Listening to Röyksopp’s music is an immersive experience. It’s atmospheric and can transport listeners to a remote space. In the ballads, the inherent melancholy of the gentle synths and smooth sounds envelope listeners like silk sheets. Yet there are also high-energy moments in which we’re invited to the dance floor.
The duo – Svein Berge and Torbjørn Brundtland – are imaginative and creative musicians capable of creating some beautiful music. Their ambitions mean that they are not just merely making dance music but creating pop art. Though their 2014 album The Inevitable End was announced as the final Röyksopp studio LP, the pair assured fans that they would still be making music. For their latest release, Profound Mysteries, Berge and Brundtland have labeled the project “an expanded creative universe and a prodigious conceptual project”.
It’s always thrilling to witness artists expand on their sounds and stretch their talents. With the idea of the studio album being questioned and the place of pop music in our culture – as well as blurring the boundaries of pop music and pop art – being assessed, work like Profound Mysteries elevates the conversation. But most importantly, the music on Profound Mysteries doesn’t struggle or collapse under the weight of Röyksopp’s artistic ambitions: the music is some of their canniest and most absorbing.
Profound Mysteries‘ music is varied and multi-hued, with Berge and Brundtland creating a variety of moods and tones through their prodigious use of studio instrumentation. The opening track “(Nothing But) Ashes…” is a dark and ponderous number that floats ominously with heavy, moaning synths and a wandering piano. It’s a gorgeous track but unsettling as there’s some discordance with the piano and the thick wall of sound. As part of the project, Profound Mysteries’ tracks also are interpreted through short musical films, and the clip is suitably dark, matching the mystery of the song. Resembling a horror film, in the video is a murky figure haunting a wood at night, its face obscured by a mask, lit with eerie red lights. As the figure lights a flare, casting a ghostly orange light, it sets to digging in the crowd, the song’s arpeggio a worrying accompaniment to the person’s task.
“(Nothing But) Ashes…” is a brave way to open a synthpop record, and it’s also a gutsy first single. But Profound Mysteries is more than just a pop record, so introducing the project with such an unsettling song is an excellent insight into the project’s point. It’s a way to marry conceptual art with accessible pop music. The second single and track, “The Ladder”, is a complete pivot from the unsettling murkiness of “(Nothing But) Ashes…”. It sounds more familiar to the band’s fans. It’s a soothing, gently pulsing pop tune, and it evokes an appealing coolness.
For the last album, Röyksopp worked with indie-dance queen Robyn. For Profound Mysteries’ first vocal track, the duo turns to Alison Goldfrapp, from fellow dance duo Goldfrapp. Her airy, ethereal voice wafts over the funky, rubbery synths. It’s a fantastic marriage between two dance heroes, and Goldfrapp’s pretty voice is a perfect match for Röyksopp’s sounds. “Impossible” is a showstopper of sorts, hitting the pause button on the artier aspects of Profound Mysteries and indulging in a radio-ready slice of electropop.
Goldfrapp’s voice isn’t the only human voice on the record, which is split about half and half, with vocal tracks making up six of the album’s ten songs. Artist and director Beki Mari provides vocals for the trancey “This Time, This Place…” which jolts the record with high-octane energy. It’s a club song that turns Profound Mysteries into a dark, pulsating dance floor at a gay bar.
Synthpop singer Pixx lends a dreamy vocal to shimmery disco of “How the Flowers Grow”, which acts as a solid companion to the Mari collaboration. Susanne Sundfør offers very strong vocals on the dramatic synthpop ballad, “If You Want Me”, which benefits greatly from the extravagant spectacle that Berge and Brundtland create for her. Sundfør also appears on the otherworldly “The Mourning Sun”, a mesmerizing song that feels heavy with a deadening obelisk of sound.
Though most of Profound Mysteries is somewhat intense, there’s also a space for the poppy sound of “Breathe”, a thoroughly mainstream radio-ready tune that features a frisky performance by Astrid S, an alumna of the Norwegian version of Pop Idol. Her candy-pretty voice and the dance-pop fluff of the production make the song an ecstatic high point on the album.
When Berge and Brundtland collaborate with high-profile collaborators, the craft of folding in the divergent sounds of the guests shines bright; still, some of the most moving and exciting moments on the record are when the duo work on their own. On “There, Beyond the Trees”, Berge and Brundtland create a gorgeous, sweeping homage to the 1980s synth ballads of the New Romantics.
When explaining the title of the project, Berge and Brundtland summed up Profound Mysteries by saying,
As human beings, what we don’t know vastly overshadows what we do know. As teenagers, we would discuss our own fascination and preoccupation with the infinite and the impossible – the most profound mysteries of life.
The vast creativity and breadth of this project are impressive. Along with the great music, a suite of short films operates as a gorgeous visual interpretation of the music. Though, Röyksopp have sworn off releasing “traditional studio albums”, judging from Profound Mysteries, this new stage in their career is exciting and captivating.