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The Opium Cartel - Ardor CD (album) cover


The Opium Cartel


Crossover Prog

3.58 | 34 ratings

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4 stars Euro-pop played by some of the finest progressive players on the planet? Really? There seems to be a nice niche market there, especially with the credentials presented by this multi-national crew. Originally ignited by Jacob Holm-Lupo of White Willow fame, the cast also has enlisted the immensely talented Lars Froile of Wobbler and the semi-legendary Swedish drummer Mattias Olsson of Anglagard! Add Pixel bassist Ellen Wang and a slew of talented vocalists, you will start getting a clearer picture. The vocal contingent comprises of No-Man/Henry Fool stalwarts Tim Bowness and Stephen Bennett, solo artist Rhys Marsh, plus Norwegian pop stars Venke Knutsen and Alex Stenerud . On their website , they simply identify themselves like this " Influences on The Opium Cartel's music include 80's art pop such as Japan, Roxy Music, Prefab Sprout and The Blue Nile, as well as 70's folk-rock like Sandy Denny and Nick Drake. Reviewers have variously referred to the music as dream- pop, folk-tronica and art-pop''. I would also add tinges of the Beatles, Tears for Fears, The Box, Naked Eyes, OMD and even some prog-folk tendencies. The menu has 8 shorter tracks between 3.21 and 6.17, as well as a lengthy moody final epic that clocks in over 10 minutes.

"Kissing the Moon" immediately shows off the quality of the musicians involved, a breezy and proggish tune that sounds like an outtake from Naked Eyes (a masterful 80s synth-pop group) ,with a Thompson Twins-like duo of male(Marsh and female vocals. The melody is penetrating and the playing is superb, rippling synths gurgling in the background as Mattias lays down a solid beat. Excellent opener that touches all kinds of fine buttons.

But it's with "When We Dream" that the roof is blown, a tremendous piece that showcases the incredible voice of Alex Stenerud , sounding uncannily like OMD's Andy McCluskey, supported by icy keyboards that wink at Depeche Mode. The chorus is simply spellbinding, shoving goose bumps to the forefront, propelling both power and emotion.

Tim Bowness' unmistakable hush colors the sorrowful gleam of 'Silence Instead", a trembling ballad loaded with typical No-Man melancholy, as far away from pop drivel as you could possible consider. Simple arrangement done superbly, acoustic guitar, keyboard effects and flute, occasionally troubled by a solemn beat and odd percussives. Brilliant!

"Northern Rains" could be a Norse folk song, reworked into a synth-pop classic, again offering very familiar shades, the complex vocal work utterly stunning as if Derek Shulman would be leading Tears for Fears! Infectious chorus of 'walk away, walk away, walk away' gets the job done, convincingly.

My goodness, "Revenant" could have been the bastard child of a Roxy Music father and a Kate Bush mom. It's the shortest piece her but strikes an otherwise very uncommercial pose. Acoustic guitar and triangle dress up the vocal duet, wispy and dreamy at the same time, Knutsen's child-like delivery being particularly mesmerizing.

The 6 minute "White Wolf" is eerily reminiscent of classic Prefab Sprout, another crafty 80s group that had made its mark during the lean prog tears but suddenly veers into a long and heavy instrumental vibe with a masterful flute solo and pulsating rhythm work from both the bass and Olsson. The vocals are incredibly tight and the playing is well above platitude. This piece actually is closer to White Willow, a brooding and glacial barrage of dense sound. The final outro is a swirling tornado of choir work that would make Giant fans blush with envy!

"The Waiting Ground" takes a little side trip to Liverpudlian fields, lush with plasticene porters and marmalade skies. It verges on plagiarism but guess what, the Beatles are such a huge influence that you could put half the musicians on the planet in a copyright penitentiary! Yeah, it's very close to Lucy and her diamonds on LSD but cleverly done, a kaleidoscope of flirting synths and raspy hushes. Perhaps one of the highlight tracks here and a tune that you need to hear, featuring a short Froislie organ rant.

So you want incontrovertible proof? Jacob Holm-Lupo is a colossal and well-documented Blue Oyster Club fan, so to keep the prog tradition of boldly going where no one dares to go flowing, one of my personal favorite all-time ballads is presented here with significant genius. "Then Came the Last Days of May" is a prog classic, a rock classic and a 70s classic, sadly not as well-known as the lamer monster mega-hit " Don"t Fear the Reaper" ! True fans know better! This is a fantastic homage, thoroughly different yet familiar, with the ethereal voice of Venke replacing Eric Bloom's New York sarcasm-laden swagger. Jacob's axe solo is so reverential of Don Roeser's that he simply takes it into another, more humble direction. Quality and class!

The grand finale is the prog show stopper, an 11 minute epic stroke of genius that has 'classic, stamped all over its grooves, an entirely luminous vocal, helped along by a minimalist arrangement featuring electric piano, a clockwork orange beat and whopping symphonics. But that's not all, kiddies! Just to harass the newbies, the arrangement contains deft piano work, looping bass synthesis, cannonading Oberheims and a delirious sax blowout that will shiver your timbers! Old school Roxy Music comes to mind again, but "Mariner, Come In" has a sense of staying power that is impossible to describe, a monumental piece of music vibrating with imagery, while retaining a sense of weirdness that is most appealing. Bravo!

Let's get one thing straight! This is not your classic Gentle Giant/Yes/King Crimson formula of complex classically influenced prog. But as our genre struggles to seduce new fans, this is a perfect stepping stone to get their tippy toes wet in the progressive swimming pool. Plus, and more importantly, it might ignite some female passions and perhaps get you in a snugly mode with the little lady.

4 Poppy seed leagues

tszirmay | 4/5 |


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