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Dungen: Häxan

Dungen: Häxan

A mix of light and shadow.

Dungen: Häxan

3.5 / 5

Häxan, the title of Dungen’s soundtrack to the 1926 fantasy film The Adventures of Prince Achmed, translates as “The Witch” from the band’s Swedish tongue. The album cover is moody and mysterious: two owls—birds of the night—against a black background. But the witch in Prince Achmed is a good witch, and the music on Häxan echoes that dichotomy as well; a mix of light and shadow.

Dungen was asked to provide a soundtrack to the film, which is the oldest surviving full-length animated feature and is based in part on the Arabian Tales of One Hundred and One Nights. They aren’t the first to do this, the original score by Wolfgang Zeller having been replaced in other showings with live improvised music by the Silk Road Ensemble, as well as music by Casperveck Trio, among others. Dungen is a good choice, sharing a northern European background with the German filmmaker, and as a band who has found inspiration in ancient folk music as well as Middle Eastern sounds on their past releases; all mixed in a psychedelic and heavy rock brew. Their music has old roots, but a modern, progressive edge. Häxan was composed in the five year interim between 2010’s Skit i allt and 2015’s Allas Sak, and as such, has a similar sound. There was a generous helping of instrumentals on those two releases and Häxan takes it a step farther, being entirely instrumental.
Above all, the album feels cinematic, with lead track “Peri Banu vid sjön” working well as an introduction.

Measured, martial drums underlay ghostly guitar, giving this intro a regal, serious tone, as if something important is about to happen. The mood is carried over to the next song, “Jakten genom skogen.” Also the single from the album, it builds and builds, like we’re climbing deeper into the story. The traditional soundtrack trope of orchestral strings is used here, via synthesizer, and throughout many of the songs. Dungen deftly merges these rising and falling washes of strings with busy guitar, bass, organ, piano, flute and drums. “Trollkarlen och fågeldräkten” is like a late ‘60s psychedelic bad trip, band leader Gustav Ejstes’ organ and electronic effects dueling with a tension-filled bass line and spooky guitar. More darkness lies in the gloom of “Grottan” and ominous “Achmed och Peri Banu.” On “Aladdin’s flykt över havet,” “Kalifen” and “Achmed flyger,” these dark clouds are parted, letting rays of sunlight in, balancing it all.

Despite the well-crafted and well-played music, Häxan is only partly successful as an album independent of the film. At times it feels like a multicourse meal with the occasional too-hot pepper or half-baked potato thrown in. There are a number of interstitial pieces clocking in at around a minute (or less) each, which feel undeveloped and sometimes break the flow. This is especially evident with “Wak-Wak’s portar,” which seems like it’s from another soundtrack altogether. The carefree “Den fattige Aladdin,” which sounds like Jethro Tull stopped by the studio, ends abruptly, though the melody is repeated later in “Aladdin och lampan del 2” (though this version, too, ends just when it’s finding it’s groove.)

Overall, this soundtrack is not drastically different from the path Dungen has travelled over their last few albums, except for the last song, “Andarnas Krig.” Like “Wak-Wak’s portar,” it doesn’t quite fit in with the rest, but is an impressive track on its own. The longest cut by far, it’s full of a crazed energy, abrasive feedback and Hendrix-like guitar dive bombs, as if the band was holding back during the rest of the soundtrack and is finally let free, releasing all their pent up energy. With its placement as the last song, this could be pointing to a new direction for Dungen’s music, away from the more mellow moods they’ve gravitated towards lately.

Though it may not be quite up there with their best albums, Häxan is an enjoyable work with plenty of delicious and filling entrées in the sonic smorgasbord the band has laid out.

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