Röyksopp : Profound Mysteries

profound mysteries

What a delightful surprise. Like many others, I was quietly disappointed when Röyksopp, a group which could broadly be called synth-pop often by way of downtempo music, declared that they would be bowing out of the LP game in 2014. By that point, they had built a nearly two-decade career both as DJs and composers, dialing slowly but with great focus toward a melancholic and wistful sound. Imagine if Portishead had a bit more drive, the angst of raindrops and ’90s alternative rock rather than disappearing into the foggy mists of twilight. When progressive black metal band Enslaved covered them as a bonus track for their record E, I was elated; Röyksopp had already by that point long penetrated a number of art spaces, remixing tracks for everyone from Coldplay to Peter Gabriel and collaborating with people ranging from Goldfrapp to Robyn. It felt, much like The Knife, another group who lives in a similar emotional timbral space as Röyksopp, like the true heart of their material reaching its ideal audience, unbeholden to the precise genre that it might have emerged. Then there was the pseudo-LP of The Lost Tapes, a gentle tease from the band and a slate of some of the best heartbroken synth-pop of 2020 (check out “Were You Ever Wanted” for a premium sample). But beyond that, it seemed as though the project was largely dead.

So imagine my delight when I discovered they were releasing a new studio album. The shape of Profound Mysteries, their surprise return, isn’t a far cry from the previous depressive but motorik synth-pop of their earlier years. The subtle shifts, however, feel palpable; for instance, the first vocal appears only on the third track, producing a buildup of just over seven minutes of instrumental music before finally deploying what before would have led off a record. Even when previous collaborator Goldfrapp’s vocals come in on “Impossible,” they feel less like the driving element of the song and more like just another layer, much in the way Massive Attack use vocals almost like a lead guitar line rather than the centerpiece of a song, a countermelody and counter-rhythm rather than the focal point. Röyksopp has always had grace notes of the arthouse in their blood; their previous collaborations with Peter Gabriel and citation of Vangelis, Tangerine Dream and King Crimson hint enough toward their more programmatic and symphonic intent within the space of house-driven electronic music. Here, however, they give themselves over to a sequencing and flow that leans substantially more into those spaces, reading more like an ocean voyage through the thorns of the waters of the heart toward some glimmering interior light than a series of emotional club bangers.

This more arthouse sense of suite-oriented sequencing allows the duo to get away with some things they otherwise might not be able to. Take, for instance, the cloying and somewhat cliched chord progression and melody of “If You Want Me,” which plays out like the same kind of Ren Faire goth, big-hearted melody you might hear on any given bad European prog/power metal record or dyed-black raven’s-wings goth albums. Out of context, this would be an eyeroll-inducing song; in context, though still a definite low point of the record, it feels more like the moment where the abstruse celestial beauty of poetry fails and we instead become syrupy and obvious in our sentiments. This is a real human emotional experience. While there are certainly better ways to achieve this affect that the harmonic and melodic choices shown here, its position within the broader flesh of the album certainly makes it understandable rather than a Coldplay-esque play at obvious, trite emotionalism.

Still, Profound Mysteries is, befitting its name, more evasive than previous records. The ever-turning away of pop music seems to be a guiding principle here; aside from a few choice lines, there’s little in the way of an obvious emotional hook to be found here like previous group-defining tracks such as “What Else Is There?” The record was revealed recently to be part one of a three part series; whether those further two will elaborate on the emotionality here and recontextualize this record or are simply two unrelated but further projects, who knows. The sense of mystery and evasiveness isn’t unkind to their work here, however. “There, Beyond the Trees,” a track which even in its name gestures to that sense of nameless evasive mystery, evokes well that witching hour sensation of the pulsing of the heart, the intensity of yearning with no object, just this aching sense of something. It’s a torturous feeling that, mercifully, largely fades as we exit the twilit hours of late youth in our dimming 20s, but that returns at times to mature life like a phantom, waking you in the middle of the night with this churning sense that you were supposed to do something but just never did. It is wise, then, that these sensations here remain without a distinct object; it should be record like a glimpse of a deer through the woods you just can’t catch or find clear sight of, a midnight chase through half-fog and the madness of waking dream. If Röyksopp’s return means more abstract and glacial music, then we are all the better for it. This may not be their greatest record, but it is still a fine one in keeping with their legacy, contributing without retreading familiar ground.

Label: Dog Triumph

Year: 2022

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