Review Summary: A truely brilliant electronica album that trancends it's genre.
Electronic duo Royksopp's debut LP 'Melody A.M' sold millions of copies around the world. It's mix of atmospheric chill-out and smooth grooves made it one of the most popular 'background-music' albums of it's generation... but it's success paniced the hell out it's creators. How would they follow it up? Caving under preasure, the band dropped off the radar and spent four isolated years of doubt and uncertainty making their sophomore album 'The Understanding'.
Despite being born under an aura of stress, 'The Understanding' shows a remarkable amount of confidence. The formless chill-out sessions from their debut had all but vanished, and in their stead was a pristine set of electro-synth pop songs. What's more, the band themselves actually sing on the majority of the album, only reverting to guest vocalists twice. A bold move for a band that is notoriously reclusive.
But 'The Understanding' is hardly the grandstanding pop record it might have been. No, the strain, stress and depression is all very much still here. You see, the record might be more direct than the previous outing, but it's also a whole lot darker. In fact, there are very few sunbursts on this LP at all, with the thumping bass of 'Circuit Breaker' being the only anthemnic hands-in-the-air moment available.
Even the R&B of single '49 Percent' is framed by progressive, icey synths that add a meloncholic undertow to the whole thing. And those are two things present thoughout; icey synths and meloncholia. 'The Understanding' is one of the coldest, most dispairing albums I have ever heard. It feels like being trapped on an isolated iceberg in the dead of night...
And that's a fantastic feeling. Through the epic phantom of the opera piano build up of opening track 'Triamphant', though the spectacular swirling night-time drive of 'What Else Is There?' and right up to the lanquid, aching twin closers of 'Dead To The World' and 'Tristesse Globale', the darkened atmosphere is relentless and cohesive. And when the album fades out, it really feels like you've been on a long journey. You KNOW that you've just listened to an epic.
And all this is without even noting the highlights, of which there are plenty; the guitar led lead-single 'Only This Moment' is brilliant with it's layered vocals and backing female harmonies. The thundering seven minuet techno instrumental 'Alpha Male' feels like it's ready to rip your speakers into sheds, whilst ballad 'Someone Like Me' brings the sadness to it's apex with the haunting fear of loss lyricism ("Somone like me / With someone like you / How unlikely / Too good to be true") played over a swooning synth line that sounds like falling tears.
'The Understanding' is a classic. One of my favorite albums of all time, and I don't even like electronica. I spend most of my time listening to R.E.M, The Smiths and Iron Maiden. But this album completely transcends it's genre. And it's a record I couldn't live without.