When I wrote my appreciation of the Kungens Män box set earlier this year, I remarked that I did not really know what to make of the band… mainly, I concluded, because they do not really fit any specific definition. This, I think, is further evidenced by the plethora of groups that its members also play in, which, off the top of my head, include: Fanatism, Eye Make The Horizon, Svenska Psykvänner, Sista Maj and Automatism. Add in a recent solo album by Mikael Tuominen as Solitär, and the bewilderment increases further… a set of bands… of albums… that have a breadth to them which is as impressive as it is accomplished. Indeed such is the abundance that the band’s ‘family tree’ produces that they could hold their own festival without having to invite anyone else (and if they wanted to do that I would certainly be wanting to pay Sweden a first, well overdue, visit).
We can now add another string to that not inconsiderable bow, with the debut solo album by Kungens Män/ Automatism guitarist Hans Hjelm., which is one that comes with an instruction manual:
Use stereo headphones
Take a deep breath and start to relax
Close your eyes and drop all concerns
Notice a slightly different frequency reaching each ear
Become aware of your breathing
Start counting your breaths
Allow sounds to pass through your mind unnoticed
Immerse yourself in the breathing process
Let the sounds synchronize your thought patterns
Repeat the process until reset occurs
I think that the first thing to say about this album is that when you listen to it you realise how integral Hans is to the Kungens Män sound… this may be obvious to some people, but it isn’t necessarily the way I listen to music… preferring to think about my emotional responses rather than dissecting the sound as such. But you can discern it much more here, where his guitar work is moved away from the rest of the band. After that the next thing I noticed was what an accomplished guitar player Hans is, having apparently studied jazz guitar at the University of North Texas before coming back to Sweden and hooking up with the rest of the team. And this leads to my a third point (because these things should always come in threes), which is how instructional the booklet that came with the box set was in helping me to appreciate the breadth of musical experience that the Kungens Män guys have, and how this feeds a milieu where eclecticism is the norm.
This, I think, further feeds through to ‘Factory Reset’. When I initially started listening to the first release from the album, ‘Woods’, I was very much of the opinion that this was going to be something of a jazz guitar album, perhaps in the style of such as Pat Metheny. However, as I listened more to this and the other five tracks here I got the sense that there were a lot of different vibes going on here. ‘Woods’, for instance, has a subtle sophistication to it which can be sourced with Hjelm’s smooth guitar work… beneath it though is something else which, while only being hinted at here, points to something broader.
This begins to be realised with ‘Inter-city Travel’ which adds a level of Kraftwerk/ Neu to the proceedings with a variation on the motorik theme. I have been listening to, and reading about, quite a bit a Kraftwerk recently and thinking about the idea that, while their music should really be sterile, it really has a lot of soul and emotion wrapped up in it. The same thing struck me here as I listened to the repetitive beat and technically proficient guitar… together they bring something deeper and more meaningful.
After that ‘System Calibration’ really starts to take you into what the album manual was taking about, the tone of the guitar becomes more soporific, with a more eastern flavour to it. This is a track to chill out to, rather like resting on a cloud and letting yourself drift through the sky on a balmy summer’s day. ‘Valley of the Kings’ retains this mysterious air… it reminded me of some early Gary Numan/ Tubeway Army in terms of the sinister synth riff which holds the track together and pushes it forward. This number is far more glacial both in its speed and tone until it steps up two thirds of the way through. By now you should be feeling well and truly zoned out.
I guess that Tubeway Army vibe on ‘Valley of the Kings’ might also be ascribed Depeche Mode, since the next track, ‘Nothing To Fear’, is a cover from their ‘Broken Frame’ album (coincidentally this tour was the only time I saw them live) written by Martin L Gore. It’s a really great version, from which you can ascertain that Hjelm has a real affinity with the song… and I for one really enjoyed revisiting it through him. It reminded me of what a great band this era Depeche Mode were for me.
Last up is ‘Lights Turn Red’, which eases you back into the world again. Like the rest of the album it is not a challenging listen, but I do not think it is supposed to be. Neither is it in any way aggressive or in your face. Rather it is a track, and an album, that asks quietly and politely for your attention. It is nothing that you are ever forced to listen to, but if you do then you will be rewarded with some superb playing and a sense that all is well with the world afterwards. And while we might be itching to get out again after the last year this siren call for serenity and contemplation will be waiting for us when we remember that you can only have so much socialisation.
Read the manual, and enjoy the music!
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