Himlabacken Vol. 1

SKU: BRCD006
Label:
Blomljud Records
Category:
Progressive Rock
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"Progressive rock and boy-band pop seem like natural enemies at first. The former's fascination with ornate, elongated passages of finger-exhausting musicianship is in almost every way the opposite of the latter's emphasis on catchiness first; it's hard to imagine turn-of-the-millennium hits like "Bye Bye Bye" with extended guitar and keyboard solos. Yet ever since A Doorway to Summer, their 2005 debut, Moon Safari has put to rest the notion that progressive-minded songwriters can't make pop that's as hook-driven as it is ostentatious. Grandiloquent epics like "Other Half of the Sky," from the 2008 double album Blomljud, weave together widescreen arrangements with the band's signature five-part vocal harmony, a feature unmatched by few groups in any genre, anywhere. It's easy to isolate the audience with solipsistic soloing and obtuse orchestrations, but from day one Moon Safari has made prog that—assuming the layperson were more amenable to songs that run upwards of thirty minutes—could lead them to something like a pop crossover hit.

But while the union of hook-heavy vocal interplay and '70's prog stylistics gives Moon Safari an unmistakable, unique sound, it also handicapped them in a significant way for their first two LPs. The group's accessibility on A Doorway to Summer and Blomljud, along with its technical prowess, is unassailable, but the high-fructose sweetness of its style leads to a diabetic rush when stretched out onto songs that span ten to thirty minutes. For example, "Other Half of the Sky," the titanic thirty minute showstopper off of Blomljud, has so many memorable hooks that by the time it's run its time out, it's hard to remember all of them. The classic problem of "too many voices leads to a noisy room" was the defining problem of Moon Safari's otherwise enjoyable sound for some time. All that changed, however, in 2010 with the release of Lover's End.

It is no exaggeration—even as the decade remains young—to say that Lover's End is one of the finest progressive rock records of the '00's. Hell, it's not even crazy to say that it's one of the finest pop albums of the '00s; anyone, even those turned off by prog's eccentricities, can find something to love on this mellifluous collection of songs. From the a cappella charm of "Southern Belle" to the hook-loaded "New York City Summergirl," Lover's End is chock full of goodness from beginning to end. What explains its genius is that in contrast to A Doorway to Summer and Blomljud, the songs are given exactly the amount of space they need, and not a second more. Some songwriters may feel hamstrung by the verse/chorus structure, but it's a perfect fit for Moon Safari's joyous approach to music.

With their newest studio outing, Himlabacken, Vol. 1, Moon Safari continue the refining of their sound, and while this isn't the breakthrough that Lover's End was, it nonetheless attests to the brilliance of this group. Whereas the latter was bound by a loose concept (love and heartbreak), Himlabacken Vol. 1 is less a lyrics album than its predecessor. The cost of this is that the music is less distinct in its cohesiveness, but there are no shortage of catchy passages and amped-up solos. "Mega Moon" comes off as a tribute to musical theatre, with "The Very Model of A Modern Major General" vocal delivery interweaving with Queen-esque bombast to an impressive effect. "Too Young to Say Goodbye" sees and matches the polyharmonic beauty of "Lover's End (Part One)." By sticking to concise song formats—the longest cut here runs nine and a half minutes—Moon Safari ensures that things never run out of steam, an essential quality to any good progressive rock band.

If nothing else, Himlabacken, Vol. 1 proves that there's one thing Moon Safari can't be accused of: being unaware of themselves. Grand finale "Sugar Band" is as much a statement of identity as it is a slice of epic pop: "Sweet and saccharine are we," they declare, followed by "syrup's the blood in our veins." (Less successful is the clumsy Katy Perry innuendo of, "suck our big candy canes," which is thematically consistent but tonally off.) Both "Sugar Band" and "Little Man," one of the few Moon Safari songs to feature a solo vocal, are emblematic of the mushiness that might turn some prog fans away from their music. The latter, while obviously a touching document of a father's love for his son, does feel a bit out of place in how deeply personal it is; part of the strength of this group's sonic is the universality of its pop appeal, and the intimacy behind "My Little Man" makes listening to it an almost voyeuristic experience. "Mega Moon" and "Sugar Band" are better at capturing the convivial spirit of the band that's accessible to all.

As with past outings, even those drawn to vocal harmonies might find it hard to stomach all of the sweetness of Himlabacken, Vol. 1. But what ultimately makes this LP successful is its unpretentious commitment to fun. Moon Safari are a rare collective that prove daunting musical chops aren't anathema to accessibility, and with Himlabacken, Vol. 1 they've made a recording that, while not the magnum opus that Lover's End was, is as true a capturing of their ethos as there could ever be. Sating a sweet tooth brings to mind the phrase "guilty pleasure," but there's no guilt involved with music as first-class as this. Who knew being in a boy band could sound so classy? " - Sea Of Tranquility

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If you weren’t onboard for “Periphery II”, “Juggernaut” likely won’t change your mind (unless your issues were relatively small), as it’s more of the same poppy atmosphere and less of the techy downtuned riffs, though god knows THOSE are still around. But there’s also a lot of style experimentation – jazz fusion, death metal, and various forms of electronica are all utilized on a semi-normal basis, and range from being seamlessly integrated into the music to being tacked on to the ends of songs like gluing a top-rate dildo onto an already particularly throbby penis. If this all sounds a bit schizophrenic, rest assured that the songcraft is, for the most part, tighter than it’s ever been. Singles from Alpha like “22 Faces” and “Alpha” itself show off Periphery’s pop prowess with choruses and hooks that refuse to leave your head, and complex riffs that are somehow just as ‘wormy as the vocals. And the songs on Omega are longer, more complex, and still manage to be as infectious as the most annoying of STDs – even the twelve minute sprawling title track that has more in common with the bombastic riffs of Periphery I has a shapely middle section that rivals even the hottest of…ugh, fuck it, done with the metaphors. It’s just insane. I cried when I heard it.And now onto what I don’t care for; first off, the decision to split the album into two parts was definitely well-informed from a marketing standpoint. Most people don’t go around listening to 80 minute records all day, myself included, and the supposedly delicate structure of a concept album also means that listening to Juggernaut by skipping to different songs would devalue the experience. So the band broke it into two records to make it seem more manageable to listen to in daily life. Another stated reason was so that newcomers to the band would be able to buy Alpha at a discounted price, decide if they liked it, and then purchase Omega if they were so inclined (music previewing doesn’t work like that anymore, but hey you can’t fault the band for trying to turn that into tangible record sales). The problem I have is that Omega isn’t really paced to be its own album, which makes releasing it on its own instead as simply as the second disc in a package a little pointless. It’s not like the excellent “The Afterman” double albums from Coheed and Cambria, which were each albums that worked in their own right. 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  • "With the release of its sixth LP, The Parallax II: Future Sequence (the sequel to the Parallax: Hypersleep Dialogues EP), in 2012, American progressive metal quintet Between the Buried and Me set a new benchmark for its genre. Sure, both 2007’s Colors and 2009’s The Great Misdirect are incredible records (the former was a breakthrough in terms of both approach and commercial appeal, while the latter was more polished, accessible, and vibrant), but Parallax II took the epic-suite-broken-into-sections format Colors introduced and perfected it. With its dramatic chronicle, seamless flow, hypnotic singing, inventive instrumentation, and self-referential continuity, it easily ranked not only as BTBAM’s best effort to date, but as one of the greatest progressive metal albums of all time.Naturally, expectations skyrocketed when the band announced its follow-up, Coma Ecliptic; fortunately, it surely satisfies them. 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The unidentified man enters each world and is offered a choice: stay, or move on to the next in search of something better, something more ‘perfect.’”  To reveal any more of the tale would ruin its surprises and most affective elements. Suffice it to say, though, that the quintet’s moral intention is to help listeners “make the best of [their lives]. People are constantly searching for something better without taking the time to appreciate the things they have. What we need may already be here . . .” Because of its coherent storyline and meaningful themes, Coma Ecliptic actually contains BTBAM’s strongest narrative yet.Along the same lines, it also features one of their best opening tracks to date: “Node”. Vocalist/keyboardist Tommy Giles Rogers plays an ethereal piano pattern as he sings beautiful yet mournful judgments. Eventually, harmonies, strings, biting guitar riffs, and thunderous percussion explode around him, culminating in a regal and dense declaration of the trauma to come. In typical Between the Buried and Me fashion, Giles’ voice even interlocks with itself a couple times; likewise, the composition alternates between calmness and catastrophe with exceptional build-ups. It’s a fine way to begin, and it demonstrates how the band continues to evolve with each new release. Like most of the “episodes” on Coma Ecliptic, “Node” segues into the next section, “The Coma Machine.”With its fluctuating structures, absorbing melodies, and exceptional musicianship, “The Coma Machine” follows a familiar template; nonetheless, it’s still a fascinating and creative venture. From the way Giles’ infectious chorus (“You teach us what was, out there”) complements the mechanical riffs, to the way the song’s essence moves from hellish to heavenly several times, this track is a stunning beast that never lets up. Of course, their trademark frantic rhythmic changes are in full force here, with gripping stop/start breaks on occasion. Similarly, the sharp intertwining patterns of guitarists Paul Waggoner and Dustie Waring are as overwhelming as ever. Without a doubt, though, the single best moment of “The Coma Machine” comes at around the 3:15 mark, when an electrifying new riff crashes in, joined by bells and pounding drums. It’s wholly invigorating and awesome; in fact, it’s one of the best moments on any BTBAM creation. Finally, Giles’ closing bridge is subtle yet very moving.Like a lost gem by Dutch prog metal band Ayreon, “Dim Ignition” sneaks in with an ominous synthesized loop. Essentially, it’s a brief psychedelic interlude in which Giles proclaims foreboding notions over spacey effects and beats. It serves its purpose well and definitely adds to the thematic quality of Coma Ecliptic, but what’s really cool is how the loop bleeds into the introductory, sinister riff of “Famine Wolf” at its conclusion. As for “Famine Wolf” itself, its opening is also among the highlights on the disc. In general, its dynamic juxtapositions aren’t as striking as on some other tracks, but it still balances Giles’ screaming and singing well. The most interesting aspect appears about two-thirds of the way in, when the aforementioned loop returns as Giles evokes the peculiar accent that he used on past LPs. In this way, Coma Ecliptic feels connected to its precursors.Another transition takes place next, as “King Redeem/Queen Serene” starts with a lovely acoustic guitar arpeggio supporting arguably the most touching melody and lyrics Giles has ever sung (“I can’t hear a thing / These waves crash faster”). Every measure comes with more luscious layers until the arrangement breaks into one of the most “prog” moments BTBAM has ever had. After some more heaviness, an essential rhythmic breakdown from “The Coma Machine” comes back, which is very cool, followed by more frantic transformations. Ultimately, the piece ends as it began, so it feels like a self-contained observation.Although all of “Turn on the Darkness” is astonishing in how moves around its various formations, the best part is the chorus, during which Giles brings the concept to the forefront. Following some warm and atmospheric passages, he seizes command by saying, “Welcome to our journey / Please walk with me / I’ll put your mind at ease.” Aside from this, the ways in which the guitar and keyboards echo each other from time to time also help the track stand out. Really, this selection feels like something from The Great Misdirect, which isn’t bad at all.“The Ectopic Stroll” possibly includes the most experimentation aspects on Coma Ecliptic, as Giles’s odd piano chords, coupled with his menacing crooning, make the main parts feel like a malevolent 1940s jazz excerpt. He screeches, “Whoa, can’t get it right!” while sing-a-long harmonies concur, and at first, it’s a bit toounconventional to feel appropriate; but, after a few listens it feels more fitting. Equally, the percussive spasticity and quality feel akin to some of the wilder tones used by Dream Theatre or Devin Townsend. Truly, these risks also show how fearless BTBAM still is in trying new techniques, so they deserve praise for that alone.As its name suggests, “Rapid Calm” is transcendent and lively, with keyboard and guitar outlines dancing around each other as more soothing melodies signal the beginning of the end. In particular, this song is a strong example of how Coma Ecliptic features the strongest emphasis on clean vocals of any Between the Buried and Me record; there’s still plenty of growling throughout, but Giles has never allowed his natural style to shine so densely or prevalently. During the chorus, for instance, he conveys dread and sorrow powerfully, realizing, “They don’t want you there / They don’t want me here / Remember my name / The machine is crumbling.” It’s an exceptional moment, as is the moody intermission near the end, whose somber timbres recall parts of the most recent Opeth collections.Beyond being the standout track on Coma Ecliptic by a mile, “Memory Palace” may be the single best Between the Buried and Me song ever. Each element is just about perfect; from its towering opening riffs and soaring lines to its meticulous and clever shifts, every second is spectacular. The group has never before moved between such drastic deviations with such silky expertise; above all, the leap into what’s likely the band’s most surreal segment yet (“Focus on melody / The sounds under my eyes / Dreaming inside of this / World inside my mind”) is amazing. Furthermore, the way they bring back past moments near the end is sublime. If ever there was a track that single-handedly proved why BTBAM is so special, it’s this one.Luckily, the reprisals continue during the final two tracks, “Option Oblivion” and “Life in Velvet.” The former bursts in from its predecessor with more spellbinding arrays. Brilliantly, Giles brings back a phrase that was first mentioned on “Rapid Calm”:  “A choice of gold or velvet / Do I go on, or follow the crown in the smoke?” A bit further on, he also references “The Coma Machine” by lamenting, “Looking back through the painful tunnel / They taught us what once was.” As for “Life in Velvet,” it continues the symbolic theme of velvet (as a catalyst for spiritual transformation) that runs throughout the album; it’s also lead by a modified version of the chord progression from “The Coma Machine.” Like “Node,” it features Giles singing softly while playing piano, and in doing so, it brings Coma Ecliptic full circle. As a final burst of brilliance, the aforementioned electrifying guitar riff and closing bridge from “The Coma Machine” also makes an appearance. Because of these numerous references, Coma Ecliptic has the most alluring, suitable, and clever conclusion of any Between the Buried and Me record.Coma Ecliptic is an exquisite masterpiece. As with most opaque works, it takes many listens to fully appreciate everything here (including multilayered production, parallel structures, and callbacks to prior parts); however, once listeners understand all that’s going on, they’ll be utterly blown away. Between the Buried and Me have proven time and time again how distinctive, ambitious, capable, and important they are within its genre; no other band can do what they do as well as they do, and this effort just proves that once again." - Pop Matters
    $16.00
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