Dungen - Ta Det Lugnt
"I feel bad being into this ersatz funk," he complained to me. "I feel like I should put this down and go buy a James Brown record."
I shrugged. "Don't do it, dude. You'll probably end up not liking it as much as you'd like the Paul Weller."
"That's exactly why I feel so bad about it," he said, dejected.
I couldn't adequately form my reasons for disagreeing with him at the time, but these days I'm older and have had more time to think about it, so I know what I'd say to him now. "There's something about the perspective a modern musician has, when looking back on older forms of music and attempting to put their own spin on them," I'd say. "They're able to see everything that was going on at that time in terms of a unified whole that may not have been clear as it was occurring. Then they synthesize it all in their heads, and rather than reiterating the take of one musician or subgenre of the time, they mix together the best elements of it all, add any elements of today's music that they find useful, and come out with something that may scream 'retro' from beginning to end but is in fact different than anything that existed at the time... and sometimes, it's a good bit better."
This is definitely the case with Dungen's most recent album, "Ta Det Lugnt." This album is a masterpiece of psychedelic rock. It may have arrived on the scene 35 years too late to take its place as the definitive album of that genre's heyday, but not only does it trump much of what was actually created at the time, it does so through the use of a perspective that could only have existed at this late date. They mix and match various styles and techniques of the 60s psychedelic sound, creating songs that are at the same time familiar, evocative, and yet not quite like anything you've heard before. The results are delightful enough to seem effortlessly produced, and yet when listened to more closely reveal a painstaking attention to detail that is less surprising once you find out that this entire ensemble is actually the work of only one man, Swedish wunderkind Gustav Ejstes.
A good example of Ejstes's hybrid approach to psychedelia is "Du E For Fen For Mig", the longest song here. It begins with a pleasant, echoing string-quartet melody that soon evolves into an acoustic guitar based passage that sounds like something The Beatles would have come up with around the time of "Revolver". The string section drifts in and out of the mix, blending pleasantly with the airy pop sound of the song. However, this is not all that there is to "Du E For Fen For Mig". Were this nothing more than a sunshine pop song, it'd be good enough to be worthy of praise, but around the time that you'd expect the pop song to end, the bass notes start to get a bit more menacing; then suddenly a squadron of electric guitars in the company of a full drum kit burst onto the scene and launch the entire song into the stratosphere. The final three minutes are full-on freakout, guitar demolition that would have impressed the likes of Jimi Hendrix were he around to hear it. The root pop melody is never lost, though, and instead of seeming like two different sounds, even two different bands, shoehorned into one musical passage (as in lesser hands it could have been), there is no question that this is one song, a unified whole despite the disparity of its parts.
That statement could, in fact, describe this album as a whole. While some sections are so different from others that, taken out of their context on "Ta Det Lugnt" and played back to back, one would be hard pressed to believe that they were by the same band; when they are heard in their proper place on the album they make perfect sense. In fact, when I listen to "Ta Det Lugnt", I often feel like I'm listening to some sort of psych-rock magnum opus; a work that is divided up into movements that are more or less song-length but is nonetheless one solid thing. What kind of thing, you ask? The best disembodied soundtrack to a 60s B-movie that I've ever heard. Seeing Pere Ubu perform live a few months ago as the instrumental score for "X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes" (a famous Roger Corman feature from the mid-60s) was pretty mindblowing, did a lot to make the film even cooler than it already was, and was certainly a once in a lifetime opportunity that I'm incredibly glad I had. But if I could find the movie that I often imagine when I hear this Dungen album, and if I could successfully play this album along with it as a soundtrack, I think it would be even better. Maybe you know the movie I'm talking about: it has period motorcycles carrying tough-looking customers in leather jackets through the desert, and the sort of voluptuously beautiful girls with long straight hair and go-go boots that were everywhere in the 60s (if B-movies are any indication) and have completely disappeared from the modern world (more's the pity), and creepy, secretive Satanic rituals and chase scenes and maybe even some knife fights and ... you get the point.
Getting back to "Ta Det Lugnt", things start out with 20 seconds of unaccompanied drumming, which is aimless at first but definitely indicates that Dungen use the big, loud, unmuffled drums that were popular in the 60s and gave guys like Mitch Mitchell and Ginger Baker such wonderful tone. The aimless rolls soon resolve themselves into a snare-driven buildup that explodes into "Panda", which caught my attention so severely that I played it 5 or 6 times in a row before I ever progressed into the rest of the album. The first two tracks, "Panda" and "Gjort Bort Sig", demonstrate Dungen's standard mode of operation, mixing catchy yet rocking uptempo riffs with a more polished pop sensibility that comes through in their delightful choruses. A particular strength of this album is its fiery lead guitar sound, which is not distorted so much as overdriven, pushed to the limits that the studio recording equipment could handle and then a bit past. This can sound horrible with today's digital recording equipment, but works surprisingly well with the sort of analog, tube-driven stuff that bands used in the 60s, a fact that is not lost on Dungen mastermind Ejstes. His continual pushing of the limits of his recording equipment can create strange sounds the like of which I've never heard before, as on "Gjort Bort Sig", where the echoing chorus vocals fight for auditory supremacy with wildly reverbing lead guitar tracks, or on album closer "Sluta Folja Efter", where mellotron swells run headlong into squeals of feedback from another overdriven guitar as it pauses between notes. You can almost smell the dust cooking on the red-hot vacuum tubes at moments like this.
A lot of the most impressive examples of Dungen's genre-hopping sensibility show up towards the middle of the album, as on the title track, where piano-driven pop verses reminiscent of Badfinger or The Raspberries shift abruptly into the storming acid-rock guitars of the chorus, before the whole thing gives way to a long jazz section that takes up the last half of the song. Here, Ejstes gets to demonstrate the extent of his talent and simultaneously demonstrate his awareness of the debt that psychedelia owes not only to the rock musicians of the 60s but also to the pioneering work of such jazz artists as Albert Ayler and John Coltrane. Breaks like this, which also occur at a couple of other points on the album, also serve to provide brief respite from the sometimes-blistering acid-rock freakouts that occupy the majority of the album, as well as helping to keep said freakouts sounding fresh, instead of all blurring together after a while.
There are just as many songs on "Ta Det Lugnt" that I haven't mentioned as I have, and I'm sure I could find plenty of words with which to extol their virtues as well. However, I think I've made my point quite adequately. For all who still doubt the purpose of in-depth explorations into the worlds of past genres, Dungen is here to demonstrate the legitimate worth achievable through this pursuit, no matter how "retro" it may be.