The Opium Cartel returns with their new CD Valor, released on June 5, seven years after the release of their last CD Ardor. As a refresher course, The Opium Cartel is songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Jacob Holm-Lupo’s ‘vehicle for songs that capture a mix of sophisti-pop, dream pop, art-rock and synth pop’. Holm-Lupo is mainly known as the leader of White Willow, one of Scandanavia’s foremost progressive rock bands. On their third album The Opium Cartel lists influences that include a variety of predominantly 1980s sources, from The Blue Nile and Shriekback, via late Roxy Music to the prog-pop of 80s Alan Parsons Project and Camel. From the promo sheet provided ‘the period feel is amplified by use of exclusively hardware synthesizers iconic to the era, like the Oberheim Matrix-6 and Yamaha DX7’.
Holm-Lupo describes The Opium Cartel’s 3rd album as a record ‘about naïve but brave dreams, songs about the hubris and optimism of childhood and youth… and also about that bittersweet moment when you start to realize that things may be a little different than you imagined’.
The music is a bit bipolar in that the two long instrumental standout tracks, A Question of Re-Entry and A Maelstrom of Stars,
with Airbag’s Bjørn Riis on guitar, capture a very proggy, Parsons/Camel spaciness. The remainder of the tracks effectively capture the feel of the 80’s more reminiscent of Thomas Dolby, Dream Academy Cocteau Twins and The Thompson Twins with the heavy synth bass, electronic drums and ethereal vocals. Unlike much of that period’s music, melody is not sacrificed over texture. Featuring a variety of singers poses some risks but the songs blend together nicely, especially with the reverb and 80’s dream pop mix. The outstanding production and attention to detail shows that creating Valor was obviously a labor of love by Holm-Lupo. Ultimately it all comes together as a lovely tribute to a time long passed.
The diverse cast of musicians on Valor include Wobbler/White Willow keyboard player Lars Fredrik Frøislie on drums (!), Silje and Ole Huleboer on vocals and guitars/bass, and appearances by Bjørn Riis, Alexander Stenerud (who sang on White Wolf, the highlight of Ardor to these ears), Israeli singer Leah Marcu, and Jacob’s 13 year old daughter Ina A, who provides the beautiful lead vocal on Nightwings. The stunning cover by Glen Wexler (Van Halen, Rush) with assistance by Cirque du Soleil captures a woman jumping through a ring of fire.
On first listening I did not find Valor as engaging as Ardor, but after repeat plays I can say it has proven worthy of the effort. Beautiful songs like The Curfew Bell and Fairground Sunday provide a welcome relief from the gravity of our current world situation. The 80’s have always been a strange period musically, when even progressive bands like Genesis got caught up in the production values that are served up here on Valor. It is up to the listener to decide whether they want to revisit that musical period, but The Opium Cartel does a great job of capturing that more innocent time with outstanding musicians and excellent production. If you found any musical pleasure in that period Valor will provide you with an interesting and rewarding musical flashback.