The Opium Cartel – Ardor

6 11 2013

"Ardor" by The Opium CartelArdor is the second album from The Opium Cartel, an outlet for the more pop orientated music of songwriter/producer Jacob Holm-Lupo from Norway’s art-rock band White Willow.

Ardor is inspired by the 80s pop of The Blue Nile, Thomas Dolby, Japan, Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush, as well as drawing on more modern electronic music by the likes of M83 and Air.

Fans of 80s music will also recognise the warm synth sounds of the Prophet 5, Fairlight, Oberheim OB8, and the PPG Wave, that are scattered throughout the album’s 9 tracks.

Album opener Kissing Moon features Venke Knutson and Rhys Marsh on vocals, and features some wonderful, frenetic percussion and the first appearance of those lovely warm synths!

When We Dream (stream the remixed single version below) has shades of Icehouse and a-ha in the vocal performance from Norwegian singer Alexander Stenerud. The most commercial track on the album, with a very anthemic chorus, and an addictive guitar riff. When We Dream bleed’s pure unadulterated nostalgia.

Silence Instead is an early album highlight, co-written by and featuring  vocals from no-man’s Tim Bowness. A slow-burning song, with some delicious guitar work, and a synth sound that reminds me of my favourite Thomas Dolby track, Screen Kiss. Tim is a regular collaborator of  Jacob’s, featuring on the debut album by The Opium Cartel as well as White Willow’s progressive masterpiece, Terminal Twilight.

“The snowdrifts are real but the mountains are fake”

If you miss a-ha (who split in 2011), you will love Northern Rains, which sounds like a long-lost 1980s ballad from Morten Harket & co, underpinned by the Peter Gabriel rhythm section from 1980.

Sorry about all the 80s references in this review, but it’s fun playing spot the influence, and it helps that the 80s homage in the music is not ironic or cheesey, but playful and pays respect to the creativity and exploration of a much maligned decade.

Watch the Ardor album trailer

Revenant features the only vocals on the album from Jacob Holm-Lupo, and is one of the albums more progressive tracks. I don’t know if it is inspired by the recent French TV series “The Returned / Les Revenants” but there are certainly some nods to the excellent Mogwai soundtrack in the instrumentation.

White Wolf was the first song written for the album, and heralds a change in the album’s direction from this point in, with each track getting steadily more progressive. The middle section is very moving, and veers off into Yes-inspired territory towards the end, with a Chris Squire-like strong, melodic bassline.

The Waiting Ground has the classic synths still present, and features a great performance from Henry Fool (and current no-man live band) keyboard player Stephen Bennett.

“If I run, where do I run to?”

Then Came the Last Days of May is Ardor‘s only non-original track, a haunting cover of a classic rock ballad from Blue Öyster Cult’s debut album from 1972. This is one for fans of Opeth’s Damnation album, and a perfect way to set-up the album finale.

Mariner, Come In is the epic that completes the album. A rare vocal outing for Henry Fool’s Stephen Bennett, this track is more in keeping with recent White Willow, and the latter section of the track is most definitely jazz-rock and proud of it! A wild saxophone solo from Harald Lassen on top of layered synths is reminiscent of parts of the recent Steven Wilson album, and after 11 minutes, the track and the album itself, slowly fades to a close.

Ardor is a very different beast to the first Opium Cartel album, and feels more consistent (even though it has a wider variety of vocalists). It should appeal to a wide audience – from the more mainstream fans of modern electronic / pop to lovers of modern progressive music. Oh, and fans of 80s music!

Buy Ardor on Amazon UK 

Buy Night Blooms  on Amazon UK

Buy White Willow’s Terminal Twilight on Amazon UK





no-man live at the Assembly, Leamington Spa

5 11 2011

no-man played live for the first time since 2008 as part of the online record label Burning Shed’s 10th anniversary event on 14th October 2011. This was the same line-up of musicians that the band used for the three European mixtaped shows, the only change was the use of acoustic, instead of electronic, drums.

Whilst the show was noticeably shorter than the Bush Hall show I attended in 2008 (the 2011 gig weighing in at around 45 minutes), it was a much more cohesive, powerful and assured performance.

no-man have been my favourite band since stumbling upon their Loveblows & Lovecries – A Confession album in 1993 (not having heard a note of the band’s music but being hypnotised by the sleeve-notes and album art-work).  With each album, I’ve grown to love the band’s music more – which is unusual, as a lot of band’s peak with early releases and go downhill, desperately trying to recapture past glories. Not so for no-man, whose recordings have shifted away from it’s electronic roots and constantly evolved over the years, though the live appearances slowed to a trickle. Whilst I caught an early Porcupine Tree show (in a tiny local pub in Kent, with about 30 people in the audience), I did not get to see no-man live until Tim & Steven performed at another Burning Shed event, this time in Norwich in 2006, then finally seeing a full no-man show when the band performed at Bush Hall in 2008.

The 2008 Bush Hall show was certainly a memorable and emotional evening, captured perfectly by Richard Smith’s excellent mixtaped dvd.  But for me, the real no-man experience was this magical 45 minutes at Leamington Spa.  I’ve seen hundreds of different live shows across many genres, committing many individual live performances to memory, and of all these performances I have seen since my first live show back in 1979 (Thin Lizzy at Hammersmith Odeon, in case you are wondering),  I have compiled a list of  my favourite gigs (Thin Lizzy never made it into the top 10, though it was a great first gig). Vivid memories of performances by the likes of The Stranglers at The Rainbow, The Police at Lewisham Odeon, Kate Bush at the London Palladium, The Who at Wembley Stadium, Prince & the Revolution on the Parade tour, Nine Inch Nails a couple of years ago and more, have now been joined by this no-man show.

The performance was more confident than the last no-man gig, and was helped by the addition of acoustic drums, which gave the band so much more power and percussive depth. Opening with a track the band had not performed live before, the sweet pop of wild opera‘s my revenge on seattle, with it’s slow build-up, was a wise choice of opener. By the time the bass drum kicked in during the latter stages of the song, you could feel the excitement in the audience.

The bass heavy, lyrically disturbing time travel in texas ratcheted up the noise, and was a perfect example of where this line-up of no-man could go if transferred to a studio environment (which I hope happens one day).  The 2011 version was so much more powerful, and added a real sense of menace to the song.

all the blue changes was the personal highlight of the gig for me.  together we’re stranger is the album that took a long while to finally hit home, at one point it was my least favourite no-man release but it’s now one of my most cherished albums, what the hell do I know? This edgy live version displayed some wonderful interplay between the musicians and transported the band to a different level on the night. A real shiver down the spine moment.

pretty genius (the third wild opera song of the evening, and no-man’s least popular album according to Tim) felt more like the album version, mainly due to the more powerful drum sound, and then there was lighthouse. A key track on the returning jesus album (and the band’s most “progressive” song) lighthouse retains its power and beauty in a live format, and the instrumental coda after the organ break always sends me somewhere. If they had played just this one track, I would have still left the venue a happy and content man.

The surprise of the evening was the performance of beaten by love, an (unreleased by no-man) song from 1987.  A very dark song, that would not have sounded out-of-place on wild opera or a recent NiN album even, which sort of threw a curveball into the set. Though it went down well with the crowd, the inclusion of an unfamiliar song maybe interrupted the flow a little, but no-man like to challenge and stimulate their audience, so I’m not complaining.

wherever there is light received the warmest response of the evening, and was closer to the schoolyard ghosts studio version than the 2008 live incarnation.  Sad songs are definitely the most uplifting.

The set ended with another track from the last no-man album, the slow-burning mixtaped, a song so much more powerful live than in its recorded form.

The audience summoned the band back for an encore, flowermouth‘s things change, the perfect no-man show-stopper. Tim jumped down from the stage when his vocal duties were over, watching the end of the song, including the wonderful violin solo from Steve Bingham, with the rest of the audience.

And that was it. Hopefully it won’t take another three years to get no-man back together again, and when it does happen, it’s clear the current no-man live band deserves to remain unchanged, as this line-up has got a unique chemistry and a real empathy for the material.

“You’d kill for that feeling again…”

my revenge on seattle
time travel in texas
all the blue changes
pretty genius
lighthouse
beaten by love
wherever there is light
mixtaped
encore: things change

Somewhere in the Midlands, no-man happened to be: Tim Bowness (vocals), Steven Wilson (guitar), Michael Bearpark (guitar), Pete Morgan (bass), Andy Booker (drums), Stephen Bennett (keyboards) &  Steve Bingham (violin).

***Update December 20th 2011: the concert is being released on CD as Love and Endings by Burning Shed in February 2012 – listen to lighthouse (live) from Love and Endings below***

Listen to lighthouse (live) on iPhone or iPad

no-man store on the Burning Shed
mixtaped / returning DVD at the Burning Shed

no-man website

no-man Twitter

no-man on Facebook

listen to no-man on Soundcloud

all photos on this page by Charlotte Kinson

Blog post from no-man live band member Steve Bingham








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