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Valor by The Opium Cartel (Apollon Records)

Valor by The Opium Cartel (Apollon Records)

Valor by The Opium Cartel (Apollon Records)

A few nights ago I was listening to The Opium Cartel’s second album Ardor and found myself getting quite emotional over the uplifting arrangements. Jacob Holm-Lupo is the mastermind behind White Willow and The Opium Cartel as well as the more electronic Donner. Holm-Lupo also does remasters from the likes of Airbag and Lupus and masters albums out of his Dude Ranch Studio.

While the previous album Ardor was of a piece with White Willow, many of the songs on Valor strike out into new territory while keeping the melodies and personality Holm-Lupo is known for. What is new about the music is the more straightforward songs, featuring ‘70’s synthesizers and a classic pop clarity.

Opening track In The Streets has popping bass and understated guitar, courtesy of Ole Øvstedal (Ole & Silje Huleboer, Spirits Of The Dead, The Island Band), Silje Huleboer on vocals creating a whistful and hopeful sound. this isn’t a cheesy wink-wink pastiche of 80’s synth-pop but Holm-Lupo still includes a killer saxophone solo from Ilia Skibinsky just to prove he’s serious about this nostalgic song. Slow Run begins almost annoyingly slowly. The sweet and sad vocals, rubbery synth bass and chiming guitars keep your ears interested just long enough for the song to really kick in to a soulful soft-rocking and memorable experience. Nightwings is another synthy and upbeat pop song with Holm-Lupo’s 13 year old daughter Ina A on lead vocals. Her delivery is assured and sassy and a joy to hear and I can imagine an album in the future with Ina singing on every song.

On Under Thunder a funky beat from Lars Fredrik Frøislie and slapping bass puts a new spin on the familiar melodicism of Holm-Lupo’s output with Huleboer’s voice becoming a chorus of loveliness. The song progresses from funk to spacey soul to the outer reaches of pop with well-placed guitars, various synth textures and hand-drums. A Maelstrom of Guitars begins with plucky piano, synth bass and percussive touches, a slow and soulful guitar takes us on a journey through emotion and memory.

Valor, like White Willow’s Future Hopes, ends with a cover, this time of Ratt’s What’s It Gonna Be. I had to go listen to the original, if only for research, but found myself enjoying the clean and catchy song found on Reach For The Sky from 1988. (Full disclosure: I was a fan of Ratt for a few years.) Filtered through Holm-Lupo’s sensibilities the song sounds like it’s right out of the late-’80’s with its electronic drums and focus on cheesy synths. The heavy guitar solo is a welcome surprise and Alexander Stenarud (Zuma) returns with his dramatic sophisti-pop vocals.

In Jacob Holm-Lupo’s arrangements you’ll hear 50 years of progressive and space rock filtered through his sensibilities creating something modern yet classic and like nothing you’ve likely ever heard before. The mix of instruments on his albums is stunning and makes these ears wish more bands worked with Holm-Lupo for his pristine recordings. While Valor seems like a digital-only release, CD artwork with cover photography by Glen Wexler who has done photos for Van Halen and Rush album covers is included with the download, giving hope for a physical release in the future, maybe on vinyl?

(Review by Bret Miller)

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