The Opium Cartel is a band I was aware of but had never come around to listening to. My thanks to Spike Worsley for suggesting me to Jacob Holm-Lupo as a potential reviewer for the new album, Valor, as it finally gave me the push I needed. The Opium Cartel is a project of Holm-Lupo, who will likely be best known for his work with White Willow. He has brought in a varied array of talent to help out with this, the third album for The Opium Cartel – but underpinning it all, are great swathes of emotive guitar and synth sounds from Holm-Lupo.
Even before I began listening though, the first thing I took in was the artwork. It’s quite stunning, and not as computer-generated or enhanced as you might imagine! The second thing I couldn’t help noticing was that the album not only has a common theme with VASA’s album, released earlier this year, but also a similar title. Both VASA’s Heroics and The Opium Cartel’s Valor look at the bravery and optimism that come with the naivety of youth, and tackle the realisation that things will not always be so easily accomplished or overcome. Of course, the key difference (apart from the two albums examining the theme through different genres) is that VASA’s album is instrumental, while The Opium Cartel has vocals.
Silje Huleboer provides most of the vocals on the album, and for the most part they perfectly fit the music, being soft and understated. There’s emotion in her voice and her singing, but never overbearingly so. Funnily enough, as much as I like Huleboer’s singing, and that of the other vocalists who contribute, my favourite tracks on the album are instrumental – and one of them, Aeroglide, didn’t even make it on to the album! In fact, Valor is the second concept album I’ve reviewed this year that I think would have worked just as well as an instrumental album, and if an instrumental version were ever released I’d snap it up. But that said, there’s nothing at all wrong with the vocals, and I’m sure for some listeners they will be the main attraction.
The album begins with In the Streets, which has an almost reggae feel to it, and Huleboer’s singing immediately makes an impact. As much as I’d happily have an instrumental version of the album, it would never take the place of the album as it is. Huleboer’s vocals are a real delight. The instrumentation is oddly sparse for an opening number, but it definitely works, and really highlights the saxophone from guest musician Ilia Skibinsky when it comes in for the final minute.
Slow Run is a really pretty song, which took a few listens for me to warm to. I think it suffers a little from In the Streets not being a particularly dramatic opening number, as is often the norm. Rather than providing contrast, as second tracks normally do, it feels a little like more of the same. Now admittedly, when it’s this lovely, more or the same here really is not a bad thing. A Question of Re-entry begins sounding like it is also going to be more of the same, but soon proves not to be, for while it starts in a subdued manner, it soon builds into an impressive instrumental that really takes off (or re-enters, I guess) after the halfway point, with some deliciously spacey sounds and appropriate voice samples. This is one of my aforementioned favourite tracks, and the way it builds and builds is so good. When the guitar really starts going for it in the final two minutes, it’s glorious.
Nightwings continues the spacey sounds, before bouncing into an ‘80s pop beat. Jacob Holm-Lupo’s daughter, Ina A, provides lead vocals – and it’s hard to believe she is a 13-year-old. Wow! No offence to Huleboer, but I could very happily have listened to Ina far more throughout the album. Then again, she may not have suited the quieter material so well as Huleboer, as Ina’s vocals here are far stronger and more vibrant. They suit this synth-heavy pop delight, but as Fairground Sunday follows, I wonder if they would suit so well the quieter moments. Fairground Sunday is a song that gains a lot of strength from the contrast it provides after Nightwings, in the exact way Slow Run did not. Both are lovely songs, and their beauty is hard to argue with when listened to in isolation, but in terms of impact in terms of what they come after, Fairground Sunday wins hands down. It’s a shame it’s so short. But I’m happy it’s Huleboer singing.
On the other hand, the following song, Under Thunder is one that I can’t help wishing Holm-Lupo’s daughter Ina had sung on, as it falls a little flat after having heard Nightwings. I think this is due to Fairground Sunday being such a short and sweet song. I can’t help but think if Aeroglide had been inserted between Fairground Sunday and Under Thunder, there would have been greater distance between the two, making me less likely to make unfair comparisons. Regardless, Under Thunder is a thoroughly enjoyable song, especially the second half, and it is definitely a song of two halves! The second half is more enjoyable for me than the first, and then, once again, the final instrumental moments are superb.
The Curfew Bell is a surprisingly effective song, given how minimalist it is, and having no real changes or shifts in sound. The vocals of Leah Marcu are a highlight, as is the string arrangement that underscores her. It’s all quite beautiful, but not as beautiful as A Maelstrom of Stars which follows. This is another fantastic instrumental, with Bjørn Riis once again providing additional guitar. I’ll be honest here, and say as much as Riis sounds great, I’m quite convinced that Jacob Holm-Lupo could have been just as impressive. I love his guitar tone throughout the album, and although I appreciate having someone like Bjørn Riis guest is likely to help make more sales, I would have been more than happy with Holm-Lupo providing all the guitar.
I can’t overlook his work on the synths either, as they play a large part in the sound on Valor. In terms of sound and style, the tone of the guitar and synth evoke the ‘80s, and bands of that era like Roxy Music and Tears for Fears. Effectively Maelstrom is the final track of the album, and part of me wishes the album did stop here. It’s a lovely low-key way to end, reminding me once again of VASA’s Heroics, if not in sound then in sentiment. Heroics ends with Settle, and that’s how Valor’s end feels – the sense of settling for adulthood, where not everything is as surmountable as when one was younger.
What’s It Gonna Be, which was released in December 2018, is a good cover (more enjoyable than the original for me, as I was never a fan of Ratt), but it sticks out like a sore thumb on Valor. I realise it’s a bonus track, and I acknowledge it’s a good one, but I’d much rather it had been left off and room had been found for Aeroglide instead. Bonus track aside, though, Jacob Holm-Lupo, with The Opium Cartel, has created a delightfully lighthearted album that is not at all what I expected.
The mix of art rock and synth-pop works incredibly well. If, like me, you are familiar with Holm-Lupo through his work with White Willow, then you may be surprised by what you hear here – but in my case, it was a very pleasant surprise. I can highly recommend the album, with my only suggestion being to also purchase Aeroglide and insert it into the track listing where you feel it fits best (my preference having been aforementioned). Next stop for me is Telepath, another Jacob Holm-Lupo project I’ve been meaning to listen to, but have never come around to.
01. In The Streets (4:55)
02. Slow Run (5:30)
03. A Question of Re-entry (6:06)
04. Nightwings (4:36)
05. Fairground Sunday (2:35)
06. Under Thunder (5:21)
07. The Curfew Bell (3:35)
08. A Maelstrom of Stars (6:40)
~ Bonus track
09. What’s It Gonna Be (5:19)
Total Time – 44:37
Jacob Holm-Lupo – Guitar, Synths, Percussion, Programming
Ole Øvstedal – Bass, Guitar
Lars Fredrik Frøislie – Drums
Silje Huleboer – Vocals (tracks 1,2,5 & 6)
Ina A – Vocals (track 4)
Leah Marcu – Vocals (track 7)
Maria Grigoryeva – Strings (track 7)
Ilia Skibinsky – Saxophone (track 1)
Bjørn Riis – Guitar (tracks 3 & 8)
Alexander Stenarud – Vocals (track 9)
Record Label: Apollon
Country of Origin: Norway
Date of Release: 5th June 2020