Röyksopp techno instrumental and a predictably crap vocal on top. Then there’s the last track that mirrors the style of Skulls, but brings it down to a melancholic breakdown to round off the album.
It seems like the glory days of Röyksopp really are over then. The guys themselves have said that they won’t be making another LP after this one. There are hints of the genius of old Röyksopp in tracks like Compulsion, but they’re soiled by rubbish vocalists and a gravitation toward Euro-pop. There are even powerful strides into a new direction with Rong, but then it’s also demonstrated how easily the group can make this new direction seem mediocre before it really takes off, with songs like Save Me and Monument. Just download Skulls and Rong, and be done with this album.
* Highlighting my ignorance about the nuances of Scandinavian pop music, I didn’t know that Röyksopp and Robyn released a collaborative album called Monument, from which the reworked version gets its name. This doesn’t change my opinion of the track but it certainly explains the presence of Robyn all over this thing.