Sweden’s Dungen, the brainchild of Gustav Ejstes, are the kind of band that it’s hard to imagine hailing from the UK, even as they incorporate elements of psychedelia and folk music that were once the hallmarks of the Canterbury scene.
This is a band that is nearly impossible to categorise. Not only are there tendencies towards progressive rock, but there is also an underlying jazz-inspired sense of freedom, encapsulated in the gently rustling guitars and in Johan Holmegard’s dynamic and expressive drumming. The title translates as the wonderfully profane ‘f*ck it all’, suggesting the band have thrown caution to the wind. Well, perhaps no more than is usually the case for them, but the title, although flippant, does sum up the group’s disdain for industry expectations or fashions.
The group can hardly be accused of indulgence, however. Skit I Allt runs to a mercilessly concise 34 minutes and the longest song fails to break the five minute mark. Considering they like to play forms of music that favour lengthy exposition, Dungen have a surprising appreciation of the virtues of brevity. It seems they are keen to squeeze all their ideas into the space of three or four minutes. Each of these tracks comes across as a miniature kitchen sink epic.
Skit I Allt travels in all sorts of strange and unpredictable directions. Instrumental curtain raiser Vara Snabb is strongly reminiscent of the work of legendary producer and arranger David Axelrod, whilst Min Enda Van immediately suggests something completely different – perhaps Super Furry Animals at their most languid and bucolic. Hogdalstoppen offers some curious interaction between strikingly simple melody lines and chaotic, attacking drumming before veering off into an even stranger effects-laden murky soundscape.
Sometimes Dungen’s infectious, breezy pop personality seems to be too distinct from their radical improvising streak. The album’s title track and Nasta Sommar are wonderfully summery, with pristine harmonised guitars and expertly executed vocal harmonies, whereas Barnen Undrar foregrounds their aspirations for transcendence.
Dungen’s music actually works best when these competing approaches find a comfortable compromise and work well together. There’s the propulsive drive of Brallor, with its sections of florid, romantic melody and pounding drums. Soda is a gorgeous, beautifully orchestrated song that meanders gently in the best possible way, pitting a lazy melody against the interjections of cascading tom drums. The excellent instrumental Blandband (now there’s a title that’s asking for a critical reaction) begins with an almost nonchalant, yet highly effective piano figure before taking slightly rambling detours through more impressionistic territory. The piano line keeps returning to anchor the piece safely.
Skit I Allt is another commendably audacious example of Dungen’s commitment and musicality. Yet for all their skill with both melody and with improvisation, Dungen risk ending up being too esoteric to be a pop band and too dreamy and light textured to excite committed psych listeners. Sometimes their music requires a greater sense of identity and direction – or perhaps just a more attacking, biting presence.