The Opium Cartel ‘Valor’

TOCFRONT-1The 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,

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.


Soup – Remedies

a3913523140_10Norway-based Soup has been around since 2005 and has released 6 albums since then.  Their last full length CD released in 2013, “The Beauty of Our Youth” really grabbed me at the time with the overwhelming sense of melancholy in the songs, accented by fragile vocals offset by understated instrumentation. With the number of new releases since then I must admit they have not been in my listening rotation in a few years, which is pretty typical of most of my collection.

This makes the release of their new CD Remedies such a pleasant surprise. Their indie post-rock sound has grown tremendously and has a much more progressive feel with a new drummer and production by Paul Savage  ( who mixed their last and has produced Mogwai, Franz Ferdinand).  Lasse Hoile, Steven Wilson’s visual collaborator, has been a long-time fan and friend of the band and provides some stunning visuals.

Skjermbilde-2016-11-20-kl.-20.28.24Remedies is short-three songs are 8, 11, and 13 minutes, with two shorter numbers totaling just over 40 minutes. The music typically begins softly-the melancholy remains, and builds to a wall of sound over repeating themes building to heart-wrenching finales. The vocals remind me of Grandaddy (Jed the Humanoid on the Sophtware Slump) and The Flaming Lips (Yoshima Battles the Pink Robots) overlaying their sound which has hints of God Speed You Black Emperor, Snow Patrol, Mogwai and Porcupine Tree.

The three longer songs-Going Somewhere , The Boy and the Snow and Sleepers are the highlights, while the shorter tunes Audion and Nothing Like Home , allow the listener to decompress after the intensity of the extended tunes . Sleeper and The Boy and the Snow really showcase the power of the new rhythm section, adding to the ‘progressive’ feel of Remedies.

The music is a collection of ear worms that make you want to hit repeat as soon as it ends. Highly recommended.

Click on the link for the Youtube video-at about 3 minutes the band really kicks in.

Soup is signed to Crispin Glover Records distributed by Stick-Man Records.

Soup’s Bandcamp Page




Give the Gift of Prog This Christmas


Our Fractal Mirror transatlantic musical experience and our attempt to land a deal have been an education on recording economics and the commercial appeal of prog.  As part of our discussions with several labels we have been able to see sales on some well-known and respected artists.  It is amazing that many of the CDs we know well sell less than a few thousand units, and it is typical for the smaller bands to be in the 500-1,000 range.  Re-releases and live vintage recordings might sell less than 500 units.  The implications for the artist are:

  • record cheap or at home or self fund or all of the above (like we did-self recorded, paid for studio for drums, self funded mixing/mastering with well-known engineer/producer)
  • have fans sponsor the recording
  • don’t expect heavy promotion-use social media
  • don’t quit your day job.

Bands often make more touring-if they can find the gigs, selling t-shirts and CDs at the shows, than they make from Amazon/iTunes.  While we are spoiled with great music, especially in 2013, the CD sales don’t justify the number of bands and offerings and it is only the new economics of digital recordings and distribution and the artist’s love of the music that makes all this possible.

As a basis of comparison, I have 2 nephews active in the Philadelphia music scene ages 26 and 30:

Bacio is an indie shoe gazer band-their friends in some of the more successful bands in the Philly/Lehigh Valley have recording budgets of $10-$40k, and are selling thousands of each CD.  He likes some of the prog I play for him but it is a bit too busy for him. Shoe gazer/teen/twenty something bands get bigger budgets on average and sell more. 

Psychic Teens-post punk (think New Order/Doors) was just named one of Spin’s top 5 up and coming bands, they were named best new band in Philly by U of Penn’s WXPN, and their CD received numerous accolades.  The new CD “COME took 2 year to record as funded 50% with a small label in PA, publicity all word of mouth, live shows and social media, and they have sold out on their first vinyl pressing.  (Punk and post punk music stores are a huge draw, especially with vinyl).  They have played 2 short tours to fund the recording of their next CD.  But they play between Richmond, DC, NY and Boston on weekends so it is a young man’s game to hold FT jobs and play on weekends like that.  The band used to love prog, but have shifted to more of a wall of noise, heavy sound after becoming disenchanted with the instrumental prowess of prog. 

Big Big Train, Glass Hammer and a few other popular bands have figured out the new economics quite well.  They are thrifty, keep their day jobs, invest in the right recording equipment and bring in good people as needed to compliment their sound.  Self-funding with extended distribution relationships, a strong ground force and positive press reviews helps them realize more money on each sale than a typical band signed to a traditional label.  Earnings go back into better recording technology and new projects.  They might not be getting rich but have ‘earned’ the right to bigger and better productions through their business model. 

There are also a number of new labels such as BEM and Third Contact that are more ‘cooperatives’ that facilitate distribution, share the costs with the band, and enable more dollars per sale to reach the band.  This trend will likely continue to grow in popularity with smaller bands who are not likely to become the next big commercial hit.

 It is clear that (almost) no one is getting ‘rich’ on prog and most bands need to keep their day jobs, limiting their touring time and ability to produce new music. Sadly the audience is aging along with the bands.  Since much of the prog crowd is looking like grey haired men (self portrait)  with X-Large being the preferred t-shirt size I worry about the longevity of the audience.  This is especially true if it is not at least break even for the labels if the band is lucky enough to be signed, or if it a cost out of their pocket for the band.  There are years that personal investments in time and expense are not possible as families grow and wives tire of hearing about the next music production.  Logistics are a challenge as band members relocate.  In summary, it takes a ton of work to produce an album and distribute it, often with little or no recognition.  I have definite concerns for the future of the genre, but there are more bands than ever producing great music so maybe there will be increased sales in the near future and the new economics will allow this trend to continue.  

Thank goodness these artists love their music!  So if you think 2013 has been an excellent year for prog, give your favorite artists a great Christmas, give the gift of prog this holiday!  They will appreciate it, and hopefully they sell enough to make more great music in the future!

 (Deck the Halls image by Brian Watson)


Best of CD list by David Elliott/The European Perspective.



The Beauty of Ardor


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.  

Highly Recommended