It’s been a long while since we’ve seen Röyksopp, literally; having released their fifth and final “traditional” album, The Inevitable End, in 2014, Svein Berge and Torbjørn Brundtland have been absurdly busy with side hustles. Despite steering clear of the spotlight, the Bergen wave prodigies remain both fastidious and prolific: a theatrical production of an absurdist comedy based on Kafka’s works, a series of jingles for the Norwegian Public Broadcaster NRK, and a bevy of B-sides and previously unheard tunes released through the Lost Tapes project, are but a few endeavors they boasted in the past decade.
Some years on, nobody’s shocked to learn that Röyksopp’s tentative retirement from long play releases is no retirement at all – in 2022, the band released no less than a trilogy of audiovisual materials, titled Profound Mysteries (II and III), respectively. Mixing their myriad dreamy vocal collaborators, a deeply (i.e., profoundly) personal search for meaning in an inscrutable Universe, and a custom video for each track made by various directors and production companies, Profound Mysteries is an emotionally and artistically compelling work, though not without downsides. The abstract visual component, while intriguing, isn’t in any meaningful way necessary to appreciate the music, while the music itself, partially envisioned as an homage to giants of electropop/rock such as Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode, plods and collapses on itself at times. After all, three concept albums are an earful.
Nevertheless, Profound Mysteries catches one’s attention through and through, with bigger and harder beats than Röyksopp has done before, a curious paradox given its tender thematic and vocal elements. It is a venture that begged to be taken on tour, so a handful of dates announced across Europe (and South Africa) were met with ecstasy from many decade-long devotees. While the US is still not on the list for live dates, Berlin was lucky enough to make the cut and join just six other European cities to host Berge and Bruntland this winter. Tempodrom, the city’s most illustrious mid-sized venue sporting a capacity of 4,000, quickly proved to be on the smaller side – the tickets sold out months in advance. Röyksopp have not played in Germany in nine years (they last played in the US at Coachella in 2017), and it showed.
The place was already packed when we arrived at the circus-tent-shaped concert locale just before 9:00 pm. Unsurprisingly, the mean age of the audience was well over 40; one shouldn’t forget that this band first broke out on the international scene more than two decades ago. In keeping their style heavily inspired by old-school electronica ranging from traditional house and dance to the moody Scandinavian ethereal ambient music and dark pop, Röyksopp stayed relevant with the generation that went clubbing in the early 2000s. Those only coming of age now are sparsely represented. As evergreen as some genres are, different generations often have varied preferences.
The show kicks off minutes before 9:00 pm with “Impossible”, a six-and-a-half minute downbeat banger reminiscent of Daft Punk, featuring the indomitable Alison Goldfrapp on vocals, found originally on Profound Mysteries I. The brisk opener gets the crowd worked up, but something is slightly amiss. As Berge and Bruntland take the stage in their emblematic headdresses and odd costumes, it’s clear this will be no more than a semi-live DJ set, with Berge taking up the electronic drums here and there. The much-anticipated visuals that have been advertised as an integral part of the Profound Mysteries project were completely omitted from the show. Instead, we got intermittent laser effects and strobes, dimmed lights in different shades, four dancers doing semi-free-form choreographies, plenty of playback, and little more.
I don’t mean to sound too harsh – even a semi-live DJ set from Röyksopp is a show well worth one’s time and money. The audience seemed to have a good time, with lots of slow-mo dancing and euphoric clapping, and the new material absolutely invites showcasing. Be that as it may, I’ve seen Röyksopp live several times between 2005 and 2012. This is a band whose meticulous, thoughtful music always benefits greatly from live vocals and instrumentation; at times, they even had a couple of singers on tour with them. One can understand that the likes of Robyn or Goldfrapp may not be available to tour, but plenty of vocalists could be great substitutes. Remixing some of the more famous tunes (e.g., “Monument”, featuring Robyn) also did no favors to the original works, as layered and nuanced melodies tended to be drowned out by heavier beats.
As said, Röyksopp thrive on their soundscape’s complexity and uncanny warmth. Much of that is lost in this party-mode display of what ends up sounding like a watered-down rave. I wondered if I was the only person to feel this way, but a review of the show in Prague just one evening prior used similar wording for most aspects of the experience.
None of the above would be a big issue had we come to a club; however, Tempodrom is a conventional venue, where tiered seating takes up nearly half of the space. With many attendees sitting way out in the back or crab-dancing between rows so as not to bump into others’ seats, the space isn’t exactly tailored to support a rave. With Berlin’s reputation for clubbing and electronic music extravaganzas, choosing Tempodrom for anything but a typical instrumental show is baffling.
Over one hour and 40 minutes, we are treated to 18 tunes, only two of which predate 2014. The complete omission of the band’s two most popular releases, 2001’s Melody AM and 2005’s The Understanding, however painful, is actually understandable. Their gentle, radio-friendly singles wouldn’t mesh well with the harder and much more intense electronica of Profound Mysteries. Nevertheless, it’s the big, moody hits such as “Monument” (feat. Robyn) and Trentemøller’s remix of “What Else Is There?” (with Karin Dreijer) that elicit by far the greatest reaction. Again, one can’t help but wonder just how different the show would be if the band had brought vocalists with them or put in more effort to play entirely (or mostly) live.
The four dancers, deliberately of different body types and genders, added greatly to the festive atmosphere. With impressive free-form effort, they danced around Berge and Bruntland, often hugging one another and joining together for a more emotional effect. Their engagement at times singlehandedly moved the crowds in the front, as the set (just like the trilogy it was dedicated to) became too repetitive and overwhelming at times. Röyksopp are among the craftiest composers in electronic music history, but their calibration of big-beat electronica leaves much to be desired.
There are, however, times when long crescendos soar, and the five-song encore works like a charm. “Never Ever”, a poppy 2016 single done in collaboration with Susanne Sundfør, sets the mood for
“Sordid Affair” and “I Had This Thing”, fan favorites from The Inevitable End. “Do It Again”, another stellar collaboration with Robyn, gets people to really move before the quick, loud climax of “Like an Old Dog”, a somewhat bizarre, string-heavy tune off of Profound Mysteries III, in which we hear that we will “drop dead, like an old dog” no less than 80 times. Writing for Slant, a reviewer of the album aptly said that this was an odd way to end a trilogy seemingly about the hope and dreams of a child searching for understanding. In the same vein, it is an odd way to end a seemingly uplifting show.
Still, as they left the venue, the crowd was mostly smiling. This is Berlin, after all – it doesn’t matter if a setlist or delivery were perfect. The party must go on.