Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Röyksopp - Melody A.M.


It's become an uncanny sight as to how chillout and downtempo have seemingly migrated as if one gigantic swoop to the northern quadrant of European music scenes. Neither ambient nor purely electronic - too structured to be considered the former, too mellow to be identified as the latter - it sits in that tiny middle-point, a sort of musical no-man's land that shares no common geographic identity. It's here then have we witnessed its rebirth and re-envisioning of its materialistic nature in not just the western corners of this continent but also, more specifically, in the upper reaches. Whether it's the icy droned soundscapes of Norway's Biosphere or the ambiguously treaded layerings of Swedish duo, Carbon Based Lifeforms, chillout has found its heart in the icy and somewhat frivolous mystery of the wintry ascension that is the Nordic community.

It's here then in the upper city of Tromsø that we find musical aviators Svein Berge and Torbjørn Brundtland - better known as Röyksopp - their debut release Melody A.M. and a ten-track record that from initial sight is provided with little more than a visual give-a-way that is its front cover - an ambience of swirling twilight-litten clouds above a lone accumilation of winter trees.

It's surprising then that such an album cover is little more than a vague teaser as to this album's true intentions and overall musical direction. We start off with opener 'So Easy', effect-laiden keys - as if drowning in them - shimmer between a chorus of other-Worldly voices and woven string arrangements. What initially feels like a low-tempo easy-on-the-ear track soon picks up, steady drumbeats mashing together with wavering buzzes of electronic jargon before returning once more to the calm collectiveness of its former orchestral-esque nature.

It's a track that is easily one not bound to any particular formula. But it's on the following composition, 'Eple' where we learn that it is in fact the album that seems to be laden in this sense of dual naturism. For someone who considered this an 'autumn-becoming-winter' album, the beat-dominated keyboard and stamp of drumbeats suggests a more warmer and outgoing nature (indeed, the accompanying music video is a super-glued compilation of photo-montages of family holidays and collective get-togethers) to an album that at times feels more like a lone journey; a personal state of reflection and of one's own naturism as an individual.

'In Space' further amplifies this sense of lonely self-discovery, gentle distant strings of both guitar and violin alike provide the foreground to a frosty soundscape of high-laiden ambience, its rhythmic accumulation as a result both warming in its sound leaving a frosty afterglow as the sounds progress.

But it's on album highlight 'Poor Leno' that clearly demonstrates the album's illustrative use of music. Guest vocalist, Erlend Øye, his voice flying across the soundscape in all its simple and warmful, compact manner - 'Poor Leno/where you'll be I'll go/where you'll be I'll know/where you'll be I'll find you'. And before long, it's swiped away by this steady beat of slushy percussion and bass. Much like the 'Leno' in this case (as featured in its music video) we find ourselves whisked away, almost dragged, across this stretching landscape of slushed synth overlays and pounding instruments as if looking for something. The song gives no indication as to what we're meant to find, or even for that matter, be adventuring towards. But it seems not to matter given the way the song tends to sway between this warm overlay of Øye's vocals and the frosty - almost clumsy - encapsulation of instruments that make up the core of this track.

It's with a sense of irony that we think of this wintry Norwegian landscape of ice, snow and empty air that we find ourselves at the half way point. And beyond the tipping point, in a calm ascension and drastic execution of melody in 'Higher Place', the album finds itself in free fall, as if in one giant avalanche descending amidst the clouds of easy-listening and this built up collectiveness. It's here we are faced with the album's main challenge, and unfortunately, its biggest flaw.

The seven-and-a-half minute epic 'Röyksopp's Night Out' - like some warped Nordic interpretation of Krautrock experiementalism - beats down on the speckle of synths underneath while a trickle of bass wavers to and fro. From here, it's the bass that becomes the epicenter of this drastic change in events. Constuting half of the overall track - the occassional flutter of piano keys and synth layers - the mood is somewhat trampled down. There's very little in regards to actual change or even experimentation for that matter and for a band already proven to show its abilities in ascending us between and beyond a musical high, you can't help but feel a little disappointed by this lack of interest in expanding upon this track's direction. The track itself finishes just as it began, as a result...as if one continuous free fall, never stopping, never halting.

Though it isn't all bad news...or rather, it isn't news that conforms to dealing a major dent in this wintry soundscape. 'Remind Me', their most 'pop'-accepted song, though more buzzier and energetic than its former counterparts, still demonstrates a sense of freedom and weightlessness, wobbly bass lines and bubble-like chords giving this somewhat simple-natured tune a rather innocent-minded background to jump out from.

Indeed, the lack of this wandering escapism that features so heavily on the first half of this album tends to be in smaller quantities on 'She's So', as if isolated...attempting and failing to reach out to this already built-up landscape of frosted ambience we've become accustomed to. Closer '40 Years Back/Come', as a result, becomes little more than jargon, like some Frankenstein-esque jumble of rusted synths and bobbling percussion beats. Its haunting backdrop then is reduced to little more than a vague specter of what was once - or could have possibly been - in its place.

But as stated, this is nothing to get too downhearted about. Where it lacks in structural long-lastingness from start to finish, Melody A.M. instead excels in expanding upon its sound, inviting the listener - almost dragging them - into this far-gone realm of weightless instrumentation and ghostly voices. It's an atmosphere that is both compelling and yet (to some curiously haunting degree) thoroughly interesting. It's a nostalgic trip of self-discovery laden with new-found moments of sensory involvement. It's a past you had never known was there and a future you, more than likely, will continue to follow.
~Jordan

8.3

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