It was probably inevitable that ’90s mainstream music trends would eventually whiplash-pivot from grunge’s heavy guitars to dance music. The same shift happened in the latter half of the 1970s, when disco and early new wave became dominant forces, and in the late 1980s, when Madchester and acid house reigned supreme. Fittingly, however, when electronica infiltrated 1990s alternative music, the vibe was decidedly maximalist: a Jock Jams hangover driven by brawny, block rockin’ beats.
In America, the Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, Daft Punk, and the Prodigy initially led this boom; the latter’s 1997 album The Fat Of The Land even debuted at #1 on the Billboard Top 200. Soundtracks from The Saint and Trainspotting, as well as keyboard-heavy albums from rock-associated artists such as David Bowie (Earthling) and U2 (Pop), expanded the movement even more. U2’s Popmart tour was even a larger-than-life spectacle of neon-light lemons and proto-EDC flash.
By 2001, the electronica boom had given way to a far more nuanced movement — no doubt steered in part by Air’s 1998 lounge-pop opus Moon Safari and Moby’s 1999 hit Play, the latter an album whose combination of soulful blues samples and subdued, cocktail-bar beats became a sensation. However, the movement’s adventurous spirit remained strong in the Faint’s Midwest-bred darkwave and the winking, new wave-inspired electroclash, as well as seasoned artists throwing curveballs (Bjork’s Vespertine, Radiohead’s Amnesiac), dizzying genre pastiches (Basement Jaxx’s Rooty, the Avalanches’ Since I Left You) and futuristic dance horizons (Daft Punk’s Discovery).
In Norway, meanwhile, artists such as the indie-folk duo Kings Of Convenience and electro-pop auteur Annie started making waves with their own respective genres. In between these sonic approaches, meanwhile, was the duo Röyksopp. Svein Berge and Torbjørn Brundtland became friends and collaborators as teenagers who started off playing Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode covers before turning to original music in the mid-’90s. Röyksopp coalesced in 1997, and the group released their debut single, “So Easy,” two years later.
Melody A.M. followed 20 years ago today on September 3, 2001. (Like many ’00s albums, the full-length had different release dates around the world, and didn’t surface in the US until October 2002; in fact, a 2002 version with a Banksy-drawn cover sold for more than $10,000 on Discogs in 2019.) Pinning down Melody A.M.‘s exact influences is tough. The album certainly has plenty of electronic elements — the tranquil “In Space” is a burbling lounge act, while “40 Years Back Come” is minimal space-prog. However, Melody A.M. also often feels otherworldly and disorienting. With its orchestral stabs and sense of unease, the bubbling “Röyksopp’s Night Out” feels like a lost James Bond theme, while “She’s So” boasts a lonely saxophone and watercolor-paint keyboard zig-zags.
“The way we’ve always thought we should make music is to allow ourselves to be inspired by musical genres that are not necessarily related to electronic music,” Berge told DJ Mag. “We are just as inspired by progressive rock and country music and R&B as we are by Detroit techno and deep house. For us, it’s a matter of landing all these things together, without making the references so obvious that they stick out to make a very unpleasant mix. It’s just a matter of finding the balance.”
Like many acts, Röyksopp achieved some of these sly references via savvy samples. The buoyant, busy “Epie” samples the dewy keyboard backdrop of Bob James’ “You’re As Right As Rain” and elements of Skyy’s dance-funk anthem “Disco Dancing,” while “A Higher Place” excises a cosmic sparkle from Jean-Michel Jarre’s “Wooloomooloo.” And Melody A.M. isn’t necessarily lyric-driven, but uses its vocal elements judiciously — so much so that it’s easy to sense the heartbreak within the album’s melancholy.
“So Easy” weaves in a haunting sample of a cover of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David song “Blue On Blue,” specifically the following lines: “Blue on blue, heartache on heartache/ Blue on blue, now that we are through.” The languid R&B song “Sparks” features antique-sounding vocals from Bel Canto’s Anneli Drecker, who sings, “It’s those tiny little sparks/ In daily life that makes me/ Forget my wounded heart.” Kings Of Convenience’s Erlend Øye is a wise oracle on “Remind Me”: Atop insistent drums sampled from Jimmy McGriff’s “The Worm,” he intones lyrics like, “A woman holds her tongue/ Knowing silence will speak for her.”
Øye also adds winsome, earnest vocals to “Poor Leno,” one of the era’s greatest singles. A cool, refreshing rush of swerving house beats and disco backbone, the song boasts the kind of yearning optimism that equates to dance floor gold: “Where you’ll be, I’ll go/ Where you’ll be, I’ll know/ Where you’ll be, I’ll find you.” The unabashedly pop “Poor Leno” was another hint of Röyksopp’s versatility. “We don’t have any prejudice when it comes to music,” Berge told DJ Mag. “We’re not afraid of allowing ourselves to move into pop territory — without going all in. So there is a bit of a pop element in there as well, which I guess can sometimes have a certain mass appeal.”
Still, Röyksopp didn’t necessarily go the big-studio route for their debut. In fact, the duo made Melody A.M. in their living room in Bergen, Norway, using the instruments they knew and loved already. “The way that we have always worked is that we have a very limited amount of equipment — a lot of outboard analogue stuff,” Berge told DJ Mag. “Stuff that we bought when we were kids, we still use that — we know it and love it. It was quite a lo-fi thing for us in that respect. It was recorded on the same equipment that we still use.” Added Brundtland: “The key was an Akai sampler, a really simple mixer and a reverb that somebody, not us, nicked from a radio station. That was the core of it.”
Berge adds that Röyksopp created “So Easy” using an Atari computer. “Quite vintage,” he said. “This was in the age of MIDI, or audio editing as we know it today.” The result was playful and mysterious, with beats that creep in a cartoonish way and effects like a buzzsaw and a record scratching. However, in interviews, the pair have always been coy about exactly how they constructed Melody A.M. –a dismaying decision for anyone who wants to replicate the album’s sounds, but one that’s preserved the music’s mystery. “It would function almost like trainspotting and bragging if we were to go into that,” Berge told DJ Mag. “When we talk to people, they expect us to have more special equipment than what we really have, which is sparse. And we love that. Limitations force creativity.”
To Svein, not having everything at their fingertips made Röyksopp’s music more interesting. “We love the limitations,” he told DJ Mag. “We also strongly believe that if we produce the music and choose the sounds that are not necessarily the obvious choices, it makes for something more interesting. As soon as you start opting for the obvious generic sounds, you become less interesting. Had we replaced the drum sounds in Melody A.M. with the TR909 drum machine, it would have been less interesting. Maybe easier to swallow for some people…”
Still, Melody A.M. became a hit around the globe and even topped the charts in Norway and the UK. Röyksopp too became in-demand remixers — the 2003 Coldplay collaboration “Clocks (Röyksopp Trembling Heart Mix)” was a particular highlight — had their songs appear in multiple movies, and teamed up to make music with Robyn and the Knife’s Karin Dreijer Andersson. In hindsight, however, Melody A.M. was also influential on the genre cross-pollination found in the ’00s: The album presaged the way electronic and indie music crossed streams and led to success of acts such as Tame Impala, Cut Copy, and Hot Chip. Röyksopp proved you could catch the attention of listeners with nuanced beauty, not grandiose gestures.