Ardor by The Opium Cartel
In a year of great music, Ardor is a surprise and an absolute delight, so much so that it has moved into my top 10 for the year. The Opium Cartel, often referred to as an ‘art pop collective’ have created a brilliant blend of 80’s pop/rock music with progressive overtones, delivered by outstanding musicians with stunning production reflecting hundreds of hours of work crafting this music. I haven’t felt such a strong connection with an album since the last Big Big Train CD.
The Opium Cartel is the pop/rock outlet for Jacob Holm-Lupo of White Willow, joined by Stephen Bennet of NoMan/Henry Fool, Matthias Olsson from White Willow, plus members of Wobbler, Jaga Jazzist and Pixel, with Venke Knudtson, Rhys Marsh, Tim Bowness and Alexander Stenerud,on vocals. The music is consistent and the variety of vocalists is not a distraction in the least; in fact int enhances the overall listening experience. The music is atmospheric reflecting the pop sensibilities of The Dream Academy, The Blue Nile, Thomas Dolby, Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush, mixed with the progressive influences of the White Willow /Wobbler /Autumnsongs gang in a perfect blend of songs that demand repeat listening. The production is masterful, with waves of sound embellishing a melody and quickly disappearing before you know what you heard. Mellotrons, 80’s synths, bells, chimes, acoustic guitars, flute, sax and percussion weave through beautiful melodies creating a perfect audio blend. The electronic percussion offsets Mattias’s acoustic drums, keeping the music constantly moving rather than plodding as the late 80’s bands had a tendency to do.
Kissing Moon, featuring Rhys Marsh and Venke on vocals, is the perfect opening track, whimsical, reflective and melancholy. This is followed by When We Dream, one of the loveliest songs of the year–sad, lovely, autumn music.
“And when she sleeps she sleeps alone
And when she calls her lover’s gone
And every moment she has known
Are only dust when it has blown”
Northern Rain is pop/rock at its best, with an infectious sing-along chorus over a pounding bass.
“I have seen you walk away walk away walk away
And I wish you will be home before too long
As the sun sets on the hills and trees and the beautiful places where we go
I will be waiting there for you”.
The lyrics seem simple but evoke the perfect emotion on every song.
White Wolf is my favorite track, with a pedal steel guitar opening building:
“Did I see in the distance
Not a day away
Gleaming spires and domes of gold lay
I am weary and weak now
Traveled night and day
All I want is a place where I can stay
Let me lay down beside you
On your velvet bed
And don’t wake me till the morning rises red
The music moves through a lovely haunting flute solo to a huge chorus with outstanding vocals:
Shadows all around me
Look what I’ve become
Like a ghost another
White Wolf on the run
I have found some peace here
Comfort by your side
But kept on I’m just a
Stranger on the run
Will you say a little prayer
Will you say a little prayer for me”.
The album concludes with Mariner, Come In, the best Peter Gabriel song I have heard in years, of course written by TOC. Mariner is the longest track on the album at 11 minutes, ending with an extended powerful dreamy sax solo.
While the dedicated prog fan might be cynical of my mention of the 80’s pop references, The Opium Cartel has captured the energy and spirit of some of the best of the wonderful music created in that decade. Ardor evokes the ‘sound’ of that era with progressive stylings, emotive lyrics and 21st century production. As with all great CDs, the minute Ardor ends I am ready to play it again. There are no ‘skip’ tracks, there is no wasted space, no wasted sounds, no doodling, no extended solos, no excess. Ardor is an outstanding collection of beautiful songs crafted by true artists. We are lucky to have music like this still being made.