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White Willow - Future Hopes CD (album) cover

FUTURE HOPES

White Willow

Symphonic Prog


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Rock Progressivo Italiano Team
4 stars `Looks can be deceiving', `Don't judge a book by its cover' and so on are clichés that are easy to attach to Norwegian symphonic/folky prog-rockers White Willow on their seventh album, 2017's `Future Hopes'. Founding WW member Jacob Holm-Lupo spoke recently on the Prog Archives of his pride in having their new album adorned with legendary prog- associated artist Roger Dean's instantly recognisable art on the front cover, to sit alongside so many other artists in the genre over the decades that have done so, but it's actually somewhat misleading. For `Future Hopes' is anything but some predictable and safe `Dad-rock' retro-prog throwback that the artwork perhaps suggests, and instead it twists symphonic- styled prog in so many skewed directions and fuses it with electronics, indie-rock and all the melancholic introspective atmospheres the group has become known for over the last twenty-plus years, whilst taking White Willow in fascinating new directions and delivering one of their very best works.

Right from the first seconds of opener `Future Hopes', it offers hints that this album will be particularly dominated by Lars Fredrik Frĝislie's electronics, be it twitching programming, spiralling upfront soloing or ambient background coatings. This title track is a fine showcase for new vocalist Venke Knutson, a Norwegian pop singer of note, and she fits in alongside the ranks of White Willow's previous female leads perfectly. She exudes earthy femininity, aching longing and great heart, and perfectly conveys the rich lyrics that are exquisite with detail that has become a trademark of the group. The piece, not too far removed from a female fronted band like Frequency Drift, is an icy-cool indie-rock reflection with moments of heavier guitar grunt and ethereal multi-layered harmonies, and we also get the first signs of a wild flurry of former Anglagard member Mattias Olsson's busy drumming that tapers off in so many skittering directions that carries through the entire album.

Delicate and pristine `Silver and Gold' is a sweetly wistful folk ballad with little hints of shadowy unease creeping in around the edges. The first of the longer pieces that all prog fans crave, the eleven minute `In Dim Days' mixes gothic touches with dark slithering electronica, ripples of panning loops and rambunctious drumming rumbling in and out, oddly briefly calling to mind Italy's Universal Totem Orchestra. A stormier epic, Venke's purring voice conveys one of White Willow's darkest lyrics to date, guest performer Hedvig Mollestad of her own Trio offers deliciously tortured and serrated guitar ruminations, and Ellen Andrea Wang's closing bass come-down over Ketil Vestrum Einarsen's huffing flute solo wraps the first half of the album with haunting sophistication.

The flip-side of the LP opens with the carefully infernal instrumental `Where There Was Sea There Is Abyss', a glacial 'Tron and guitar distortion interlude that at not even two minutes will leave fans begging for more! But then it's straight into the eighteen-minute epic `A Scarred View' that takes up the rest of the side, and it drifts through long stretches of everything from serene ambient/prog-electronic expansive aural landscapes, Venke's romantic musings backed by exotic percussion and frantic programmed beats. Whirring keyboards spiral with bliss (parts even surprisingly take on a Kitaro-like ambient sweetness!), Jacob's strangled guitar twists ring into the heavens during the lengthy instrumental stretches, and while the lengthy piece works in those gloomier and intense moods that White Willow are legendary for, it ultimately proves hopeful and deeply romantic as all their best music does.

But (for once!) not to be ignored are the two bonus track that come with the CD and download versions. A surprising cover of the Scorpion's `Animal Magnetism' off their 1980 LP of the same name pulses with bristling electronic programming, waffling clarinet and heavy churning guitars that take on a Hawkwind-like danger, and `Damnation Valley' is a gorgeous solo piece from keyboardist Lars, a short but haunting instrumental of fragile piano, fizzing Minimoog and glorious Mellotron choirs that come ever-so-close to Rick Wakeman's solo works - so perhaps there are little retro flavours on the disc after all!

Running a welcome vinyl length, melodic and accessible whist retaining intelligence and class, and proudly `proggy' without being a mere retro throwback, `Future Hopes' is a glorious and eclectic work sure to appeal to both older and younger listeners. Equal parts fanciful, noisy, intense and unpredictable with a decidedly modern touch that crosses over into many genres all at once, it's not only another superb White Willow release from a band that always delivers high quality discs, but it's one of the strongest progressive rock works of the year.

Four and a half stars.

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Posted Sunday, December 17, 2017 | Review Permalink

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