by Prog Nick
Some people hold the view that complex multi-part vocal harmonies can cause music to be saccharine. Layered harmonies, delivered in three, five or even six parts, most certainly make Progressive Rock sweeter, but in my view, they are as necessary to Melodic Prog as the powdered sugar on a glazed donut. It would simply not be the same without them. However, Sweden’s Moon Safari is a band that has taken the use of vocal harmonies up to another level. The members often sing the most massively complex harmonies, while playing their instruments in extravagant arrangements. They even deliver some standard song verses in five-part harmony, and the band’s six-part a capella performances that ended their many sets on Cruise To The Edge, have become the stuff of legend.
But if you think that Moon Safari are only about sweet vocal harmonies, think again. There is so much more to this musical confectionery than just that. Each member is not just a great singer but also a highly accomplished instrumental performer, and the music that the band creates in combination to underpin the vocals is complex, powerful, filled with dizzying (but utterly appropriate) time signatures, and, quite frankly, as technically excellent as any superstar Prog band out there.
I have been a Moon Safari fan for many years, and the band’s music has regularly been the soundtrack to whatever was occurring in my life at the time. This often caused me to wonder why this superb band, originally discovered by Thomas Bodin of The Flower Kings in 2005, was not as big as a Transatlantic or a Spock’s Beard or indeed The Flower Kings. There were, after all, five astounding studio albums released between 2005’s ‘A Doorway to Summer’ and 2013’s ‘Himlabacken Vol. 1’. (The latter, for example, contained a track called ‘My Little Man’ that I played to my son as a baby.) Perhaps the niche nature of their fan-base was because of their specialized vocal harmony approach? Perhaps it was because they were released on their own independent label? Perhaps it was due to the individual members’ personal situations, which led to long breaks between recordings and live shows, including ten years since ‘Vol. 1’? Whatever the reasons, Moon Safari are now back in late 2023 with ‘Himlabacken Vol. 2’ and the cake delivered for our consumption is a sumptuous one indeed.
The now-familiar six-man line-up of the band is Petter Sandström on lead vocals, harmonica and acoustic guitar; Simon Åkesson on lead and backing vocals, piano, organ and Moog synthesizer; Pontus Åkesson on lead and backing vocals, electric and acoustic guitars; Sebastian Åkesson on backing vocals, assorted keyboards and percussion; Johan Westerlund on lead and backing vocals and bass and Mikael Israelsson on drums, percussion and backing vocals. Jamison Smeltz appears on saxophone on one song. With that line-up, you can probably already begin to imagine the complex and astounding interweaving of multi-layered vocals and instrumentation that this album presents. It was recorded at Kulturföreningen Mullberget in Skellefteå, Sweden, and mixed and mastered, of course, by the king of Prog producers, the legendary Rich Mouser.
Trying to describe this album with brevity is difficult, but I will try: imagine a combination of The Beatles and The Beach Boys at their vocal best, backed by the best choir in Heaven, underpinned by the most precise, often complex, but always perfect Progressive Rock instrumentation. The music performed to the highest level and co-produced by the best producer in Prog. It is a dense and layered cake indeed, and its taste is delectable and divine. ‘Himlabacken Vol. 2’, then, is a delicious melange.
The tracks on the album (whose title means ‘Heavenly Hill’) are as follows: ‘198X (Heaven Hill), Between the Devil and Me, Emma, Come On, A Lifetime to Learn How to Love, Beyond the Blue, Blood Moon, Teen Angel Meets the Apocalypse, Forever, for You’ and ‘Epilog’. At almost 70 minutes, you might think that this album is average in length, but such are the density and complexity of the arrangements, that it feels as if the album almost bursts at the seams – like a warm cake spilling out of the baking tin. There is much to absorb in this 70 minutes.
It is no coincidence that the first track is called ‘198X’ since it features a Van Halen-like keyboard sound (a la ‘1984’) that deceives the listener into thinking that this album might end up being simpler than Moon Safari’s previous offerings. Not so – epic second song ‘Between the Devil and Me’ is 11 minutes of sheer Melodic Prog genius with Simon Åkesson’s voice ranging from the sweetest to the most aggressive he has sounded, all at just the right moments. The song is a precisely ordered and perfectly baked gateau of swirling melodies, powerful, stabbing instrumentals and always sonorous vocal harmonies. After the interlude and Sandström‘s beautifully-delivered line ‘The only truth we’ll ever know is that life goes up and down’, a massive crescendo is reached. It is just what the baker ordered, and a real statement that Moon Safari are back with a vengeance.
‘Emma, Come On’ is the candy-cane moment of the album. A honeyed, up-tempo love song based on a solid but not uncomplicated groove, it is short and very sweet. Brian Wilson would have been proud (but would not, one thinks, necessarily have comprehended the time signatures).
Then comes ‘A Lifetime to Learn How to Love.’ It is hard for me to describe this song, since it has quickly become an important symbol in my life. Even repeating the core lyric ‘May kindness and love always surround you… you’ve got a lifetime to learn how to love’, does not suitably depict the emotion of this song. Let me just say this: any father that hears this song will immediately want to play it to his child, whether born or unborn, so profound is its parental message and beauty. I certainly did so with tears in my eyes.
‘Beyond the Blue’ and ‘Blood Moon’ are shorter songs (presented before the long epic) that are far from filler. The former, perhaps the least outstanding moment on the album, is an accomplished, dark and sombre chant that sounds almost monastic, while the latter is pure Prog-pop brilliance delivered in the most upbeat manner in odd time. The instrumental stabs and counterpoints belie the apparent simplicity of the song’s vocal line and time signature, but the resulting mixture is a recipe of the most delicious kind. Play this one as a taster for anyone that likes pop but should be introduced to Prog.
If the other tracks are the frosting and the filling of the cake, 21-minute epic ‘Teen Angel Meets the Apocalypse’ forms the core of this album. If you thought that Moon Safari was just about the vocals, one listen to this saga of a song will set that misconception right in a hurry (well after 21 minutes, at least). It is an extravaganza of varied Prog frenzy, ranging from sweeping choruses and writhing solos to jagged, staccato rhythms and mood swings from the most contemplative to the most frantic and heavy. It is Melodic Prog on steroids (or at least on a sugar rush). There is a part in the middle that reprises the children’s rhyme ‘London Bridge Is Falling Down’ in a way that only Moon Safari can do. The section is also an obvious homage to The Beatles – clearly one of the band’s most distinctive influences. London Bridge, quite frankly, never sounded so good, but there is so much more: crazy time signatures, a Moog solo, syncopated instrumentals, a searing and soaring guitar solo from Pontus Åkesson using one of the best bluesy sounds you have ever heard and keyboard solos to cry for. The line ‘Baby we don’t need no borders cos we’ve got Rock ‘n Roll’ leads into a thematic climax as good as any in Prog. The cinematic peak then passes and allows the nursery rhyme to return to fade the track gently into the distance. ‘Teen Angel’ is, simply put, a magnificent performance by an exceptional band that is declaring its return with nothing short of Prog thunder.
‘Forever, For You’ is nine minutes of bitter-sweet, gentle magic that will leave you with the best possible flavor in your mouth (and ears). It seems to me that the composers of these tunes must be new fathers and must currently have family, children and paternal love on their minds. ‘The only thing that lasts forever is the love that we leave when we’re gone’ goes the lyric. Precisely. Smeltz’s excellent sax solo is beautifully understated and the immense vocal harmonies and expansive instrumentals take the song home gently, as intended. Just fabulous.
The album ends with ‘Epilog’, a hauntingly appropriate harmony vocal track that features all of the band’s fine voices by reprising various themes on the album in Swedish, just as it should be. With a church organ backing and ecclesiastic choral harmonies, this song, one presumes, will close not only the album but also the band’s live show. With a gentle piano note that ends the album, it is utterly endearing.
Moon Safari have exceeded any and all expectations with Himlabacken Vol. 2. The band themselves deserve to be superstars – from Israelsson’s underrated and brilliant drumming to the utter perfection that is the vocals of Sandström, Westerlund and the Åkesson brothers, all delivered at the same time as their various staggering multi-instrumentals. There is quite simply not another band like them. And this is all rounded off with the powerful production of the most tasteful studio magician in Prog, the great Rich Mouser. If too many cooks spoil the broth, there is no way that musicians with such chemistry and command of their voices and instruments can do anything other than combine to make the most magical, mixed, magnificent musical cake. Please take a bite – you will love it. As for me, apart from playing this repeatedly to my kids, I am avidly awaiting more records from this fine band (Himlabacken Vol. 3 anyone?) There is also the great expectation of the new magic that will inevitably be created at Moon Safari’s live shows after this album’s release. Moon Safari are back. Pour some sugar on me.
Released on Dec 8th, 2023
1. 198X (Heaven Hill) (3:55)
2. Between the Devil and Me (10:38)
3. Emma, Come On (3:19)
4. A Lifetime to Learn How to Love (8:28)
5. Beyond the Blue (2:12)
6. Blood Moon (5:44)
7. Teen Angel Meets the Apocalypse (21:03)
8. Forever, For You (10:08)
9. Epilog (3:22)
UK – (Exclusive Double Vinyl):