(updated 25 December 2013) The Opium Cartel is said to be a vehicle for the pop leanings of guitarist / songwriter / producer Jacob Holm-Lupo, best known as the leader of Norway's premier art-rock band White Willow. Jacob told us, "Working in close collaboration with drummer / producer / keyboardist Mattias Olsson--known from Änglagård and Pineforest Crunch as well as White Willow--the project also utilizes a variety of vocal and instrumental talents in somewhat of a revolving door policy." The Opium Cartel's second album Ardor was the editorial staff's most listened to album and has earned the title of Musical Discoveries Best of the Year 2013.
The Opium Cartel's debut album Night Blooms (review) is comprised of songs featuring and array of male and female vocalists. Ardor continues in this vein, and includes both male and female vocal parts. Venke Knutson, a well-known Norweigian singer with four pop albums released between 2004 and 2010, is the exclusive female singer on Ardor.< p>
The album's impressive lineup also includes: Stephen James Bennett (synths, vocals); Tim Bowness (vocals); Ketil Vestrum Einarsen (flutes); Lars Fredrik Frøislie (synths); Jacob Holm-Lupo (guitars, bass guitars, synths); Harald Lasse (saxophone); Rhys Marsh (vocals); Mattias Olsson (drums, percussion, effects, synths); Alexander Stenerud (vocals); and Ellen Andrea Wang (acoustic bass).
We asked Jacob to tell us about the cover, "I don't know who the model is. The photo is by the highly acclaimed fashion photographer Bruno Dayan. He works for all the big fashion houses and magazines. I'm a big fan of his work, and asked him if he could help us out. He liked the music and said yes. In return I wrote a soundtrack for an exhibition he had in Paris last spring."
Ardor (Termo Records (Norway) TERMOCD015, 2013) offers the listener tremendous diversity. The Opium Cartel have effectively blended progressive stylings of White Willow with Asia-style classic rock to deliver an outstanding new recording. Instrumental, electronic and vocal arrangements are outstanding. The 52+ minute album is comprised of nine tracks concluding with an over eleven-minute epic.
We asked Jacob to tell us about Venke Knutson. "She is one of Norway's decidedly most successful female artists. She has six Top 10 hits to her credit and numerous other hits. Venke is a well-known public figure and is currently appearing on Dancing with the Stars." He continued, "I have always loved her voice, ever since I happened upon a live performance she gave in Oslo many years ago. So it's been a dream for me to be able to have her sing for me. I simply wrote her a few years ago and asked if she would be interested. At the time she was on a hiatus from music, raising two small children, so it didn't work out then."
He continued, "But just as I was beginning to work on the music for Ardor, and after I had found a different cast of singers to use, she got back in touch and told me she would love to do some work. My initial idea was to have her sing on one song only, knowing that she has a very busy schedule and is also back on track with making her own albums."
Jacob concluded, "Things worked out so well that we ended up recording five songs. She is an amazing singer -- she usually nailed things in one take -- and her timbre is so perfect that I basically didn't use any EQ or similar processing, just some reverb on her voice." He also told us, "She is also a very lovely person, easy to work with."
Ardor opens with the gorgeous and densely arranged track "Kissing Moon." Rhys Marsh and Venke Knutson deliver tremendous vocal performances in the lyrical passages individually and together atop electronic arrangements and a rich rhythm section. Vocal harmonies contribute to a fantastic texture. Alexander Stenerud's powerful voice leads one of the album's strongest tracks, "When We Dream." His own backing harmonies are echoed by Venke's especially sweet vocal layers. Listen for the White Willow-style keyboards in the arrangements and the amazing crescendo that develops in the final chorus.
A more delicate and haunting texture develops in "Silence Instead" from acoustic guitar and keyboard washes and is sung by Tim Bowness. With opposing thick bass lines, the track also features Ketil Vestrum Einarsen's delicate flute. Lush keyboards, deep bass and extensive electronics contribute arrangements to another very strong song, "Northern Rains," powerfully sung by Alexander Stenerud. We loved the vocal layers.
Venke's sweetly delivered vocal work is featured in "Revenent," a delicate and stunning White Willow-style song sung alongside Jacob. Listen carefully for Ketil's fujara in the mix. Venke takes the lead in the melodic and electronically arranged track, "The Waiting Ground," singing alongside Rhys Marsh. Her voice is gorgeous. To say that the melody is Beatlesque would be a significant understatement. Stephen Bennett's multi-faceted synths deliver a wonderfully progressive texture to this dynamic track.
Ardor's standout track is "White Wolf" whose lyrical passages are led by Alexander's solo vocals and supported by further self-harmonies and further vocals from Venke. The progressively-styled instrumental break features Ketil's tremendous flute excursions before transitioning into another powerful lyrical passage. Venke's vocal work stands alone in the gentle ballad and cover of "Then Came the Last Days of May." Acoustic and electric guitars are joined by Ellen Andrea Wang's double bass and keyboard washes alongside Venkel's self-harmonies in this short and wistful track.
Stephen Bennett sings and plays a vast array of keyboard parts and piano to the concluding eleven minute epic "Mariner, Come In." The powerful instrumental break builds through keyboard and bass before exposing Harald Lassen's soaring saxophone solo. If Opium Cartel were to perform live, this song would certainly be the last one of their main set.
Ardor is a tremendous album by The Opium Cartel. Jacob Holm-Lupo has again brought together fantastic singing, song writing and instrumental arrangements and produced a masterwork certain to have broad audience appeal while
also satisfying long-standing White Willow fans. Indeed, Ardor is another great album from The Opium Cartel.