At some point while listening to Moonbabies’ mini-album War on Sound I started to question just how “psychedelic” psychedelic rock really is. I don’t know whether it was during the swooning “Ghost of Love” or in their reinterpretation of Syd Barrett’s “Arnold Layne”, but at some point I realized that this was way more mind-bending than that amplified blues rock of the ‘60s or the Revolver-plundering pop craftsmen of today. Where most psychedelic musicians try to imitate a “trippy” experiment with ample guitar distortion and spacey lyrics, Moonbabies combine all sorts of different approaches to music, from electronica to shoegaze, and create a swirling ambience that is poppy enough to get caught in your head but just enough askew that it messes with it while its trapped in there.
“Ghost of Love” is the song that has probably warped my brain the most. “Ghost of Love” sounds like a frosty response to M83’s majestic “Don’t Save Us from the Flames”, propelled by a dense wall of sound and breathy, disturbing vocals. After opening with a simple, chilly synthesizer line, the track shifts its focus towards Moonbabies’ Ola Frick and Carina Johansson’s beyond-the-grave style of harmonizing as they sing innocuous but frightening lines about love dying and returning as a ghost. Then the song breaks into an epic outburst of melodic chaos that suggests the primal force of White Light White Heat-era Velvet Underground channeled into a harsh, techno structure. The track is five and a half minutes, but it seems like a world in itself, suspending time itself.
Nothing else on War on Sound is quite as intoxicating, but much of it comes close. The band’s take on “Arnold Layne”, another clear highlight, fights with the Pink Floyd original as the definitive reading of the song. Whereas in the original, the band had to restrain its more experimental impulses in order to create something that would get radio airplay, Moonbabies are in no need for such restraint. The band treats the song like a jazz musician taking on a standard and using it as a launching pad for improvisation. The verses and choruses remain the same, albeit mainly accompanied by a bleeping synthesizer line that keeps the melody. However the band expands the brief psychedelic portion of the song into the entire song, making it a freeform epic of bubbling synths, almost random sound effects, and clicking and clacking percussive blips. This is how “Arnold Layne” would sound if Syd Barrett hadn’t realized that he didn’t have to treat his pop songs like they were anything different than “Insterstellar Overdrive” or “Astronomy Domine”.
Moonbabies aren’t really experimental musicians, and they certainly aren’t noise rockers by any stretch. “War on Sound” and “The Orange Billboard” are simpler pop song that stick close to the verse-chorus-verse patterns that aren’t hi-jacked by Moonbabies’ patchwork of sound. They even show that they can succeed without the (literal) bells and whistles that adorn the majority of the album. “A Minor Earthquake” is basically Carina Johansson singing along with a simple, somewhat muffled, piano accompaniment, and it is just as gauzy and gorgeous as anything else on the album. The band can hypnotize even with the simplest of tricks, like when Johansson takes the word “alive” and breaks it down into “a-la la-la-liiive”. The closing “Don’t Shoot the Ranger” is a similarly simple instrumental that would make Link Wray proud, reconfiguring and slowing down the seminal “Sweet Jane” riff as if to remind the listener that Moonbabies are still a rock and roll band.
War on Sound works as an entity in its own right, and not just as a stop-gap EP to keep people aware of Moonbabies’ existence. But, trust me, from the evidence of War on Sound, Moonbabies have an epic album in them. I don’t know if Moonbabies are the Cocteau Twins who can write pop songs, Sigur Ros with a pulse, or the Sundays far gone on mushrooms, but I can see that they are capable of some big and beautiful things.