Hailing from Sweden, Moon Safari have been wowing audiences for nearly 20 years, yet still feels like one of prog’s best-kept secrets. That’s partly due to the 10 years that have passed since their last album, one of the longest pauses between a two-part concept album ever. In some ways, it’s misleading to see “Vol. 2” on their new release, lest that suggest this is merely a continuation of Vol. 1 in the same mold. To the contrary, “Himlabacken Vol. 2” reeks of a tour de force comeback album, establishing its own unique identity and putting the band back on the map as one of the most exciting young(ish) prog bands out there.
For those not already familiar, what sets Moon Safari apart is their incredible vocal harmony arrangements. With three members of the band being brothers and having grown up with a musical father who was heavily influenced by Gene Puerling (The Hi-Lo’s) – who also influenced Brian Wilson – the resulting harmonies are unlike nearly anything else in the progressive rock world. With four members singing lead vocals, and the other two members also adding backing vox, this is a vocal group like few others can match. Add to that a wealth of impressive musicianship that can handle clever pop to complex jazzy prog, these guys can do anything. And on their new release, they do exactly that.
Nostalgia runs rampant on these two concept albums, which accounts for the lyrical and sometimes musical references to their youth. Still, it’s a bit jarring to hear the opening track “198X” sound pretty much like Van Halen’s “Jump” right out of the gate, along with other 80s motifs. It’s all in good fun and serves as a brief welcome before we get into the more substantial compositions like “Between The Devil And Me”. The band had charmed a lot of fans who swooned over their third release “Lover’s End” but I had always been partial to their more prog-heavy second album “Blomljud”. Fortunately, the prog is back as this album combines the best of all worlds, of which this “Devil” track is a great representation. You can tell it’s something special just from the opening sensitive piano intro from Simon Åkesson, which then evolves into a full-on prog mini-epic, inspired by Simon’s dilemma about whether or not to leave the band years ago. Supremely arranged over its 10-plus minute running time with beautiful vocal and engaging instrumental sections, this is one of Moon Safari’s best.
As if to prove they can pivot on a dime, the band follows it up with the pop ditty “Emma, Come On”. It invites a singalong vibe, but even following where to come in on the “Ohhhhho!” ending of each verse line is tricky when the verses are in 9/8. One thing Moon Safari knows how to do is deliver a satisfying ending, bringing the song to a climactic finish. “Emma” is a prime example but even more impressive is the following “A Lifetime to Learn How To Love” which has such a dramatic ending that it’s hard to believe the album doesn’t end along with it. Sounding like an emotional pop ballad on its surface but stretched out to 8 and a half minutes, “Lifetime” finds the lead vocalists giving it their all, complete with church organ, choir samples, and a guitar-hero-worthy solo from Pontus Åkesson.
Let’s take a moment to focus on two of the key factors in putting the “rock” into this album: Pontus Åkesson and Mikael Israelsson. Pontus’ guitar playing is truly world-class, as evidenced by the many standout solos on the album. He came into the band with impressive playing even at a young age, but he’s really taken off. Throughout the album, he gives a bit of bite to his tone to ensure that this stays a rock band. Behind the drum kit is a new addition, the impressive Mikael Israelsson whose old band Black Bonzo you are highly encouraged to check out (one of the best live performances I’ve ever seen, powered by Israelsson’s Bonzo playing on the drums). His presence helps drive the band towards an even stronger presence, as does Rich Mouser who mixes and masters “Vol. 2” to maximum effect.
Okay, back to the album, and a spine-tingling track that ironically barely features Pontus’ guitar or Israelsson’s drums: “Beyond The Blue” is an entrancing mostly a-cappella gem right in the middle of the album which then leads into “Blood Moon”, another cleverly arranged radio-friendly tune at a digestible 5 minutes. Trevor Rabin fans should enjoy some of his influence on this band, among many others.
This leads us to the true epic of the album, the sprawling 21-minute “Teen Angel Meets The Apocalypse”, one of the many highlights of the band’s career. Opening with a symphonic prelude, the members then trade off singing lead vocal lines before going into a catchy, almost solstice-inspired chorus of “Ring your bells for every child beneath the sun”. There’s plenty of instrumental frenzy to come, vocal choir sections that rival Queen, and a blistering solo from Pontus. A triumphant closing finale with keyboards galore wraps up with a final play on “London Bridge is falling down”.
There’s a very fitting close to the album in “Epilog”, sung in their native tongue and accompanied by church organ, just perfect. However, it’s preceded by another 10-minute track “Forever, For You”, featuring lots of acoustic guitars, a Jamison Smeltz cameo sax solo, and classic Moon Safari arrangements. It’s a fine song but for me, after the 21-minute epic, it was just more than I needed and I would have been fine with going right into the sweet closing “Epilog” instead. Keeping the album under an hour long and holding that “Forever” song for a future release would have been a better choice in my book, but that’s about the only thing resembling a critique that I can make about the album.
If it’s not clear by now, Moon Safari have returned in spectacular fashion, stronger than ever. Hopefully, this will be the album to catapult them to greater attention which they surely deserve. Do yourself a favor and savor these delights from Heaven Hill, there surely is more to come.
Released By: Blomljud Records Inc.
Release Date: December 6th, 2023
Genre: Progressive Rock
“Himlabacken Vol. 2” track-listing:
- 198X (Heaven Hill) (3:55)
- Between the Devil and Me (10:38)
- Emma, Come On (3:19)
- A Lifetime to Learn How to Love (8:28)
- Beyond the Blue (2:12)
- Blood Moon (5:44)
- Teen Angel Meets the Apocalypse (21:03)
- Forever, For You (10:08)
- Epilog (3:22)
Moon Safari is:
- Petter Sandström / Lead and Backing Vocals, Acoustic Guitar
- Simon Åkesson / Lead and Backing Vocals, Piano, Organ, Moog
- Pontus Åkesson / Lead and Backing Vocals, Electric and Acoustic Guitar
- Sebastian Åkesson / Backing Vocals, Assorted Keys, Percussion
- Mikael Israelsson / Backing Vocals, Drums, Percussion, Keyboards, Piano
- Johan Westerlund / Lead and Backing Vocals, Bass Guitar
With a special guest performance by Jamison Smeltz (Saxophone) on ‘Forever, For You’
Order “Himlabacken Vol. 2“ HERE.
After a 10-year pause in studio albums, Moon Safari returns with a triumphant comeback. “Himlabacken Vol. 2” isn’t just a sequel to their previous album, it’s arguably their best release yet. Harmony vocals in progressive rock have never sounded sweeter than this band offers, plus they’ve got the musical muscle to back it up. Sure to rearrange many fans' “Top Ten of ’23” rankings, don’t sleep on this one.