20 October 2008

Dungen – 4

(2008, Subliminal Sounds) - Director's Cut!

The interesting thing about retro bands is that they often remain fixed, like a bee in amber, in one temporal point. This may come as little surprise you, dear readers, but it defies logic somewhat. While often the retro band will mimic a combo from the past, theory would dictate that they evolve as the former did. But take a band like Black Sabbath. They – often in one album – produced more varied music than their copyists ever would.

This is actually logical in a sense. After all, the act of reviving a certain sound is an exercise in wish fulfilment, an experiment in what if that band from the past stayed like that forever. Or what if they perfected that sound instead of changing. Or what if Ozzy was never sacked. The fact remains, though, that retro bands fail to evolve, in something of a reverse Dorian Gray.

This is a long-winded method of introducing the new album by Dungen, simply called 4. (I think it’s actually their fifth album.)

It is not evident which band – if indeed there is one – to whom Dungen are paying tribute. Rather it is an entire era, one of psychedelic rock performed with a feeling that teeters on abandon. What differentiates the band from your Wolfmothers, Black Mountains and Spiritual Beggars (there’s an old reference) is that Dungen escapes the pure retro trap and manages far more.

It’s almost as though they create a parallel history. This is one in which psyche-rock and the Canterbury scene simply assimilated punk’s bite rather than being killed off by it. Ta Det Lugnt was one of those albums so good, you got the feeling the band will never top it.

It took late 1960s psychedelia and energised it with the now, as a rock band existing after punk might well do. Songs like ‘Panda’ were definitely influenced by the music of decades ago, but they were doing something new with it, bringing them more in line with such bands as Cave In, Radiohead and Sigur Rós (when they were good). There was energy beyond mere imitation, married to a lush modern mix and always-fun key changes.

The off kilter piano jazz chords opening single ‘Satt Att Se’ recall more a slow-mo ‘Steppin’ Out’ than the Swedish ‘Pyramid Song’ Dungen may have been aiming for. The Jackson song is better than Yorke’s anyway, so no big loss. The anthemic energy of a ‘Panda’ (from Ta Det Lugnt, 2004) is extinct, replaced by a slower, more solemn mood. This is the sound of a worldly-wise Dungen.

While the piano is to feature heavily in the grooves of 4, this first song is defined by the measured, plaintive lead guitar work. More indicative of what is to come is ‘Mälerås Finest’. The temptation is to compare it to the many lush key-led pieces on the Secret of Mana soundtrack, but A Reminiscent Drive is so much more of a FACT reference point. The main difference here is the emphasis on the organic – the ostensibly ‘genuine’ – rather than the synthesiser pride of Jay Alansky’s 1990s work.

Your writer is struggling to make a connection of the two instalments of ‘Samtidigt’ here so, drawing a blank, will retreat toward the fact that both are instrumental pieces. The first boasts guitar lines that recall Fugazi’s End Hits, while the second is more traditionally retro. ‘Samtidigt 2’ has spacious arrangement in which Iommi-esque lead lines flicker like snakes’ tongues. Sadly they lack the venom of a Comets On Fire or Mammatus.

Here lies the issue with 4. While it is an incredibly sophisticated rock record, with pianos and flutes filling out the texture, that is precisely its undoing. Part of what made Ta Det Lugnt one of the decade’s best was that ramshackle inspiration permeating its every pore.

Without that energy, this record meanders. The songs are very strong, and it really is one of the shining lights of the year, but that vital spark is absent. And while shorter albums are preferable, the 37 minutes here feel abridged. It’s like the Cliffs notes without the core text: only rousing the appetite without bedding her back down.

‘Det Tar Tid’ brings the familiar melodies and nasally endearing vocals of Gustav Ejstes to the fore. ‘Fredag’, too, returns a level of urgency to the album, but it merely highlights the relative torpidity of its context.

Album closer ‘Bandhagen’ is another instrumental piece – a shame given the strength of Ejstes’ pipes – and focuses on the piano and flute partnership in true retro fashion.4 would have made a splendid companion to the summer we didn’t have, but Dungen have set the bar high for themselves. This is a slightly missed opportunity, then; perhaps listening to last years overlooked Tio Bitar might fill in a gap or two.

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