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





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





White Willow – Terminal Twilight

28 10 2011

White Willow - "Terminal Twilight"I must admit, I’d not heard any of this Norwegian band’s music before, though I did buy the Night Blooms album by The Opium Cartel (another project from White Willow’s Jacob Holm-Lupo) but I was keen to hear the album due to the involvement of no-man’s Tim Bowness on the track Kansas Regrets.

The album appears to be based on an end-of-the world concept (a progressive concept album, oh no I hear you cry!), but it works well. Yes, it’s a very progressive album, awash with retro synths, mellotrons and shifting time signatures, all trademark progressive tools, but it’s also made up of some very strong songs and one of the best productions I’ve heard so far this year.

The albums second track Snowswept is driven by a powerful drum track and a crystal-clear vocal from the bands singer, Sylvia Erichsen.  The third track is co-written by Tim Bowness, who takes over lead vocal duties on Kansas Regrets.  The most acoustic, and at the same time probably the least progressive sounding track on the album, Kansas Regrets is a highlight nonetheless.

“Those country boys just left you cold
The local girls they acted old.”

The track features some gorgeous vocal harmonies and lovely harmonics scattered amongst the guitar playing.  Have a listen to the full song in the video below, which was  filmed, edited and directed by Dion Johnson.

If you are a fan of Bowness or no-man, Kansas Regrets will probably be the track that appeals to you straight away.  If you have any appreciation of progressive music, and the wide, colourful musical palette used in this genre, Terminal Twilight will quickly become one of your most cherished albums.

Red Leaves is streamed in full on the White Willow website – I’ve added a link below.

Red leaves by White Willow

There are times (especially on this track) when I’m reminded of Jeff Wayne’s War of The Worlds album from 1978, though the story on the White Willow album is told through the lyrics and the music only, no need for narration and so thankfully no appearances from David Essex required!  Some wonderful Gilmouresque guitar solos round off Red Leaves.

Floor 67 is fast becoming my favourite track on the album.  The lyrics really set the mood on this track, and capture the feeling of isolation and despair, as the apocalyptic weather destroys all in its wake, whilst the subjects of the song try to ride out the storm living in their own world, stocked up with alcohol in a high-rise building.

“But we stayed on through the winter
As the empire crashed and burned
And we heard the world grow quiet
And the voice on the radio said its goodbye.”

The chorus is very moving and I love the way the song ends, with snatches of ghostlike voices, almost like lost radio transmissions.

The mostly instrumental Natasha of the Burning Woods leads into the longest track on Terminal Twilight, the 13 minute Searise, the heaviest track on the album, which lyrically hints at the outcome of the song subjects quest for survival. Terminal Twilight closes with A Rumour of Twilight, a drone / acoustic guitar led instrumental piece.

So a new group for me to investigate, and a surprising contender to become one of my favourite albums of 2011.

Tracklisting:

Hawks Circle the Mountain
Snowswept
Kansas Regrets
Red Leaves
Floor 67
Natasha of the Burning Woods
Searise
A Rumour of Twilight

Buy Terminal Twilight at Amazon UK
Buy Terminal Twilight at Amazon US
Buy Terminal Twilight from The Burning Shed

http://www.whitewillow.info/








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