An eclectic fusion of psychedelia, feel-good rock and heart-warming moments is the product of Melbourne-based Moonlover’s debut full length album. Bouncing, bounding and squirming its way through a series of unique musical landscapes, Thou Shall Be Free is a tenacious effort to say the least. Releasing music since 2015, Quang Dinh is the sole visionary behind Moonlover and has been building a name for himself in a solo setting since his departure from Little Red in 2012, for whom he played bass guitar. Manufacturing his unique brand of music in his own studio, dubbed Pink Slime Studios, Dinh is carrying on the tradition laid down by folks like Kevin Parker and King Krule – that of writing, recording and producing as a one man band. With several self-released EPs to his name, Dinh now finds himself signed to independent Melbourne label Our Good Friend. The man comes across as particularly mystical and this quality is reflected strongly in the music he makes.
A story involving David Bowie provides the basis for the album’s title and the track of the same name, which appears as the first song on the record. One night while sleeping, Dinh dreamt of a visitation from the late Bowie, who begun to sing to him the opening lines, “Oh, oh, oh, oh thou shall be free”. Not to miss such an opportunity, he awoke and in a semi-conscious state, grabbed his guitar to write the first chords to match those sublime words. The finished track seems to reflect this story beautifully, with an intro conjured straight from the magical dream state blooming into gently strummed acoustic guitar and steadily evolving to finish up drowning in a plethora of dizzying synth and guitar tracks that weave in and out of each other on their way to freedom. It’s a powerful entrance that builds the hopes early.
As much as he seems to enjoy delving into the bizarre depths of psych rock, Moonlover brings the radio-friendliness with the next few tracks. “The Ooiee”, one of three singles released from the record, bursts onto the scene in a much more straightforward rock and roll manner. Groovy and danceable, the bassline props the song up and provides the main melody which the guitar mostly follows. As for what an ‘ooiee’ actually is? The lyrics seem to point to it being some kind of mythical creature, most likely of Dinh’s own creation, but the answer is unclear. The final single released before the full album drop was “Queen of Sheba”, which explodes with some wicked reggae-influenced guitar stabs and a tale of a mysterious Ethiopian desert queen hypnotising people with her gaze. A gloriously slinky bassline snakes its way through the song, providing the ooze, while some colourful arpeggios accentuate the somewhat Middle Eastern feel. This track is the only one on the album that has been included on a previous release, showing up as the final tune on the 2016 EP Lysergic Flaccid.
Through the middle section, Thou Shall Be Free continues to assert its diversity, in terms of musical influence and style. Tracks like “Borderline” and “Lazy Daisy” emanate a Beatles-like and almost 50’s rock influenced style, with their layered vocal harmonies, upbeat tempos and overall jovial and light-hearted moods. While one may make the argument that they seem out of place, it’s tracks like these which make Moonlover all the more interesting as an artist, proving that he wears his contrasting array of influences on his sleeve and that he is capable of releasing a broad assortment of music that still holds substance. “Mindbender” sees a return to a more experimental sound, building slowly in the beginning, amidst the curious combination of ambient space-robot sampling and cowbell. This odd arrangement is fitting and a good match for the peculiar lyrics, drifting a little nonsensically above the noise of aliens, spaceships and chameleons. The tail end comes alive with a fierce, fuzzed out guitar solo, setting what was a reasonably mellow track on fire.
The release of Thou Shall Be Free coincided with the March full moon, something that was entirely planned. In fact, Moonlover plans all of his releases to coincide with events in the Lunar Calendar, a method which seems to inform the actual making of his music, giving it an ethereal quality. This is particularly evident in the instrumental “Mekong Delta Blues”. In the beginning, we hear Dinh’s father reciting one of his poems, translating it from Vietnamese to English. This provides a suitable and tender intro into what is the most beautiful and decadent song on the record. A light and bobbing rhythm section, reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac’s classic “Albatross”, is the perfect cloud on which floats a varying range of synth and guitar leads rich in delays and other effects – generating in the mind a sense of floating on the moon, sailing down the Mekong and sitting pleasantly in an ancient oriental opium den, all at once. Dinh’s Vietnamese heritage shines through most clearly here and quite brilliantly too, considering there are no lyrics present.
“On The Day That I Was Born” mellows things out further and adds a touch of raw emotion and introspection. A moving piano ballad that drifts along to a steady drum beat is eventually closed out with some emotive harmonica playing, adding ‘rootsy’ to the forever growing list of adjectives to describe the musical stylings on this record. Lyrically, it is a heartfelt rumination on birth and what it means to come into the world unwittingly. Waves of nostalgia ride the slowly-swelling synth layers out to a sweet end. “Wedding Day” comes floating in gently, a picked guitar melody moving nicely to the waltz tempo. Poetically pondering the romance of marriage and the importance of love, it further deepens the emotionality this album unexpectedly generates towards its end. Ultimately culminating with “Moonlover”, the record closes itself out with grace. The last track, moving along to a repeating Mac DeMarco-like rhythm strummed on the acoustic guitar, sees Dinh sharing the true nature of his soul, “I wanna give not just receive, I wanna show you things that I do believe,” he croons. It’s a touching conclusion to a confident, emotive and well-executed debut album.
Steadily progressing away from his early garage rock vibe into an increasingly accomplished musical territory of his own, Moonlover is shooting for the stars and is definitely one to keep an eye on.