Airbag – A Day at the Beach album review

9 05 2020

A Day at the Beach is the 5th album from Norwegian band Airbag, and is their first studio album in 4 years.

A Day at the Beach features six new songs inspired by the resurgence of 1980s electronica, new wave and movie scores, whilst still retaining the band’s progressive rock leanings.

The album was produced by Asle Tostrup and Bjørn Riis, and befitting the musical content, is lovingly mastered by Jacob Holm-Lupo (White Willow / The Opium Cartel).

Machines And Men acts as a bridge between the progressive rock sound of Identity and Disconnected and a more electronic 2020 direction for Airbag. Guitars give way to Tangerine Dream / New Order referencing synths, but don’t worry, Bjørn Riis is still a strong presence throughout the album. As with all Airbag releases, there is a heavy use of textures, and peaks and flows to keep your attention and hit you emotionally. I particularly love the drum treatments on Machines And Men.

A Day at the Beach (Part 1) is an absolute joy. Decaying guitars and deep bass underpin piano and mid-period Porcupine Tree like synth swirls to deliver one of the most atmospheric pieces on the album.

Into The Unknown continues in a similar, albeit longer vein. The synth riff driving the intro has an 80s Drive soundtrack feel, and the neon pulse and achingly personal lyrics make the track an album highlight. The guitars from Bjørn Riis are restrained but all the more powerful as the track builds, and the drums kick in with a second half that will appeal to Pink Floyd and Prog fans.

Sunsets is one of the biggest surprises on the album,. Opening with an off-kilter drum pattern, and then heading in an almost post-punk direction, with a John McGeoch (Siouxsie & The Banshees / Magazine) guitar sound, before switching to a more traditional Airbag chorus.

The insistent bassline on Sunsets works well with the heavily processed guitar on the verses, and we are treated to a quality Bjørn Riis guitar solo at the half-way mark. Again, the use of textures and ever-mutating arrangements keep your interest piqued throughout.

Listen to an edit of Sunsets below.

A Day At The Beach (Part 2) dials the electronica back into sharper focus, with an pulse-led instrumental conclusion to the song that premiered earlier on in the album sequence.

A Day at the Beach is such a good headphones album, and I cannot wait to hear it played loud through speakers when I receive my vinyl copy in June.

The album closes with Megalomaniac, a slow-building guitar piece that suddenly falls away and then rises powerfully to see the album to it’s conclusion.

“You always get what you want…”

I am a huge fan of electronic music, as well as a lot of progressive rock, and I love it when the two genres intertwine as they do on this album. A Day at the Beach has been a long time coming, but is one of the highlights in Airbag’s catalogue of fine studio albums. The band may have lost two members but they have opened up the possibilities of what they can achieve and how they can tell their stories.

Machines And Men
A Day at the Beach (Part 1)
Into The Unknown
Sunsets
A Day At The Beach (Part 2)
Megalomaniac

Buy A Day at the Beach on CD from Amazon

Buy A Day at the Beach on CD from Burning Shed

Buy A Day at the Beach clear vinyl from Burning Shed

Buy Bjørn Riis A Storm Is Coming CD on Amazon

Buy Bjørn Riis Forever Comes To An End CD on Amazon

Buy Bjørn Riis Lullabies In A Car Crash CD on Amazon





The Opium Cartel – Valor album review

2 05 2020

The Opium Cartel is songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Jacob Holm-Lupo’s vehicle for songs that exist somewhere between pop, art-rock and synth pop, and away from his more progressive work with White Willow.

Valor is the third Opium Cartel album, and is set to be released on June 5 2020 on Apollon Records.

In the Streets sets the scene for an album that will appeal to those who love pop and progressive music from the 80s (The Blue Nile, Roxy Music, early Talk Talk, Bill Nelson, Alan Parsons Project) as well as current bands such as neon-pop heavy-hitters The Midnight. An optimistic and innocent track, the album opener is stacked to the brim with analogue synths (not a VST in sight, baby) and is wonderfully serenaded out by an uplifting sax refrain from Ilia Skibinsky.

Slow Run sounds like a hazy summer evening, and a hint of regret is starting to seep into the lyrics.

“This is not the same town, that we left behind”

The first of two instrumental pieces, A Question of Re-entry, features the moving guitar of Airbag’s Bjørn Riis, and is driven by the analogue synth pads and pulsating solos of Holm-Lupo.

Nightwings features the studio debut of Jacob’s daughter, Ina A, who effortlessly slips in to the albums sonic palette, delivering an assured modern pop vocal performance. Nightwings has a slight hint of mid-80s The Cure in its arrangement, and will surely appeal to lovers of the Stranger Things and San Junipero soundtracks.

Fairground Sunday is my favourite track on the album, and one of the few times I am reminded of Holm-Lupo’s White Willow catalogue. The music evokes the beauty of wide open spaces, with crystal clean fresh air and sharp starry skies, but is also under-pinned with a darker sub-current that reveals itself on subsequent plays.

Under Thunder has a wonderful Alan Murphy / Experiment IV (Kate Bush) referencing guitar riff and some of the most inventive rhythm arrangements on the album.

The Curfew Bell is one of the album’s darker, more gothic pieces. Heavily reverb-infused drums and rich strings, plus Gaelic sounding multi-tracked vocals from Leah Marcu (Tillian) lead into another instrumental piece featuring Bjørn Riis, A Maelstrom of Stars, that ups the Pink Floyd / prog ante a few notches. Some fine mellotron lines, plus one of the deepest bass synth sounds ever committed to tape, push to the fore on the tracks outro.

The CD ends with a bonus track, a cover of Ratt’s 1988 song What’s It Gonna Be, with Alexander Stenerud on vocals. With the hair-metal of the original track shorn, The Opium Cartel’s take is more akin to A-ha than Europe. I swear I can heard the sound of Fairlight stabs buried deep in the mix, or maybe that was just wishful thinking. And is that a nod to Don’t Fear The Reaper at the end?

Valor sounds like a love-song to the 80s, which of course means the album sounds very current and feels extremely accessible. The down-side is that straight after playing the album, you will find yourself desperately searching for your dusty old VHS copies of The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and The Lost Boys. I hope you enjoy the album.

In the Streets
Slow Run
A Question of Re-entry
Nightwings
Fairground Sunday
Under Thunder
The Curfew Bell
A Maelstrom of Stars
What’s It Gonna Be



Buy The Opium Cartel – Valor on Amazon

Buy The Opium Cartel – Ardor

Buy The Opium Cartel – Night Blooms





Plenty – It Could Be Home

14 04 2018

It Could Be HomePlenty was Tim Bowness’s immediate pre-no-man band. In 2016 and 2017, Bowness and fellow founder members Brian Hulse and David K Jones re-recorded Plenty’s catalogue of 1980s songs, revising some of them and even adding a newly written song (The Good Man). The end result is the debut album, It Could Be Home released on 27 April 2018 on Karisma Records.

Plenty are joined on the album by no-man live band members Michael Bearpark and Steve Bingham, Tim’s Bowness / Chilvers collaborator Peter Chilvers and Jacob Holm-Lupo (White Willow / Opium Cartel).

Whilst the album is understandably shot through with a real 80s sensibility, with touches of The Blue Nile, David Sylvian, Peter Gabriel, Thomas Dolby, and David Bowie lingering in the sounds and arrangements, It Could Be Home deserves to be listened to as more than just a work of pure nostalgia.

The album opens with a synth heavy, lightly delivered Jagger / Richards As Tears Go By, that is more Stranger Things than Lost in the Ghost Light. Hide delivers an Associates vibe to the music, and signals an album that is much more upbeat than recent Bowness releases. I think that the recent Bowness solo album’s have delivered some of his finest work, with material that is often comparable to a lot of his work in no-man, but it is good to hear a different side with Plenty. Vive la différence.

By far my favourite track on the album, the melancholic Never Needing is the one track on It Could Be Home that would fit onto one of Tim’s recent albums. Fans of no-man’s early work will recognise the song – previously recorded by no-man as Life is Elsewhere, and nowadays mostly existing on dusty old bootlegs or sitting as an (original “dodgy”) Napster-era, hiss-filled mp3 file on people’s hard-drives.

The Plenty version is a revelation. Sparse, brooding and slow-building, with an aching synth line and some of Tim’s most personal and direct lyrics and vocals. This is one of those occasions where I can confidently say that it is worth buying the album just for this song.

“You live in your world and I die in mine.
But I’m hopeful life is elsewhere”

Broken Nights really lifts towards the middle section of the song, before a key 80s stalwart (synth marimba bells) usher in the rest of the song.

Foolish Waking is another of my favourites from the album. Beatless and with some wonderful guitar lines from Michael Bearpark, and feeling a little like the work of the only Tim Bowness/Samuel Smiles studio album, World of Bright Futures from way back in 1999.

plenty

Strange Gods is underpinned by a delicious Mick Karn like bass-line, has hints of Bowie in the verses and a chorus seemingly inspired by The Blue Nile. So how can you not like the song? The mix, carried out with obvious love and attention by Norwegian guitarist, composer and producer Jacob Holm-Lupo (White Willow / The Opium Cartel) is colourful and warm throughout the album, but especially on Strange Gods.

Every Stranger’s Voice features Peter Chilvers on piano and the forensically detailed lyrics are filled with memories of an intense but long dead relationship. A powerful Michael Bearpark solo lifts the song towards its conclusion.

Another uptempo track is Climb, which has a real post-punk meets The Associates taking a quick detour via The Comsat Angels (circa the Fiction album). What a marvellous melting pot.

The Good Man is a new song that emerged during the recording sessions, and lyrically is tied to the album’s key track, Never Needing. The music has a late 80s feel, and lyrics that signal regret at letting go and giving up the fight too soon. The Good Man and the album’s closing title track offers something very different from recent Bowness releases.

The fact that the recording sessions produced new material of this quality, along with out-takes (such as a wonderful version of Forest Almost Burning, that I hope is revisited) suggest that there is a future for Plenty beyond this album.

If you pre-order It Could Be Home by Plenty from Burning Shed, on CD, vinyl or exclusive limited edition blue vinyl, you will receive an exclusive postcard and a free download EP of four of the band’s 1980s demos. Please note – this exclusive offer is only available until 27-04-2018 and only From Burning Shed.

Order Plenty – It Could Be Home on CD from Amazon

Order Plenty – It Could Be Home on vinyl from Amazon

As Tears go by
Hide
Never Needing
Broken Nights
Foolish Waking
Strange Gods
Every Stranger’s Voice
Climb
The Good Man
It could be Home

Band website: www.weareplenty.com





White Willow – Storm Season (Expanded Edition)

2 01 2015

storm-seasonWhite Willow‘s best-selling album is available again, in a remastered / expanded format from Termo Records.

The 2014 expanded edition of Storm Season includes extras in the form of Headlights (previously only available on the Japanese edition of the album) and excellent demo versions of Nightside of Eden and Sally Left.

The 2014 remaster of the album really does improve the sonic quality. The drum / synth interplay on the outro of Chemical Sunset sounds amazing. So even if you already have the original version of the album, its worth picking up this definitive version.

If you are new to Storm Season, or indeed the music of White Willow, have a listen to the selected Spotify streams in this review and then head over to Amazon if you like what you hear.

Album opener Chemical Sunset sets the scene, with its mix of prog and folk-rock and a slight touch of metal. Storm Season is an album of light and shade, power and calm, and Chemical Sunset is a well-chosen opening track.

Sally Left would not sound out-of-place if played alongside any of the current prog releases. The demo version on the 2014 re-issue offers a more electronic take on the track.

Endless Science is a rare gentle piece, driven by acoustic / classical guitar and awash with vintage analogue synths and real strings.

Soulburn is the centrepiece of the album. A gothic sounding intro gives way to crunching metal guitars. The track is a duet between Finn Coren (who sounds like Peter Murphy from Bauhaus) and principal album vocalist Sylvia Erichsen. I must admit that the metal guitar riffs do detract a little on a couple of occasions in this song, but that’s probably because I was never a fan of mid-90s metal.

Insomnia is powered by organ and a deep bass-line, along with a side-helping of prog’s favourite keyboard, the mellotron. I love the vocal treatment towards the middle of the song. White Willow’s Jacob Holm-Lupo is an excellent producer, I love the way he makes his productions sound so warm and colourful. Insomnia is my favourite track on the album – have a listen below.

The title track to Storm Season would not have sounded out of place on a mid-period Mike Oldfield album (that’s a compliment, if you were wondering!).

“Lost on a raging sea, lost on a raging sea,
I am the voice to lead you home.”

Nightside Of Eden closes the original album. The heavier guitar lines on this track hark back to the early 70s rock riffs of Black Sabbath and Rainbow, more than the 90s metal scene. A wonderful riff crops up on a couple of occasions, most noticeably in the middle section, and reminds me of Blue Oyster Cult.

Take a listen to the wonderful demo version of Nightside Of Eden – if you are a fan of Porcupine Tree circa Up The Downstair / The Sky Moves Sideways, and those album’s heady mixture of psychedelia and dance, you will surely appreciate this track, as it goes off-piste towards the middle of the song.

Apparently Storm Season is the most popular White Willow album. It’s certainly a very good album, but has not quite stood the test of time (due to the metal leanings) as much as earlier releases such as Sacrament, which was also reissued in 2014.

My favourite White Willow album (and one of my favourite progressive album’s of all time) is 2011’s Terminal Twilight. If you haven’t heard Terminal Twilight, especially the beautiful Floor 67, I suggest you rectify that mistake immediately.

A taster of the next White Willow album is due in January 2015, so visit the band’s website and sign-up to their email list if you want to hear when this will be made available.

Storm Season (Expanded Edition) – Buy Storm Season at Amazon UK

Sacrament (Expanded Edition) – Buy Sacrament at Amazon UK

Terminal Twilight – Buy Terminal Twilight at Amazon





The Opium Cartel – Ardor

6 11 2013

"Ardor" by The Opium CartelArdor is the second album from The Opium Cartel, an outlet for the more pop orientated music of songwriter/producer Jacob Holm-Lupo from Norway’s art-rock band White Willow.

Ardor is inspired by the 80s pop of The Blue Nile, Thomas Dolby, Japan, Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush, as well as drawing on more modern electronic music by the likes of M83 and Air.

Fans of 80s music will also recognise the warm synth sounds of the Prophet 5, Fairlight, Oberheim OB8, and the PPG Wave, that are scattered throughout the album’s 9 tracks.

Album opener Kissing Moon features Venke Knutson and Rhys Marsh on vocals, and features some wonderful, frenetic percussion and the first appearance of those lovely warm synths!

When We Dream (stream the remixed single version below) has shades of Icehouse and a-ha in the vocal performance from Norwegian singer Alexander Stenerud. The most commercial track on the album, with a very anthemic chorus, and an addictive guitar riff. When We Dream bleed’s pure unadulterated nostalgia.

Silence Instead is an early album highlight, co-written by and featuring  vocals from no-man’s Tim Bowness. A slow-burning song, with some delicious guitar work, and a synth sound that reminds me of my favourite Thomas Dolby track, Screen Kiss. Tim is a regular collaborator of  Jacob’s, featuring on the debut album by The Opium Cartel as well as White Willow’s progressive masterpiece, Terminal Twilight.

“The snowdrifts are real but the mountains are fake”

If you miss a-ha (who split in 2011), you will love Northern Rains, which sounds like a long-lost 1980s ballad from Morten Harket & co, underpinned by the Peter Gabriel rhythm section from 1980.

Sorry about all the 80s references in this review, but it’s fun playing spot the influence, and it helps that the 80s homage in the music is not ironic or cheesey, but playful and pays respect to the creativity and exploration of a much maligned decade.

Watch the Ardor album trailer

Revenant features the only vocals on the album from Jacob Holm-Lupo, and is one of the albums more progressive tracks. I don’t know if it is inspired by the recent French TV series “The Returned / Les Revenants” but there are certainly some nods to the excellent Mogwai soundtrack in the instrumentation.

White Wolf was the first song written for the album, and heralds a change in the album’s direction from this point in, with each track getting steadily more progressive. The middle section is very moving, and veers off into Yes-inspired territory towards the end, with a Chris Squire-like strong, melodic bassline.

The Waiting Ground has the classic synths still present, and features a great performance from Henry Fool (and current no-man live band) keyboard player Stephen Bennett.

“If I run, where do I run to?”

Then Came the Last Days of May is Ardor‘s only non-original track, a haunting cover of a classic rock ballad from Blue Öyster Cult’s debut album from 1972. This is one for fans of Opeth’s Damnation album, and a perfect way to set-up the album finale.

Mariner, Come In is the epic that completes the album. A rare vocal outing for Henry Fool’s Stephen Bennett, this track is more in keeping with recent White Willow, and the latter section of the track is most definitely jazz-rock and proud of it! A wild saxophone solo from Harald Lassen on top of layered synths is reminiscent of parts of the recent Steven Wilson album, and after 11 minutes, the track and the album itself, slowly fades to a close.

Ardor is a very different beast to the first Opium Cartel album, and feels more consistent (even though it has a wider variety of vocalists). It should appeal to a wide audience – from the more mainstream fans of modern electronic / pop to lovers of modern progressive music. Oh, and fans of 80s music!

Buy Ardor on Amazon UK 

Buy Night Blooms  on Amazon UK

Buy White Willow’s Terminal Twilight on Amazon UK








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