“Welcome back to Heaven Hill. Same old sounds, same old thrills.”
Thus sing the band from Skellefteå, Sweden to open their new album, Himlabacken Vol.2, released on 8th December 2023 by their own label, Blomljud Records. If those lyrics sound familiar that’s because we heard them back in 2013 on the first track of Himlabacken Vol.1. That album’s final song was deliberately left hanging on an unresolved cadence – the musical equivalent of ‘to be continued…’. Since then, factors including the Covid pandemic, fatherhood and a change in line-up have delayed the anticipated release of its sequel. This 10-year hiatus, together with some smart publicity from the band, has raised the profile of the new album and whipped up the excitement of fans to fever pitch. So, was it all worth the wait? Is this album really just the ‘same old sounds’, wonderful as they were, or do Moon Safari have something new to offer us?
The joyous and unashamedly retro first track, significantly titled 198X, opens with an A major chord that completes that unresolved cadence from the previous album. This leads straight into an upbeat riff directly referencing Van Halen’s Jump, although the jazzy vocal harmonies and rhythmic shifts that follow are pure Moon Safari. This band have always been happy to wear their hearts on their sleeves, and their musical influences too. The dominant influences on this track, and through most of the album, are the ’80s rock bands from both sides of the Atlantic that the six band members grew up listening to, such as Queen, Toto, Styx and Journey. Spirits and energy levels on this track are high – this sounds like a band who are genuinely excited to be releasing music again.
So, there is definitely the ‘same old thrill’, back with a vengeance, but are we really hearing the ‘same old sound’? In the past, the most obvious strengths of Moon Safari songs have been the heartfelt melodies of the vocal lines and the rich harmonies of the chorus. The line-up had remained the same since their debut in 2005, but since the release of Himlabacken Vol.1 the existing drummer has been replaced by the excellent Mikael Israelsson, from Swedish band Black Bonzo. Mikael is also a music producer, and part of his contribution has been to change the tonal balance of the band’s sound, giving it a heavier feel by focusing more on the lower registers and bringing the rhythmic element more forward in the mix.
This is perfectly showcased in the second track, Between the Devil and Me, with its darker tone and heavier riffs. The 7/4 time signature gives the song an uneasy and unresolved atmosphere, reflecting the autobiographical inspiration behind the lyrics: lead vocalist Simon Åkesson’s dilemma about whether to remain in the band back in 2017. After a reflective opening on piano, the drums, bass and electric guitar establish a strong rock rhythm that propels the song relentlessly forwards. The verses have ’80s Hollywood action movie vibes and Simon’s emotionally charged vocals effortlessly shift in tone colour reflecting his indecision. Six-and-a-half minutes in, a portentous 5-note guitar figure heralds a complete change of mood; time is suspended as the rhythm section momentarily disappears and Simon reaches the revelation that “The only truth we’ll ever know is that life goes up and down”. The instrumental section that concludes the song reinforces the heavier tone but has lost the brashness of the ’80s vibes in favour of a more prog-influenced level of intensity and virtuosity.
With Emma, Come On, we are back to the brighter sound familiar from Himlabacken Vol.1 or Lover’s End. This catchy pop song with its memorable synth leads, pacy rhythms and tight vocal harmonies feels deceptively simple, but careful listening reveals a mischievous twist in the time signature of the verse and chorus. Yes, it’s in a fairly unremarkable 9/8, but the nine beats are comprised of a 4+5 pattern, giving it an asymmetric edginess and lifting the song from the risk of being clichéd.
In Vol.1 we saw the band looking back on their youth and childhood, a nostalgic theme that was already familiar from earlier albums such as Blomljud and Lover’s End, but during the past ten years each member has discovered or renewed the joys and responsibilities of fatherhood, and this has had an impact upon the new album’s lyrics, which look ahead to the future as well as glancing fondly back at the past. A Lifetime to Learn how to Love was written by Pontus Åkesson as an inspirational message for his ten-year-old daughter, forming a companion piece to My Little Man from Vol.1, written for his son. The track begins as a gentle, down-tempo pop ballad, with meltingly sweet, melodic lead vocals recalling the sound of ’90s boy bands such as Take That. But as the song progresses it acquires a generous sprinkling of Hollywood gold dust with the addition of a church organ and heavenly choir. The emotional temperature continues to rise as Pontus embarks on a gloriously exhilarating and flawlessly executed solo on electric guitar, soaring heavenwards as effortlessly and gracefully as a skylark, driving the track to a triumphantly lush conclusion.
I was first attracted to Moon Safari by the band’s signature close harmony part-singing, influenced by the highly sophisticated jazz voicings of Gene Puerling. The tone, balance and tuning of the vocals on this album are as flawless and exhilarating as ever, and at times we are treated to six-part textures, to which all the band members contribute. Nowhere are they displayed more atmospherically than in the spine-tingling and almost Medieval austerity of Beyond the Blue. With its impeccably intoned a capella chorale, sombre and mysterious atmosphere and ominously tolling bell, this short track acts as a haunting and evocative palate cleanser before the Hollywood movie vibes of Blood Moon plunge us back into the ’80s.
This number is catchy, slick and highly enjoyable, featuring some unmistakeable moments of homage to Queen, but is it just another ’80s pastiche? Listeners must decide for themselves, but there is a joyous playfulness which artfully conceals more subtle details, such as the complex cross rhythms between drums, guitars and vocals and some mercurial changes of time signature. It is a measure of the band’s skill that the rhythmic complexity is worn so lightly and disguised by a surface sheen of effortless simplicity.
It is in the intriguingly titled Teen Angel meets the Apocalypse that the new developments in Moon Safari’s sound and style are most apparent. This 21-minute tour de force sees them venturing deeper into the realms of progressive rock than ever before. Vivid contrasts of light and shade and a new enthusiasm for exploring minor keys bring an enhanced sense of drama to the music. The compositional structure is sophisticated, opening with an instrumental prelude functioning like a classical overture, introducing motifs that are revisited and developed in subsequent sections. Petter’s lyrics are poetic and complex, dealing with themes of cultural decay, destruction and rebirth through the power of rock ‘n’ roll. The attentive and well-informed listener will enjoy spotting numerous Easter Eggs in the form of cryptically disguised quotes from the lyrics of famous rock songs.
Part 1: Diamonds in the Rain opens like a Rachmaninov concerto, with piano and strings introducing a wistful melody. Vicious stabs from drums and bass tones add a sense of unease: all is not well in paradise. A nostalgic version of the original theme with warmer, major key harmonies affords a moment of respite before the original melody returns, embellished by drums, guitars and neo-baroque harpsichord flourishes. The mounting tension and malevolence are challenged by a three-note figure introduced by the chimes of a celesta (of Sugar Plum Fairy fame). A brief cinematic climax is reached, complete with pealing bells, as the cameras pan out for a glimpse of heaven before homing in on a more domestic scene. Against a delicate, predominantly acoustic backdrop, three vocalists take turns at the microphone, gazing down regretfully upon humankind’s stupidity. “There’s no time to be sentimental”, they sing, but this nostalgic and bittersweet music transports us to territory familiar from Lover’s End and Skellefteå Serenade. It’s followed by joyous vocal harmonies exhorting us to “Ring your bells for every child beneath the Sun” – with perfect timing for a pre-Christmas release.
In Part 2: Road to Roundabout the pantomime villain bursts onto the scene, represented by a sinister, twisty melodic motif and spiky, asymmetric rhythms from drums and bass. Sinuously swaggering electric guitars and bubbling synths join the macabre procession, followed by a devilish chromatic theme on piano. When the vocals enter, inciting mutiny and rebellion, their customarily sweet sound has become more brash and rocky. Haloes have been exchanged for horns, perhaps. Reinforcements arrive in the form of dramatic choral interjections in true musical theatre style. The three-note celesta figure from the prelude makes a return on synths, and a final dark twist is added by the addition of a Latin chant straight from Carmina Burana or The Omen. The ensuing instrumental high jinks brilliantly showcase Moon Safari’s compositional and instrumental virtuosity as it has never been seen before. It is all incredibly enjoyable: if this is what the apocalypse will be like, bring it on!
A new theme introduces Part 3: London Bridge is Falling Down. Echoing the rhythm of the eponymous nursery rhyme, it becomes an important unifying motif throughout this section. England and its capital city are evoked by Beatles-style vocals and a cryptic lyrical reference to London Calling by the Clash. The lyrics are peppered with quotes from TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, with its dystopian vision of post-war London. The instrumental section leading to the next section elaborates on the original wistful theme, embroidered upon by a magnificently dramatic guitar solo from Pontus.
The final section, What the Thunder Said, opens with gloriously rich vocal harmonies supported by the sonorous tones of a church organ, exhorting Teen Angel to take advantage of the apocalypse and “Begin when all is broken”. In a tender and heartfelt solo, reprising the bittersweet melody from the first section, the idealistic vocalist channels his inner John Lennon, singing “We don’t need no borders, ’cause we’ve got rock ‘n’ roll”. A change of key worthy of Disney heralds a triumphant repeat of the “Ring your bells” refrain, and as “The old world dies to rise again” the track seems destined to end in an almost bombastic blaze of glory. Mikael’s drums pound insistently and keyboards riff on the London Bridge theme until the waves of sound ebb away to reveal the celesta playing a major key version of the London Bridge nursery song with the innocent insistence of a child’s musical box. Perhaps the implication is that the rebuilding of our future is safer in the hands of the rising generation?
This is the Swedes’ first album to be mixed by Rich Mouser, sound engineer for Spock’s Beard and other prog bands. In interview several band members have described the difference this has made to their sound, ensuring a clarity and precision that allows all their complex layers of texture to be clearly audible and have their own space in the mix. This is beautifully exemplified in Forever, For You, a tender and lyrical song originally intended as part of Vol.1. The lyrics express a sense of wistful longing for lost childhood and a reluctant awareness of the passing of time, as “the only thing that endures for ever is the love that we leave when we’re gone”. Delicate and intimate textures are created as folklike melodies on acoustic guitars, synths solo and choral vocals interweave in a graceful dance. These are joined later by the mellifluous tones of Jamison Smeltz, making a brief but eloquent guest appearance on saxophone. The clarity of the mix enables Johan Westerlund’s mellow bass line to provide a solid foundation without overpowering the layered polyphony which lends such comforting richness to the Moon Safari sound.
Epilog wraps up the album, recalling the simplicity of Beyond the Blue with its pure vocal harmonies expressing nostalgia for boyhood days. We are summoned once more by a tolling bell, evoking the opening of High Hopes, Pink Floyd’s own ode to lost childhood. We find ourselves in church, listening to a simply harmonised hymn, performed in the band’s native Swedish to a gentle accompaniment of pipe organ, keyboard and acoustic guitar. The song recreates the band members’ memories of the last day of each school year where they would take part in a church service and then be dismissed, free to enjoy the childhood pleasures of the summer holidays. It’s a touching moment from their shared boyhood and forms a peaceful and reflective conclusion to this varied and exuberant album.
So, was Himlabacken Vol.2 worth the ten year wait? Does it have the “same old sounds, same old thrills” as the band’s previous albums, and does it bring anything additional to the mix? Well, the essential elements that delight the band’s fans are all here. The vocal harmonies are as polished and uplifting as ever, all the lead singers are outstanding, and the instrumental performers are right at the top of their game. In terms of genre, there is more variety than on any Moon Safari album to date, with the style switching effortlessly between rock, pop, musical theatre, cinematic lushness and complex symphonic prog, often within one track. The familiar mood of tender nostalgia for childhood days is now blended with a reflective optimism for the future of their own children. New personnel in the form of Mikael Israelsson and Rich Mouser have brought more depth and clarity to the overall sound. It’s the same old Moon Safari but with a boost. To my ears, some of the tracks feel less original and more commercial and processed than on earlier albums, although this may be due to the frequent ’80s references. But what shines forth more strongly than ever is this eclectic band’s exuberant and infectious enthusiasm for life, love and music. The vista from Heaven Hill has retained its old magic. Welcome back, Moon Safari, welcome back!
01. 198X (Heaven Hill) (3:55)
02. Between the Devil and Me (10:38)
03. Emma, Come On (3:19)
04. A Lifetime to Learn How to Love (8:28)
05. Beyond the Blue (2:12)
06. Blood Moon (5:54)
07. Teen Angel Meets the Apocalypse (21:03)
08. Forever, For You (10:08)
09. Epilog (3:22)
Total Time – 68:59
Petter Sandström – Lead & Backing Vocals, Acoustic Guitar
Simon Åkesson – Lead & Backing Vocals, Piano, Organ, Moog
Pontus Åkesson – Lead & Backing Vocals, Electric & Acoustic Guitar
Sebastian Åkesson – Backing Vocals, Keyboards, Percussion
Mikael Israelsson – Backing Vocals, Drums & Percussion, Keyboards, Piano
Johan Westerlund – Lead & Backing Vocals, Bass Guitar
Jamison Smeltz – Saxophone (track 8)
Record Label: Blomljud Records
Country of Origin: Sweden
Date of Release: 8th December 2023