I am not sure what I really think of Kungens Män.
That might sound like a bit of a weird thing to say, particularly if you see how long this review is; or even go back to my previous words about the band. However, while there are other bands who I could definitely put my finger on why I like them, Kungens Män are somehow different. Maybe it is because of the variety of their musical output… something that is writ large in the five albums within this box set, or the two consecutive nights that I saw them play live. The reason for this quickly becomes apparent when you start reading the wonderful 40 page 12” booklet that comes with this box set, because of the incredibly different musical backgrounds and influences that the musicians who make up Kungens Män have. I would go as far as to say that if I just were to read their musical biographies I would imagine some sort of ill-fitting hybrid. Yet it is a mark of their individual inclusiveness that means that the band is more than the sum of its parts.
Perhaps it is because there is something slightly otherworldly about their music… it’s not space rock, although there is an element of that… it’s also not just psychedelic in terms of genre, but in terms of feeling – totally. It’s also not just the ‘krautrock’/ avant garde elements of the music which take it away from the mundane… Rather it is something in the context and the manner in which it is recorded, away from the stresses of the world and in what seems to be a great spirit of camaraderie. I like the photos of the band walking together in the countryside in the booklet… and this shared passion perhaps is something that gives me such an affinity with their music.
I think that this taps into something that is extraordinarily Swedish which is in many ways unfathomable. I have written a number of times before about my fascination for a certain brand Swedish leftfield music, which can be exemplified with the Pårson Sound/ International Harvester/ Träd Gräs och Stenar/ Träden lineage. There is something that is very earthy about this music, it has its roots buried very deeply into the ground and flourishes because of that… it fosters an intensity which is evident throughout these five albums… but also permits a freedom and looseness which offsets and enhances that intensity somehow.
Put all of the above together and you can begin to see why I can’t quite come to definitive opinion because, for me, there is too much on which to focus… and really in the world of creativity surely this is something of a holy grail… the power of subjectivity… the non-rational elements achieving ascendancy over the rational. For me putting on their music is to take me away from the everyday, away from the mundane… into a sort of interstitial space that, fortunately, transcends lockdowns, restrictions and viruses.
This is something which is exemplified by the first words of the booklet which read:
…and that is exactly what I’m going to do as I go through the albums one by one, listening in one sitting and writing what I hear… you are welcome to come along if you wish.
Kungens Män spelar i evighet. Amen
This album, translated as ‘Kungens Män play forever, Amen’ is a really great place to start when listening to the whole box set. It comprises two twenty minute plus tracks which feel like extended jams, but do – I think – have some over dubs. Side one, ‘Framtiden var bättre förr’, (‘The future was better’) begins with what seems to be the band feeling their way into the session before launching into a massive freak out with some marvellously fuzzed up guitar leading the way into a quieter section, which exemplifies that mixture of intensity and freedom that I was talking about earlier… you feel as if you have gone through some sort of sonic face melt, to come out the other side with a sense of calm and well-being that takes you into that better future.
For me you can immediately feel the benefit of the new mastering and mix that Chris Hardman (Dead Sea Apes) and Mikael Touminen of the band have respectively achieved. This combined with the vinyl sound has, in my opinion, taken this and most other tracks here to a new level. As you get deeper into the music you can really appreciate the cleanness of the sound. About two-thirds of the way through now and you can really feel the track building up to its conclusion with each member of the band gradually kicking things up until you hit escape velocity and are just there on the other side of the astral sound barrier… the band feels so together with the last part of the number feeling like the music has passed through you and is somehow sitting just above you as you metaphorically look up in wonder.
The second side of this first album is entitled, ‘Jord. Grus. Kross’ (‘Earth. Gravel. Cross’) begins in a dark understated manner. Here you here some of the different elements that make up the band at work with a number of playing styles and genres almost existing separately in the mix, yet gradually fusing together into a single sonic narrative. Here you getting a real feeling of that otherworldliness that I was talking about, particularly through the electronics that seem to be pulling the track somewhere else until the whole thing just takes off as if the band have taken up that challenge to cut loose and just go for it before hitting a massive groove and taking it home in such an expansive and panoramic manner. What begins quite innocuously ends up being an absolute monster of a track… I get more excited about it with every listen.
The translation of this album title is ‘Sink Occultism’. Recorded a few months after the previous album (December 2014 – February 2015), and consisting of four tracks, the first of which, ‘Genombrottet’ (The Breakthrough), really hits the ground running with a pacey and heavy approach which, from my point of view, is as if you’re at the zenith of a permanently crashing wave… there’s a really sharp leading edge to the sound here which really sees all the band really driving things forward… this already feels different from anything on ‘Kungens Män spelar i evighet. Amen’.
The second number on side one, ‘Romerska ringar’ (Roman Rings), is one of those that starts at a pretty powerful level and just builds and builds from that. Here the massive pounding of the drums reminds me of the metal forges that were such an influence in early Sabbath, the bass equally pounding along giving the sort of bottom end that just gives you chills… layered over this is some absolutely bang on guitar playing… this in conjunction with the massive beat just transports you and somehow gives you permission to fly away from everyday reality… much as was the case with the forging of metal in those Sabbath tracks… this doesn’t particularly sound like the Birmingham giants, but I think it has the same aesthetic.
I was happy for a moment to stop and reflect before turning the record over. This allowed me to better appreciate the calming beginning of ‘Kocksgatans herrkopiering’ (Kockgatan Men’s Copying’). Man there is a lot going on here. Picking my way through there are all sorts of elements combining here and moving in and out of the track… but to my mind there’s also that earthy Swedish vibe in evidence here… that connect with something greater. When you read in the booklet about the scuzzy and generally run-down nature of the band’s practice space at the time this seems unlikely, but it is perhaps a measure of Kungens Män’s ability to transform themselves… and by association us… somewhere else completely. If this had been recorded in a hut in the woods I wouldn’t have been surprised. As the number progresses the band breakout into one of those loose yet completely coherent sonic highs which have you reaching for the ‘volume up’ button; fading out with something that feels altogether more lighthearted.
Last up on ‘Diskbänksockultism’ is ‘Världsdamaväldet’ (World Domination), which starts in a much more bleaker place. There’s a seriousness and earnestness here which grabs you straight away. It feels like the future is most definitely not better. It maintains that brooding and foreboding tone throughout with some heavy guitar accompanying the trancelike drums and chaotic arrangement throughout. Far to many things remind me of Killing Joke, and this is one of them.
‘Branna tid.’ (Burn time.) was recorded in 2015 and 2016, three of the tracks being laid down at the band’s current space which Mikael describes in the booklet as follows:
This, I think tells us a lot about the band and their motivations. I can really relate to the sense of creativity as a means of escapism and to help maintain good mental health. The first track on this third disc ‘K-Krauta’ kind of does what the title says with it’s relatively gentle themes which seem to ride along and bring you into their soft embrace.
This is also the case for ‘Ring så spelar vi’ (Call and we’ll play) which continues that laid back feel. This release came out between Kungens Män’s first two releases for Adansonia Records, and perhaps reflect the band experimenting with looser vibes… this is certainly a wonderfully relaxing sound to which you can really zone out… and I’m beginning to build up the impression that there is an album for many different moods in the box set.
’Third War Three’ is the only track here that was recorded elsewhere, in a small cottage with the band crammed tightly into a room. I try to envisage this while I am listening to it and I am transported back to seeing them play at the Golden Lion in Todmorden with it’s homely atmosphere… there is an intensity here that feels very warm… a togetherness and vibe that I think is different here, it feels like a special moment. Would I have noticed if I hadn’t known the circumstances? Who knows, but this track really does let rip as the band drop sonically into each other’s pockets… a really tight performance which, like so many songs here, is finally getting the release it deserves.
The final track on here ‘Folknattmusik’ (Folk night music) is a lovely lilting number which I am very pleased has been added here. It is rooted firmly in that Träd Gräs och Stenar lineage, but also has a real Eastern feel to it as well rendering it quite unique amongst the first three albums here, and once again accentuating the eclecticism of the music the Kungens Män put out. The playing here is so lattice-like and intricate… it just want it to go on and on forever and is a wonderful way to finish on an absolute high. For those who want a further more contemporary references, I think that fans of Swedish compatriots Hills would really dig this track… and the more it goes on the more I just think it’s one of the best things I’ve heard in a while… it’s hit me just right!
The title track (meaning ‘Prince of emptiness’) takes up the whole of the first side of this album… I really like Mikael’s description of it in the booklet as a soundtrack to an imaginary movie, or even the movie of the band’s collective lives. I like that idea that at points they are just about keeping it together, but also the description of how, ultimately, if it doesn’t work out it’s really no problem… And this track is what seems like the epitome of that approach… that the making of music in itself is good… that, to a certain extent, it doesn’t really matter how it turns out, there is merit in the sonic journey itself… that is enough: rewarding, consoling, comforting, satisfying. Of course if you make some beautiful music in the process then that’s brilliant… and I do find that there is real beauty in ‘Tomhetens furste’, it may not be the most perfect, most polished, most coherent of the numbers in this box set, but there’s a kind of strange rawness to it that I really connect with and, at over twenty minutes long, I was disappointed when it finished.
The first of two tracks on side two, ‘Är det jag?’ (Is it me?) is remarkable for the vocal, which reminds me of a mix of Tom Waits and Damo Suzuki’s style of scatting. It gives a blues element to the track, the backing to which seems similarly stilted and fragmented to start with. However, as it progresses you, once again, feel the band begin to gel into a beat that is almost motorik in nature… it is quite a trip as you are coaxed deeper into the music… deeper into the flaming pit which appears to be opening up in front of you… there feels as if there’s real jeopardy here… a real danger of everything tipping over into chaos… until you’re all of a sudden out the other side and powering along without a care in the world… brilliant trip!
Last up on this album is ‘En andra natur’ (A second nature)… and you can hardly think that this is the same band that appeared on the other side of this record. Suddenly you can believe that members of the group have play in really heavy intense collectives before because this really rocks, and rocks heavy. There’s so real reverb going on here which really hits you hard but slowly eases down into something that feels more chilled and laid back without ever losing that heavy edge, which once again reveals a completely different side of what this group of musicians is capable of.
Den nya skivan
And so we get to ‘Den nya skivan’ (The new record) which is, of course, previously unreleased and recorded in 2019. Band member Gustav Nygren explains, in some detail in the booklet, the process of choosing music from the recording sessions through to the production of the final album. It seems that this album had a long-list of around twenty-five tunes before the band distilled these down to just four. The first of these is a stonker of a number, ‘Basfällan’ (The base trap), which drives forward for its entirety like it has got it’s own propulsion systems… you can just feel the whole unit really going for it, despite this though the sound is clean and somehow has very straight utilitarian edges… like Bauhaus (the movement, not the band).
There is a marked change of tone with ‘Andra hjälpen’ (Second aid), which has a really interesting vibe to it with Mikael’s intonations leading a meditative track that I can imagine listening to on the top of a mountain looking out over lush vegetation while having a real sense of calm as I settle into the gentle beats and sedentary vibe. It invokes the sort of place that I never want to leave… a regenerative sound which has a strong sense of humanity to is for me.
Side two begins with ‘Uppskjutet uppskjutet’ (Postponed, Postponed), which is apparently a wordplay about the often postponed Space X mission. This is another track which has some real forward momentum with it’s repeato beat underlining Kungens Män’s psychedelic credentials, although that was not in doubt was it? Anyway this really grabs you from the opening bars and does no let you go until the end with some fantastic guitar work soaring up and over a solid unit, which underpins the band’s togetherness once more. This allows the guitar to become more and more frayed without they ever being any danger of sonic collapse… leaving us the listeners to catch our collective breaths as the musicians strive ever forward. Again this track could go on forever and I wouldn’t care…
But all things do come to an end, and we come to the final track of this epic box set… which has turned into an epic listening session. When I first heard ‘Hamra med slutna ögon’ (Hammer with closed eyes) I found myself struggling to focus a bit… there seemed to be some disjuncture within the band. So I started listening to the drums, then the bass, then the synths and found that by layering it in this way I could then hear where the three guitars were going… I also imagine that the band were just settling into their groove as well because once the track becomes sharp in your mind it feels like one of those illusions that you had to see in a certain way to understand it. And perhaps the next time you will see it in another way…
…and actually that is Kungens Män. I have written this piece from listening to the albums in one single session and writing what I have heard… if I did it again I suspect that this would come out differently. That, for me, is the very definition of good music… something that affects you at a very fundamental level and takes you somewhere else… but at another time can take you somewhere very different.
This is where Kungens Män have taken me today… it has been an amazing experience through many different moods, different atmospheres and different genres of music… many often happening at the same time. At the start of this I said that I am not very sure of what I think of Kungens Män… and in a sense I still don’t because of this nebulous feeling… and actually there’s probably something about not wanting to be sure because they are the sort of band who require flexibility from the listener as well… you need to put aside your preconceived ideas and just let the music take you… if you do that you’re not going to be disappointed… after listening to the five albums back to back I’m certainly not and, if I had my own way, I’d be headed back in again straight away.
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