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The Opium Cartel: Ardor

I was pleasantly surprised form the start by the sound of The Opium Cartel's new album Ardor. So my first inclination was to ask, "Who is in this band?" Their press kit answered the question quickly: "The Opium Cartel is 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".

Well that immediately explains the higher level musicianship and creativity. Add drummer/producer/keyboardist Mattias Olsson, known from Änglagård and Pineforest Crunch and the amazing vocal talents of Venke Knutson and you have an incredibly talented ensemble.

However, there is more…They add a number of premier guest vocalists and players including my favorite male vocalist, Tim Bowness; Alexander Stenrud and Rhys Marsh on vocals; Stephen James Bennett, on vocals and a huge assortment of intricate keyboards, synths and guitars; Lars Fredrik Frøislie, on more elaborate synths; Ketil Vestrum Einarsen, on flute; and Ellen Andrea Wang, on double bass. Yes a powerful set of musicians for sure.

This is the follow-up album to the highly acclaimed Night Blooms, released in 2009. Holm-Lupo describes his theme for Ardor: "I wanted to pay tribute to some of the music I heard and loved on the radio in the 80's. I wanted the color and sheen of 80's synths, coupled with the more adventurous playing and song structures of art rock and progressive rock". Mission accomplished!

"Kissing Moon" opens with cool chimes, synths and Venke Knutson and Rhys Marsh singing. It maybe has the flavor of Bryan Ferry meets Annie Lennox…on her sweeter side. The synth elements that take over during the last 15 seconds of the track are excellent. Original…with good waves back at the past. Off to a cool synth – filled start.

"When We Dream" opens with a synth sound that took me right back to Fleetwood Mac's "Little Lies", opening. And that definitely is a good place to go. This time Alexander Stenrud joins Venke Knutson on lead vocals. Stenrud voice sounds closer to Paul Young on his track "Every Time You Go Away". The musicianship is original and inspired. Like all good 1980s tracks these are vocals driven songs.

"Silence Instead" is the best track on the album. Few vocalists can demand a listener's full attention the way Tim Bowness' vocals can. You hang on each slowly and precisely delivered note and word. I haven't heard him sing a fluff track yet. He demands your attention and the wonderful acoustic guitar and synth opening help provide the vehicle for that perfect delivery. The words…yes…the words matter with Tim. "You wonder what will survive you. Moments in time. Looking for silence…to engage". With a sound that reminds me of The Hunger Games's death salute in the background. My advice to any musicians out there…make sure Tim is on your next album. No wonder Holm-Lupo includes him on each of these Opium Cartel albums.

"Northern Rains" sounds like a Peter Gabriel "Red Rain"…thunder drum "Rhythm of the Heat" influenced track. Alexander Stenrud's vocals are not as dramatic as Gabriel's but he does a fine job delivering the magic of this musical journey complete with accompanying synths, percussion, bass and keyboard effects.

"Revenant" opens like another hit from the 80s, maybe by Lisa Lobe. It's a bright acoustic guitar opening with bells. Then Venke Knutson's voice joins in with Jacob Holm-Lupo his vocal sound to the mix. A deep mysterious ghost-like cinematic feeling to the track. Perfect for relaxing or deep thinking.

"White Wolf" is one of the longest tracks on the album at over six minutes. It is full of whimsical keyboards and Knutson and Stenrud's vocals. Ketil Vestrum Einarsen's flute solo adds the perfect eerie ambiance to the sound.

Knutson's soft vocals and quiet keyboards and synths open "The Waiting Ground", with the lyrics, "Terri stood frozen in Union Square. Youth have come down from above. She didn't make it…her cover all blown. They found her at Hotel Bellaire". A suspense thriller perfect for Knutson's vocals. Rhys Marsh adds male vocals to round out the soundscape. The synths, guitar and keyboards are eerie and create perfect effects as the background sound for this cinematic masterpiece.

Ellen Andrea Wang's double bass and the keyboards create another cinematic opening for "Then Came the Last Days of May". Another excellent story told with the soft voice of Venke Knutson. Probably her best performance in a greatest hits album of great performances. The story is something along the lines of Neko Case or David Lynch's storytelling. Interesting dramas and thrillers that draw you in completely.

"Mariner, Come In" is the second best track on the album from my ears. The beautiful piano like keys and deep bass that open the track set a perfect mood for what will follow. Another great example of perfect story-telling. Over ten minutes of musical bliss. The sax solo will bring back memories of some of Pink Floyd's best.

If you like keyboards, synth effects and sounds, this is a must album for your collection. If you like intricate vocals which you cannot hear on the radio every day, then this album is for you. If you like progressive/electronic music delivered with expertise and finesse this album is a don't miss record.

My favorite surprise album from last year. This is simply one of a kind original with some sounds of the best of the 80s. Opium Cartel's Ardor is also my first surprise pick of the year. I missed their debut album's release. I will not miss the next. I'm in. Hope you will give this album a chance as well. You won't be sorry.

Track Listing:

1. Kissing Moon
2. When We Dream
3. Northern Rains
4. Silence Instead
5. Revenant
6. White Wolf
7. The Waiting Ground
8. Then Came the Last Days of May
9. Mariner, Come In

Added: March 13th 2014
Reviewer: Mark Johnson
Related Link:
Hits: 2534
Language: english

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