Air: Roundhouse, London

WHEN Air first appeared with their 1998 debut album, Moon Safari, the French duo seemed to define the musical zeitgeist.

Stylish, serene and immaculately inventive, Jean-Benoît Dunckel and Nicolas Godin’s reflective, retro-futurist symphonies won the hearts of everybody from hardcore techno fans in search of a post-club comedown soundtrack to mainstream pop fans with an ear for a killer tune; the pair’s insouciant Gallic charm rendered them effortlessly cool.

Twelve years on, Air have just tipped out their fifth studio album, Love 2, and appear to have descended into a rut. Dunckel and Godin have trumpeted the record as a landmark release — it’s the first to have been produced solely by them in their Paris studio. Love 2, though, sounds like a weary, diluted take on Air’s once maverick musical ethos, and this sense of malaise and drift also infects this one-off UK show.

Where Air used to routinely produce intricate epics of ambient electronica suffused with joy and wonder, the Love 2 material is mostly rarefied chillout fodder that verges on the catatonic. The set — and album — opener, ‘Do the Joy’, unfolds around a mildly thrilling krautrock-style motorik pulse, but tracks such as ‘So Light Is Her Footfall’ and ‘Love’ are merely painfully slight and inconsequential analogue-keyboard doodles, while ‘Missing the Light of Day’ is no more than vacuous background Muzak that tonight is almost drowned by the chatter of a distracted crowd.

There is little to listen to and less to look at. Unlike fellow atmospheric artists such as Röyksopp or Sigur Rós, Air have always declined to augment their music with visual projections, meaning we get to spend the evening watching two self-absorbed technicians who appear largely oblivious to the presence of an audience. Godin strums his guitar and bass with studied indifference while Dunckel stares at the ceiling from behind his bank of synths like a man calculating his tax return. In truth, it would be equally rewarding to listen to Air’s music at home for an hour while staring intently at your iPod.

It’s a boring performance by bored-looking artists, although Air do mount a rally of sorts at the evening’s close, unleashing sumptuous, Vangelis-style oldies ‘Cherry Blossom Girl’ and ‘Kelly Watch the Stars’, then encoring with the magnificently sensual future-pop of ‘Sexy Boy’ and an eight-minute rave reworking of ‘La Femme d’Argent’. But it’s all too little, too late, and can’t extinguish the memory of how drearily anaemic the previous hour has been.

© Ian GittinsThe Guardian, 28 February 2010

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