Moon Safari — Himlabacken Vol. 2
2023 is Moon Safari's twenty-year anniversary and the ten-year mark since their last studio release. With a title that translates to "Heaven Hill", Himlabacken Vol. 1 was a reflection on the band's “childhood, growing up and the responsibilities of adulthood”. Now, more matured and with expanded families, Vol 2 continues the personal theme of the original. It is a masterful return that contains more musical “WOW” moments than you can count.
198X (Heaven Hill), quite literally welcomes the listener back to the Moon Safari universe. With its unabashed 80s throwback sound, the song is a nostalgic and fun opening track. Between the Devil and Me, A Lifetime To Learn How To Love and the outstanding epic, Teen Angel Meets The Apocalypse, highlight how the band has evolved in the last ten years. Adventurous in the best musical sense, there is an increased confidence and resonance to the material on this album.
Emma, Come On and Blood Moon are great examples of pop/prog done right. Both are musically accessible, yet complex enough to please discerning prog fans. The vocally dramatic and effectively placed, Beyond The Blue, secures a side B, album like feel. Forever, For You, is a beautiful and enticing glimpse into what a more prog embracing Alan Parsons Project could have sounded like. Ending the album in memorable fashion is the ethereal Epilog.
Previous Moon Safari albums were admirable, but Himlabacken Vol. 2 is definitively next level. The best of progressive rock dazzles us, and this collection of songs fully delivers on that requirement. The vocal performances are sublime and the musicianship and songwriting are exemplary. Special mention must go to the potent addition of Black Bonzo drummer, Mikael Israelsson and the excellent mixing work of Rich Mouser. This is the band's best sounding album and their finest release to date. It is also a strong contender for the best prog album of 2023.
Where to begin...?
By the fact that Moon Safari for reasons unknown have never before appeared on my radar? Or refer to the exceptionally high ratings my fellow reviewers have awarded the various albums? Or should I shortly reminisce on that perfect sunny November 7th afternoon when Moon Safari's follow-up to their 2013 release of Himlabacken vol. 1 landed on my doorstep and raised my happiness through the roof after experiencing 68 minutes and 52 seconds of amazingly uplifting musical brilliance?
This last statement is somewhat besides the truth because I reached a joyful state of euphoria two songs in. Maybe rephrasing my words about "love at first sound" written in my review of Different Light could then act as an introduction to my instant affection with this wonderful album? Or do I simply start off with the accompanying info and mention that after a decade of absence Moon Safari have chosen a heavier and slightly darker approach. One that sounds like a bell and thanks to the mixing mastery of miracle worker Rich Mouser, famed for his work with Dilemma, will definitely surprise and excite fans of old and bring in new ones at the same time?
After much deliberation I decided it's probably best to repeat to my first outcry ("Where have you guys been all my life!") and give in to the wisdom that Moon Safari have knocked it out of the ballpark with Himlabacken Vol. 2! It sings to me in so many (nostalgic) ways I just don't know where to begin to express my ecstatic enthusiasm.
Let's start off at the beginning with 198X (Heaven Hill). Right away, this makes dreams come true with ravishingly upbeat 80s inspired AOR/pop elements and a dive into soaring harmonies. Complemented by stellar guitar firework and to-die-for transitions, it most impressively transports to a mesmerising Styx paradise, which is always welcomed in my book. The groovy delights of Emma, Come On dips even further into this magical pomp-rock Eden. It's rounded off by a perfect duet of rock vocals and spectacular A.C.T. treats that will light the hearts of many a Styx fan and those with a taste for the proggy pop-flavoured divine.
In between these excellent concise songs, one finds the symphonic bliss of Between The Devil And Me. Its kaleidoscopic musical richness and blinding virtuosity won me over big time. So much so that I feel inclined to declare that I'm head over heels in love with Moon Safari's music.
Opening peacefully atmospheric with guidance of piano, this ingenious song initially gains some dynamic Kansas power, and then segues into a funky footloose of 80s pop/prog symphonies that remind me of Zio. Featuring epic choruses and breathtaking instrumental chemistry between guitars and keys, a seamless transition then opens up a citadel of intricately arranged Starcastle sounds. A unison of emotive vocals and beautiful touching melodies build towards a wall of mid-seventies Kansas prime. Returning to instrumental power with magic of harmonies, Moon Safari finally top off with a splendid finale blessed by majestic guitars that gives Transatlantic an unfair run for their money.
As a testimony towards Moon Safari's melodic prog glow, A Lifetime To Learn How To Love lights up with touches of Yes and a beautiful wave of symphonies drowned with maple syrupy sweet choruses that would make Extreme extremely proud. Slowly building with endless graceful melodies that have emotional close harmonies always at the core, a glorious celestial flight of overwhelming guitar parts embraced by heavenly choirs in the end elevates this momentous composition into unrivalled symphonic heights that touches the heart.
In Blood Moon, the band indulge with exquisite funky prog-pop that lives and breathes artistic flair, in likeness to Trickster and City Boy, alongside a memorable flash of Queen. Its lush symphonic designs illuminated with organ warmth and fantastic guitar play are once again a joy to the ear. As in a way is the prophetic lyric "On our way to heaven..." because this becomes a true prog-reality when the masterful long one Teen Angel Meets The Apocalypse is presented.
Falling short in superlatives to describe its full grandiosity, it at first gives birth to classical symphonies. This instrumental overture soon becomes fully alive with an odyssey of gentle prog-metal play à la Shadow Gallery, that shifts compellingly between ominous darkness and symphonic ballroom brightness. It settles in affectionate sweetness of alternating vocals and softness of acoustic melodies, and brings raptures of Ambrosia at their most enchanting. A wonderful passage of seasonal festiveness subtly caressed by sounds of Yes follows. Moon Safari then open their new-found box of heavy prog treats and fly off into a spectacle of utterly brilliant prog that next to a theatrical A.C.T. approach shows resemblances towards Transatlantic and T.S.O.
By the luckiest of minutes, this gobsmacking composition then grows a second pair of wings and glides into a Beatles-esque Klaatu realm, shaped with truly inventive arrangements that circle around a famous nursery rhyme coddled with engaging phonology splendour. To not spoil all the fun it's suffice to say that on flights of majestic guitar, recurring themes and a graceful cradle of the purest captivating symphonic prog imaginable Teen Angel Meets The Apocalypse ends on a mountainous high.
Putting sugar on top it all, Forever, For You pulls emotionally at the heartstrings with intimate acoustics and a nostalgic warmth that reminds of sophisticated Ambrosia and even impressions of Sneaker, when Jamison Smeltz caramelises the sugary symphonies with his cuddling saxophone motifs. Travelling on with intensifying Kansas feel, the song gradually work its way towards a pristine recapture of the album's finest themes set in freshly exciting new arrangements which all symphonic prog enthusiasts should hear at least once in their lifetime, IMHO. At the close, Moon Safari then marvel one more time with the Swedish hymn Epilog and, next to reminding me of a repeat button's importance, most soothingly close the curtains of their paradise theatre.
Where to end...?
Shall I round off by stating the obvious that Himlabacken Vol. 2's magic has touched my heart and Moon Safari are definitely on my radar from now on? Or conclude that Pontus Åkesson (guitar, vocals), Sebastian Åkesson (keys, percussion, vocals), Simon Åkesson (vocals, keys), Mikael Israelsson (drums, vocals), Petter Sandström (vocals, acoustic guitar), and Johan Westerlund (bass, vocals) have crafted a brilliant year contender that excels in musical maturity, outstanding performances and adventurous symphonic songwriting that keeps on giving and giving and for me goes to eleven?
In the end I can only finish by giving this outstanding album my highest recommendations. It's one of those miracle albums all symphonic prog fans should enjoy happily ever after.
(of a stunning new beginning)
Napier's Bones — Cells
Over the past decade, Napier's Bones have been on a strong progressive trajectory. Following the footsteps of their very strong The Fields this now sees them reach new heights with their seventh album Cells. As per usual it involves a concept, this time involving a story about of two captives - cellmate 1: Nathan Jon Tillett (vocals, artwork) and cellmate 2: Gordon Midgley (musical jack-of-all-trades, vocals) - who on one final autumn night share each other tales to give meaning to their predicament.
Supported by the album's splendid artwork, Names On A Page instantly builds this scene brilliantly. It starts off with an imprisonment of ominous atmospheres and sounds of fading footsteps that open up into layered suspenseful mystery and vintage 70s prog, to which Tillet's charismatic voice adds a most befitting palpable sense of desperate solitude. A compelling classic rock segment then flows into lush Pink Floyd synth designs supported by melancholic loneliness of Mellotron, after which roaring bass drives melodies into prog spheres reminiscent of early Pallas that ends in sombre atmospheres akin to Alfio Costa's Frammenti.
Vixana follows this strong entrance by washing ashore on acoustic refinement and epic transitions embraced by warmth of Barclay James Harvest. Followed by beguiling waves of synths that leads into emotive guitar melodies and a frighteningly growing overwhelming coda embedded with Tillett's impressive vocalisations of tangible despair.
It's the subsequent To Free A Land that truly impresses by matching conceptual storytelling and musical interpretations to a tee. As a moreish delight for British 80s neo-prog fans, it opens with a doomy Black Sabbath riff and delightful synth virtuosity that imprints Tamarisk, after which it soon dwells in darker caves that remind of Pallas and Marillion's debut. Designed with strength of harmony vocals, excellent driving bass lines and a multitude of captivating atmospheric mood swings this well-crafted adventurous composition furthermore contains a hard rocking segment of a tasteful Sorcery style and a ravishing raw guitar solo. A triumphant march of victorious 80s neo-prog melodies with delightful synth/guitar interplay finally rounds of this well crafted composition.
After the bonding intermezzo of A World Within This Room, Napier's Bones then pull out all the stops for All Tyrants Have To Fall. Replete with moody variations and outstanding deliveries focussed on emotion and feel, this oeuvre highlight (IMHO) stands proud with classic blues inspired heavy neo-prog and thrives from masterly performances. It manoeuvres with compelling ease through emotive passages filled with melancholic BJH resemblances and immaculate played rockier segments that manage to resonate with a punkier bite of Judas Priest, and at the same time showcases strength in harmony vocals and care for arrangements. Bolting away through adventurous prog pleasantries and a multitude of outstanding guitar and synth parts by Midgley, this monumental prog-beast to me recalls the mystical depth of pre-Script Marillion and I couldn't be more pleased.
Surrounded by atmospheric darkness and a palpable sense of ominous fatality, beautifully captured by Tillett, On The Other Side elongates these ingeniously construed neo-prog and rounds off Napier's Bones' grim tale on a marvellous victorious high while a thrilling mischievous story-line twist unfolds itself.
In short summary Cells, as their most accomplished effort to date, stays perfectly loyal to Napier's Bones' eclectic brew of 70s/early 80s classic rock and dark, heavy prog and digs expertly deep into their strength of historic storytelling with a dramatic modern relevance. If you're a fan of early British Prog rock then by all means lock yourself up in your music room and check this formidable album out!
Nospūn — Opus
Do you love the traditional style of progressive metal? Would your ultimate gig be Seventh Wonder and Haken supporting Dream Theater? Do you have 70 minutes to listen to an album over and over again?
If the answer is "yes" to all of these questions, then Opus is likely to be your album of the year.
Seven years in the making, this is the debut opus from this quartet, hailing from North Carolina. It could be the next album by Haken or Metropolis Pt. 3. It is a complex concept album, over-flowing with instrumental brilliance, but with an abundance of memorable melodic lines (vocal and instrumental). The symphonic elements are gentler than with Dream Theater and there are enough of the more-subtle moments to give a lovely balance. As a result this album may also delight fans of heavy-prog acts such as The Neal Morse Band.
Singer Phillip Rich occupies a much lower range than James LaBrie, but utilises a wide variety of tones and melodic patterns, including an effective harsh edge in the heavier moments such as on Earwyrm.
There is an excellent balance to the mix, giving all instruments equal space. A rough yardstick is that around half of the playing time is instrumental. So the mix is important.
I only have the music and no additional info about the band members nor the concept nor lyrics. As Opus appears to be a digital-only release via Bandcamp at present, then you will only get the music anyhow. (You can read the lyrics via Bandcamp while you listen, if that's how you like to do it).
All I can say is that the storyline may guide the music, but in no way does it overshadow it.
I don't think a track-by-track breakdown is particularly helpful. The above is all I need to say for you to decide if this might be for you. The debut video/single, Earwyrm, is a bit misleading. It's a great number (and my favourite track) but it is far and away the most song-oriented track on the album. The instrumental 4D Printing or the later Back, Yet Forward are more representative of the album as a whole.
There is nothing new or original here. Fans of the genre, will have heard it all before. But when it is as well done, as it has been here, then that may not be an issue for you? Also at 70 minutes it is an epic. For an album that will require numerous listens for its complexity to sink in, that is a big ask.
In terms of a score, then this is a tough one to evaluate. I've tried to remain journalistically neutral on this one, so it's a recommended eight! If you gave three thumbs-up to my original questions, then you could add one or even two points. If you're looking for originality and accessibility, then you could deduct as many as the mood takes you.
One thing however is certain; for an album of this style, Opus is one of the best you will hear this, or any other year.
Ozric Tentacles — Lotus Unfolding
Now into their 40th year and almost as many albums, the psychedelic, progressive, space, electronic, dub, world and ambient music entity that is Ozric Tentacles continue apace with their latest release Lotus Unfolding. With Ed Wynne (guitars, keyboards, bass) being the only musician of something like 32 past and present members, it is very much his band and vision that drives things forwards. Of the other members on the album, Ed's son Silas (keyboards, guitar, samples) joined in 2009, his then wife Brandi (bass) in 2004, Saskia Maxwell (flute) in 2021 and Tim Wallander (drums) just prior to the recordings of the album. It is the first appearance of Maxwell and Wallander on an Ozrics studio album and may be the last appearance of Brandi Wynne and Wallander (for the time being) as it seems they are not in the current line-up.
Even though the line-up may be in an almost continuous state of flux, the same can't be said of the music. If you have only heard a couple of the band's albums and think they are the wasp's ankles there is a very good chance that you will be equally enamoured with their other releases. Please don't take it that they all sound the same, as they emphatically don't. Although guitarist Wynne is the primary songwriter and driving force, over the years the influx of new members has meant that there is still a freshness to each album within the confines of the Ozric sound.
The latest album sees more guitar than has featured on some of the more recent albums with Ed reeling off numerous solos when he is not laying down power chords of passion. Opener Storm In A Teacup is an out-and-out rocker which is contrasted by the more synth heavy Deep Blue Shade. The title track is more meditative but nonetheless powerful while Crumplepenny is arguably one of the best things the band has done in a while which although sticking roughly to the template incorporates several new ideas and directions within its 10-minute playing time.
Green Incantation combines a variety of different guitar sounds but barrels along without a care in the world with Wallander powering his was through sometimes sounding like he is on a mission to leave the rest of the band behind. Needless to say they keep him in sight and rein him in with a plethora of swooshing synths. Burundi Spaceport begins in a more reflective manner, but it seems the band were just giving Wallander a chance to catch his breath as he is soon back in the fray (yes I know it is not a live album and the two pieces were not recorded consecutively in one go!). Like any very good album, as the final track fades out there is a simple desire to play it again as, along with most other Ozric albums, there is a tremendous depth to the music that takes frequent listens to appreciate all the layers and nuances.
The band may soon be entering into their fifth decade but there seems to be no stopping them! And finally, a bit of trivia. Seems that Ed Wynne was first encouraged to pick by the guitar by none other than George Harrison. Boy, them Beatles get everywhere!
Cécile Seraud — Xaos
Based in Lorient, Brittany, Cécile Seraud is a classically trained pianist and composer whose work fall into the contemporary classical mode. Xaos her second album is reminiscent of, but subtly different from, say the likes of Ludovico Einaudi. It feels harmonically richer, and she deploys on the longer songs more instrumentation.
Meaning chaos in Greek, Xaos is an instrumental concept album that 'the story of our time and its fractures: bursts of loss, uncertainty, memories, promises, bursts of joy'. Though it is always difficult to tell with an instrumental album.
The tracks on Xaos are in the main solo grand piano pieces that encompass a variety of moods from the delicate, the opening Lost to the Faure or Ravel like early modernism of Missing. The gorgeous rich melancholia of You & I to the odd Remember? Humans?, a piano waltz that turns comic in the middle before regaining its gravitas.
The best tracks are those on which Cécile Seraud's guests make an appearance. The terrific Sky Walker features a wonderful melody with the added atmosphere of Thomas Poli's gentle electric guitar shapes, alongside DJEN's cello and the wordless vocals of Gaëlle Kerrien. The trilling piano of La possibilité d'une île is joined halfway through by the cello, echoing its classical predecessors. The Burning Man and Je t'aime with cello on the first and wordless vocals on both, are just lovely.
Cécile Seraud – Xaos is a mighty fine album of neoclassical music, that puts me in mind of Christine Ott when she moves from the Ondes Martenot to the piano. Not a prog album but if you hanker after a little contemporary classical fix, then start here.