The Royal Festival Hall is right at the heart of London, part of a Southbank complex that stems from an architectural era that saw the construction of numerous concrete eyesores, and yet in its scale and ambition manages to just about pull off a kind of hulking cement-moulded beauty – or at the least provoke a modicum of admiration for an age that upheld grey hulking towers and pillared underpasses as fitting dress for The Future – and waiting for the doors to open on one of the balconies that jut out from its many floors over the brown churn of the Thames, the Houses of Parliament surfacing for breath above the nuzzle of Dickens’ dinosaur of fog across the river, it already felt as if the return of Röyksopp to Britain, in the most regal of circumstances, was definitely a special occasion. In London as part of the Ether Festival, an event that celebrates ‘innovation in sound and art’, Röyksopp were showcasing new album Junior in their first trip to the UK in several – too many – years. I’ve an admission to make, though: I was actually more excited about seeing support-act Fever Ray, the dark brainchild of The Knife’s Karin Dreijer-Andersson, but I will have to catch her properly another time. Her set was powerful and eerie; she remained little more than a silhouette in the flickering glow of spellbound firefly table-lamps, and the buzzing foul growl of ‘If I Had A Heart’ that seemed to ooze through the very air like a tarry Acheron will remain swilling and grinding in my stomach for a long time, the bass so hulking and poisonous that a light quite appropriately fell out of the ceiling above our heads, but one of the vital ingredients for a successful concert is an audience that wants to see you, and the bulk of those who turned up chose her set as an opportunity to shuffle in and out of seats: they were there for somebody else.
When ‘somebody else’ arrived, in the attractive and confident guise of Torbjørn Brundtland and Svein Berge, however, the three-thousand fans were firmly seated, and from the very first note of the soaring ‘Röyksopp Forever’, and slightly to my surprise, the duo were deliciously entertaining. If Fever Ray throbs in the stomach and flutters the heart Röyksopp work their magic rather on the tapping foot and the upturned sides of the mouth, and whilst the thrill of their music may be an immediate one, oh what a thrill it was live! Dressed appropriately like pastiche Victorian gentlemen they hopped confidently onto their respective podiums and filled the grand hall with towering electronics so satisfying that you could almost hear a collective sigh of a kind of elated contentment. ‘It feels soo good to be back’, Brundtland greeted the crowd, ‘this makes us really happy, and we hope you’re happy too…’ The prozac bleeps and squelches of ‘Happy Up Here’ swelled to new levels of awesomeness as Berge chanted the song’s mantra with his head inside some kind of plastic goldfish-bowl, and the assorted thousands leapt in waves from their plush seating to dance blissfully in the aisles. We didn’t sit down again.
The light show was spectacular, but there was also meat to Röyksopp’s soundscapes; the taut stretched-plastic burr that cascaded through ‘Vision One’ a startling reminder of the duo’s potential for innovation within the constraints of their newly-embraced dance-pop, and a string of guest-vocalists ensured that the performance never visually lagged. Anneli Drecker was in tow, and although her slightly anodyne croon has never done much for me she was in her element here, striding across the boards, strutting and preening in an oversized owl mask, and filling the arena with perfectly controlled vocals that complimented the music in their relative inconspicuousness –almost fading into the mix as merely another instrumental layer. But she wasn’t the only vocalist to make the trip. Robyn leapt on unannounced to belt out ‘The Girl and the Robot’, the Swedish pop-princess adding her customary infectious enthusiasm (as if any more were needed), and when she bounded off seemingly as swiftly as she came I was left to momentarily lament that Röyksopp didn’t make a whole album with her that they could showcase, before such thoughts were swiftly forgotten amidst such treats as a charmingly light rendition of ‘Remind Me’, Brundtland and a vocoder standing in for the absent Erlend Øye.
Vocal duties on ‘This Must Be It’ were handled by Drecker, raising fears that Karin’s publicity shyness meant that she wouldn’t be joining the headliners after all, but with the techno bark of ‘Tricky Tricky’ echoing through the balconies she tottered out again in a suit that looked like the bastard lovechild of Peter Gabriel’s ill-judged haemorrhoid costume and a seabird caught in an oil-spill (but they say it takes a few generations to catch up with genius, so give it fifty years and we’ll all be wearing them). As she raised her ragged wings to croak ‘we’re here to entertain you’ you had to admit Röyksopp were doing one hell of a job. There wasn’t a dull moment. Flitting easily between pop anthems and echoing subterranean electronica the duo utterly owned the space, and whilst detractors are perhaps right when they dismiss Röyksopp’s thrills as skin-deep, that actually doesn’t matter a jot. There is room in the world for music that appeals to different sentiments and contexts (as the juxtaposition of the night’s two very different acts proved), and right now there is nobody pushing the fun button quite as well as these guys do. Many, including former-collaborator Øye, have found Junior too mainstream, but is this actually a bad thing? One man’s mainstream cherry-picking is another’s capturing the zeitgeist, and when the mainstream has talents as ripe as Robyn, Lykke Li, and Röyksopp themselves washing around in it, and when these elements are combined in an album as joyfully cool, satisfying, and fun as Junior is, I would say that zeitgeist-capturing is exactly what Röyksopp have managed to do. As an energised ‘Eple’ and a Balearic-House enthused ‘Poor Leno’ rounded off the night in London, few of the dancing, sweating, and, crucially, smiling thousands would have disagreed.