After the release of Moon Safari’s Himlabacken Vol. 1 in October of 2013, it’s unlikely that fans, or perhaps even the band themselves, expected the ensuing ten-year wait for their next album. Moon Safari, formed in 2003, quickly carved its niche in the prog community with the release of its dazzling double album, Blomljud, which showcased a uniquely poppy and cheerful sound alongside an unprecedented level of vocal prowess. The band released 4 albums and an EP over the course of 8 years. But then came a long and unexpected drought.
A full decade passed without seeing the release of the follow-up to the band’s 2013 release. Thankfully, finally – the wait is now over. Himlabacken Vol. 2 sees the triumphant return of the melodic, wistful and vocally thick Moon Safari sound that fans have come to love, while also showcasing new and adventurous leaps forward. The album features a fresh focus on strong, prominent guitar work alongside perfectly mixed and expertly-played percussion, as well as a deeper exploration of Moon Safari’s lead vocal expertise through soulful rock-and-roll intonations.
“198X (Heaven Hill)” opens the album with a nostalgic synth throwback to early ‘80s classics like Van Halen’s “Jump” and guitar riffs that evoke memories of classic AC/DC. One can’t help but feel that the opening track’s chorus – “Welcome back, welcome back!” – speaks directly to fans after such a long wait, even if it wasn’t intentional. Alongside these nostalgic ingredients, the chorus prominently features the layered countertenor-led vocal harmonies that the band has become famous for.
“Between the Devil and Me” breaks new ground with a heavier and, at times, more intense sound. But rather than achieving this with a strictly metal vibe, the band instead moves in this direction through ominous chord progressions, wailing guitars and impassioned vocal performances. Despite this, the meaty 10-minute track can’t help but occasionally break into upbeat vocal harmonies and strong synth leads.
The third track, “Emma, Come On” is strongly reminiscent of moments from the group’s 2010 album, Lover’s End, with classic, tight vocal harmonies, alongside upbeat, cheery synth breaks in between verses. While tonally it may share the DNA of fan-favorite Moon Safari tracks like “New York Summer Girl,” this time around the guys enjoy swapping places at the lead mic to deliver intense rock-and-roll vocal performances. As the track closes out, I suspect listeners will be left with an amusing and somewhat perplexing thought: Is this the first progressive rock song dedicated to actress Emma Stone?
The soulful ballad “A Lifetime to Learn How to Love” slows down the pace and works its way upward to a brilliantly wistful mid-song climax. It features a tasteful guitar solo and a powerful vocal bridge, highlighting the type of positive, uplifting compositions that fans have come to enjoy. The short track, “Beyond the Blue” follows, with quiet backing instrumentals leaving room for lyrical themes continued from Himlabacken Vol. 1. The beautiful, perfectly-layered vocals are typical of what fans expect from Moon Safari, and continue to be one of many features that elevate the band above others in the prog space. The vocal arrangement here is bolstered by a strong bass vocal line undergirding the latter portion of the track.
“Blood Moon” returns to the 80s-esque feel, featuring layered guitars and vocal arrangements that work double duty by combining perfect Moon Safari harmonies with sounds that might remind listeners of 90125 Yes playfulness.
For many fans, the standout track on the album may be the magnificent and imposing 20+ minute epic, “Teen Angel Meets the Apocalypse.” While the band has never shied away from extended compositions, it’s quickly apparent that this operatic track is a step up from classic Moon Safari epics like “We Spin the World” and “Other Half of the Sky.” With perfect transitions and a compositional complexity never-before-attempted by the band within a single song, the track at times may remind listeners of ‘90s Spock’s Beard, ‘80s rock, pure Wakeman-era Yes, classic Beatles, and even, briefly, Visions-era Haken. Even so, the track is uniquely and unmistakably Moon Safari, and holds true to the sonic stylings that the band has made their own. At the same time, it showcases evolutions in their sound which border on theatrical and dark, while still never being more than a moment away from their classic rich harmonies, acoustic breaks, and uplifting synth leads. This track is a brilliant odyssey, and as it approaches its climactic close, it does, indeed, “bring the thunder down on everyone!” as the lyrics fittingly shout at one point.
Following that titan, the delicate opening of “Forever, For You” introduces a song that is likely to be received as an instant classic by fans. This track sees the band embrace its traditional saccharine emotiveness, with incredibly strong vocal harmonies intricately weaving in and out of the background, supported by a perfectly resonant layering of acoustic guitars, with incredible bass guitar lines sliding prominently into the mix. It becomes hard to imagine what the album would have sounded like without the band’s decision to bring Rich Mouser into the fold. A surprise saxophone performance partway through the track is a standout moment, and the melodious ending with moog and organ, alongside touches of harp and xylophone, is sure to delight listeners.
The final track on the album, “Epilog”, takes listeners back to the band’s roots with a beautiful and intricate vocal arrangement backed by church organ, and performed as only Moon Safari can. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find any other band in the prog sphere capable of replicating the incredible sound Moon Safari captures so effortlessly here. In a fitting twist, this song takes listeners back to a time even before the group’s 2003 formation, as it features entirely Swedish lyrics – evoking feelings of what the band’s childhoods must have often been like, and perfectly closing out the youthful longings captured in Himlabacken Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.
Overall, Himlabacken Vol. 2 is a worthy successor to Vol. 1, and a rewarding fulfillment of a long wait. Fans may find that Vol. 2 does not feature as strong of a cohesive, unifying theme as 2010’s Lover’s End, nor does it reach the lofty, iconic highs of a track like “Bluebells” from 2008’s Blomljud. Nevertheless, it compensates with its confident push into rich diversity through heavy riffs, impassioned vocals, inspired rock-and-roll, and pure prog – all the while filled to the brim with Moon Safari’s uniquely warm, rich and powerfully nostalgic harmonies. It’s clear that the band hasn’t missed a step in the last ten years, and, for that, fans are sure to be thankful. Welcome back!
The album is available for pre-order here:
UK – (Exclusive Double Vinyl):
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
8. Forever, For You (10:08)
9. 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
Special guest performance by Jamison Smeltz – saxophone on “Forever, For You”