Subliminal Sounds

3 out of 5 stars

Dungen has never been heralded for its subtlety. The Swedish four-piece, with an in-your-face cosmopolitan sound that collides psychedelic rock with virtually anything else they can dig out of their back pockets, has always reveled in blitzkrieg excess, crafting the sonic equivalent of splatter art.

With 4, they attempt to scale the freak-factor back a notch and the result is a mixed bag. Album opener “Sätt Att Se” starts up with an icy draft of shivering strings and refined piano chords. Then Reine Fiske’s just-scratchy-enough guitar licks and Johan Holmegard’s rough-and-tumble drumming find their way into the mix to pump some warm blood into the glacial soundscape. Gustav Ejstes, the band’s de facto captain, lends the song genuine pathos with some unwontedly haunted vocals. This perfect balance of hot and cold serves as an auditory convection current, generating an alluring sense of tension.

This decidedly new Dungen works best when they manage to straddle this fine line. “Fredag,” one of many instrumental tracks (roughly half the cuts here lack Ejstes’s vocals, a noteworthy shift from their previous outings), is a careening dragon ride between bouncy fireball grooves and majestically chiming bells. “Finns Det Någon Möjlighet” is a schizoid romp, seamlessly merging jaunty barroom pop with stripped-down flute-laden choruses and crunchy guitar venting. The infectiously dancy “Mina Damer Och Fasaner” teases with a tranquil introduction tailor-made for a picnic in a Japanese bonsai garden before launching into a serpentine series of molasses-thick bass bursts and Can-inspired Middle Eastern picking. The richly atmospheric songs are concocted with a perfect interplay of restraint and chaos.

Elsewhere, the band loses their footing. On “Samtidigt 1” and “2,” it’s as if they felt suffocated writing such tight song structures and desperately needed to cut loose; the two tracks are essentially jam sessions. While Fisk’s guitar — the stylistic bastard child of Hendrix, Duane Allman and a dying animal — serves up some undeniable ear candy, the songs take up an unwieldy amount of real estate on the relatively short album and give it a slightly disjointed feel.

The record’s sense of balance is compromised even further by a handful of sedated tracks, but for different reasons. Sleepy jazz-oriented instrumentals “Mälerås Finest” and “Bandhagen” have the immediacy of elevator music. These songs, while technically impressive, laze by quietly, failing to make much of an impression at all. “Det Tar Tid” and “Ingenting Är Sig Likt,” on the other hand, would’ve been better off as instrumentals. While Ejstes’s nasal whine feels right at home on Dungen’s more manic compositions, here it just sounds hokey.

None of the songs on 4 are particularly bad, but the album certainly lacks the direction and coherence of the band’s previous endeavors. It feels more like a haphazardly assembled mixtape during a period of artistic evolution than a full-fledged LP. All else aside, Dungen is an extremely talented group of musicians and the songs here easily trump the garden-variety neo-psychedelia that gets churned out in bulk nowadays.

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