At the beginning of the decade, dance music got downsized. You can, in part, thank Royksopp for this. The Bergen, Norway duo’s late 2001 debut, Melody A.M.., hit at a point when bruisers like Paul Oakenfold were beginning to feel like relics of the dot-com-bubble era, and simpler styles, from mash-ups to electroclash to microhouse, were staging an aesthetic takeover. Straddling the line between arena trance and the new minimalism, the album established a middle ground with the single “Eple,” a kind of techno-Coldplay track that could soundtrack a Mitsubishi ad.
Royksopp became the rare dance act whose epic qualities seemed almost accidental, as if they’d happened to stumble upon a widescreen feel while tooling around with the minutiae of their equipment. Even when they were concocting giant synth-string swooshes on “Royksopp’s Night Out,” the music felt somehow intimate, like it was made for a small group of people watching the northern lights from an igloo.
Now, with the heaving broken beat of “49 Percent” and the layers of grinding percussion on the Chemical Brothers-ish “Alpha Male” (note title), The Understanding finds Royksopp intentionally aiming for the superclubs instead of just happening upon them. But their harder sound is still offset by softer edges: “49 Percent” features the wimp-soul of Chelonis R. Jones, of the great Berlin tech-house label Get Physical, and “Circuit Breaker” is tempered by the limpid vocoder twang of Kate Havnevik, who joins Royksopp frontmen Svein Berge and Torbjørn Brundtland on vocals.
The focus on guest singers doesn’t feel accidental: Berge and Brundtland’s work with other artists, both as remixers (for Beck and the Streets) and producers (on Annie’s astonishing futurist-Motown single, “Heartbeat”), sets up an album that showcases vocals more boldly than Melody A.M., where even the sing-along melody of “Poor Leno” blended into the beats. At a time when fellow Bergenites like Annie and Erlend Øye are teaching the rave kids to adore melody, Royksopp may be clearing the way for those big rooms to open back up.