It is a near impossible decision to make, and also a patently ridiculous offer; but if you said to me that I had to choose music from just one country to listen to for the rest of my life I would probably choose Sweden. In one sense this is a big call because it immediately wipes out huge swathes of brilliant music and potentially disrespects any number of fantastic bands that deserve to be heard. Nevertheless it would leave me a superb tradition of improvised leftfield music that is both steeped in tradition and constantly innovative. This is music that has for the most part remained stoically underground… a beautiful secret for those in the know; yet, for me, still so much to explore.
To this tradition comes two new albums from bands that share some of the same members and, to some extent, have emerged out of one of my absolute favourite groups: Kungens Män. This is a band who, with ‘Dag & Natt‘, put out what turned out to be my album of the year last year, in a very crowded field. Because of this I was very keen to hear these two albums hoping that they would both keep up the standard, but also be different, yet also remain somehow true to this Swedish tradition. The fact that they managed to achieve this tricky task with plenty to spare is, for me, just brilliant.
‘From The Lake’ by Automatism
Automatism are a four piece that includes Hans Hjelm (guitar) and Mikael Tuominen (bass) from Kungens Män, Jonas Yrlid (Partikel, drums) along with Gustav Nygren (New Rose, guitar) the latter three of whom also play in Fanatism. ‘In The Lake’ opens with ‘Standing Wave’ which is a smooth exploration of music that seems to come out of the speakers like a stone skimming across the water. The playing has a lightness of touch to it which, on one level, hardly seems to touch the surface, while at the same time the tight togetherness of the band really makes it a satisfying listening experience as the sound caresses you rather than batters into you. As suggested by the album cover there is a stillness here that really allows you to explore the music.
This continues with ‘At Sea’ which has more percussive suggestions of a storm yet seems to keep a calmness that gives you the feeling that while there might be a torrent outside you can feel safe and secure. It feels like a soothing balm against forces that could otherwise overwhelm you.
I love the title ‘October Swim’. Again I am gazing at the album cover imagining the idea of the relative coldness yet peacefulness of the scene. What would it be like to swim in this lake in October? What would be the emotions what I would be going through? This short and meditative track really helps me to do that, although I wished it was longer.
Side Two, vinyl-wise, begins with ‘Propeller Propulsion’ which marks something of a different direction with a really solid motorik beat underpinning some really nice subtle guitar work that gradually builds up and develops a real head of steam within you as each repeating pattern overlays the previous one. This is music that just takes you along with it. Again it feels very easy to listen to, yet under the surface there is considerably more going on. The track is over ten minutes but, frankly, I could listen to it all day and just come out feeling so good about the world.
‘Floating Downstream’ is a much slower and more considered number with a kind of sinister undertone, but also a an electric phin guitar which gives the track real atmosphere in an otherworldly sense. I really like how this takes you completely out of your experience into another realm giving the track a spacey feel that just seems to get more out there as it progresses. This might just be my favourite track on the album as the band get into a real groove and take it home in a really powerful manner.
Last up is ‘Ice Flow’ which continues with the ‘side two’ experience of being somewhat darker than side one. Here the guitars seem more veiled and the percussion is somehow dirtier as the track seems to move forward using its own inertia until is gradually slows down and disintegrates at the end; not before leaving quite a mark on the listener.
Automatism are yet another in a very long line of fantastic Swedish improv bands stretching back to the 1960s. For me ‘From The Lake’ is very much within that tradition, with its folky roots and free jazz-like jams. But there is also something extra here that is a fresh take on these solid foundations. There is a lightness of touch to the band’s playing that somehow softens the mood without taking away the enjoyment of the music, or your ability to engage with it. In short another absolute winner from Tonzonen Records.
‘From The Lake’ is Available now from Tonzonen Records here.
‘The Future Past’ by Fanatism
Although Fanatism shares three band members with Automism, Tomas Bergstrand (guitar, vocals) and Peter Erikson (Kungens Män, synthesizers and vocals) also play, this feels like a very different album. This is evident from the very start with ‘När Man Allting Sett’ with its more ostensive psych credentials with the guitar in particular leading the way. The appearance of vocals also sets the albums apart immediately and convinces me that I shouldn’t be comparing them too much, which I shall now leave alone. There’s a really good repetitive coda to this track which works well with the more rock-like guitar work, although there are also definite jazz elements to the music.
After that ‘Shiv-Li-Yeah’ places the band firmly within that Swedish Progg tradition with an earthly/ folk-like riff and vocals that plant deep in the soul. There are elements here that you can also find in the likes of Hills and, to some extent, Goat in but there are also direction here that take the listener into more mainstream 70s rock… either way its all put together really well and is the sort of track I’ll be getting as an earworm I’m sure.
‘Quantum Fuzz’ continues with that mix of organic folk and solid guitar playing it a way that I find difficult to describe on just a few listens. I really love the way that the track drops into the vocal sections with a sense of melody that is really compelling. What I’m slowly getting is a series of songs that are perhaps outside my normal listening zone these days, yet containing elements, fragments even, of music that I regularly listen to. These are more structured and yet also contain sections that feel quite experimental, almost in a post-punk sense; and here the interaction of the synths and sax particularly reminds me of that sort of vibe.
This is vibe is amplified with ‘Upon The Cross’ which could appear on a Wire album without seeming out of place at all. This is very much a good thing as far as I’m concerned and I really like the energy of this track which gets more intense the more times you listen to it. The vocals here are spot on and when the sax kicks in you really get a sense of being lifted out of your body onto another plane. Most of all it reminded me of a whole load of music that I don’t listen too that often these days that I really should break out.
Things quieten down with ‘Tinden Ringer’, which opens with an almost ecclesiastical chant. The music here is slower and more understated and then slowly opens out into something that feels quite pastoral with the gentle guitar licks and the lightness of touch of the rhythm section, something that is almost polar opposite to ‘Upon The Cross’.
‘Nackögon’ changes the mood again, with a bass-focussed opening that weirdly feels like a slowed-down Wooden Shjips track at first in the way that the vocal intones to the music. This soon dissipates into a track that seems to be going off in a totally different direction with synths that are almost Cabaret Voltaire-like in their nature, yet within a wider context that has elements here none of which sit on their own; neither do their compete. Rather they seem to co-exist in an integrated manner which has to be listened to to really get…
‘One Of Us Can Not Be Me’ initially sees the return of that psych guitar which appears around and between more aggressive sections that explode like volcanoes amidst the more melodic parts of the track. This gives it a sort of fast/ slow tempo, but then with a mid-section that really wigs-out is a really stretched sort of way. Again the vocal really takes the number somewhere else and, as if a microcosm of the album, you are never quite sure where it’s going to go next… yet you can trust that it’s not a direction that you are going to be disappointed with.
Final track ‘The Future Past’ opens with a really groovy almost disco vibe, with ‘I Feel Love’ not seeming that far away. This totally changes when the guitar kicks in giving it a really interesting hybrid prog feel. If I were reading this I think that I might just wince, but actually it works really well for me as the high energy synth is interspersed with the more laid back mood. Then the sax kicks in and just takes the whole thing to a different level, in a way that just makes me think: wow! This is great because it feels like the band have taken some risks here in putting this together, it could have been a real mess but actually it just really works.
It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why I like this Fanatism album so much. This is because it is made up of such an eclectic set of of tracks that seem to range from jazz to post-punk, and many points beyond and between. What brings them together is sense of power and purpose that really drives these songs forward. There’s an energy here which often seems absent in certain over-produced offerings, and while this is by no stretch of the imagination ‘lo-fi’ there is a real earthiness to the work that gives it a raw edge without compromising on the vibrancy of the music.
‘The Future Past’ is released by Drone Rock Records, and will be available to order here.
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