Music

Dungen: 1999-2001

Rob Horning

Dungen

1999-2001

Label: Subliminal Sounds
US Release Date: 2005-04-05
UK Release Date: Available as import
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In 2004, with very little fuss or fanfare, Gustav Ejstes, the Swedish multi-instrumentalist mastermind behind the one-man folk-psych phenomenon Dungen, released Ta Det Lugnt, a brilliant blend of studio wizardry, mandarin innovation and '70s-prog homage that was probably the best album of the year. Not that many in the English-speaking world knew it. An album with an all-Swedish lyric sheet is already a hard sell, but the difficulty in even explaining how to pronounce the album's title (which means "take it easy") certainly slowed its word-of-mouth. It would be easy to knock Ejstes for being stuck in the past; his records recreate the sounds of past eras with a counterfeiter's precision, and upon a casual listen few could distinguish the instrumental passages of Dungen from, say, vintage Amon Duul or Skip Bifferty. But confronted with a culture that is increasingly rendering music disposable and that makes artists sound dated several months after first arriving, one can understand a musician's impulse to want to camouflage his work by mimicking another era, pre-date it and thereby achieve a kind of ersatz timelessness. It's a testament to Ta Det Lugnt's indefatigable accessibility and sheer excellence that it ultimately attracted enough fans to earn American distribution for this, the first Dungen album, from 2001, along with some previous unreleased material from the same period.

Consisting of two mostly instrumental, album-side-length tracks -- each complete with requisite parts (a) through (d) like any good, self-respecting prog-rock epic -- and a relatively brief 10-minute song as a kind of coda, 1999-2001 is far less listener friendly than the later work, and owes more to the astral-plane soundscapes of the Soft Machine and the hodgepodge aesthetic of Faust or early Frank Zappa than the freak-beat influences that color the later album. Fragmentary and discursively structured, the meandering songs on this disc lack the arena-rock flourishes so prominent on Ta Det Lugnt, the hooky touches that ground a listener in familiar terrain despite the Swedish singing and build anticipation for power-riff payoffs. These songs seem less interested in commanding attention that way; they seem already impatient with themselves, ricocheting from drifting, contemplative segments to oozing E-bow guitar meltdowns and spastic drumming fits, then back to mellow meditations seemingly inspired by the bleating whale noises from Pink Floyd's "Echoes".

Rarely does Ejstes build up an insistent groove through repetition or steady percussion. Instead, he calls attention to the choices he's made in arranging his suites, inviting listeners to engage with the songs at the level of their composition rather than losing themselves in their flow. For instance, on the opening track, "Stadsvandringar", Ejstes begins in medias res with a guitar solo that eventually simmers down an drifting, improvisational interstellar jam replete with daubs from the Rick Wakeman palette of spacey synth effects. Then, after things have quieted to a meadowlike stillness, a flute is introduced, seemingly paving the way for a Jethro Tull-ish jig into castle-rock terrain. But instead what commences is an abrupt foray into cocktail-lounge jazz a la Herbie Mann, which in turn forces listeners to question the degree to which the previous pastoral overtones were ironic.

But all three tracks are not as dense with intellectual provocation as the first one. The last track, "Lilla Vännen", opens with some interesting flute and vocal interplay, and then winds through some phased-out psychedelic passages to a climactic piano-driven outro, which strives toward a transcendent crescendo that never quite materializes. The second track, "Midsommarbongen", employs the sitar, which is always good ecumenical fun, but is marred by long, aimless passages that try the attentive listener's patience and yield nothing especially engaging even after you've heard them several times; they don't build toward anything, so there's nothing to wait for.

Nevertheless, these are disappointments that derive from Dungen's having already raised our hopes, which is what happens when you hear the work of someone talented in reverse chronological order. Ta Det Lugnt is the work of an artist who knows how to toy with a listener's expectations, confident enough in his ability to provide pleasure that he can withhold some of it, and draw his audience out into new terrain. With its whimsical, rambling structure and its fulsome indulgences 1999-2001 has the feeling of an album made with no concern for its audience - probably because Ejstes could not yet realistically conceive of having one. You get the sense that no one would have been more surprised than Ejstes at its finding one now; relishing that shock of appreciation vicariously is what ultimately makes this record so rewarding..

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