White Willow - Ex Tenebris (Remaster)

White Willow – Ex Tenebris (Remaster)

This is the second in a series of six White Willow re-releases on Karisma Records and is presented for the first time on vinyl, with the original cover artwork. Ex Tenebris was White Willow’s second album and has been remastered by Jacob Holm-Lupo, who formed the band in Oslo, Norway back in 1992. The album, following their debut Ignis Fatuus (also the first of the re-mastered series) was released in 1998 at a time when a third generation of Progressive rock bands were all in their infancy, but who would soon begin to make their mark on the Prog scene in the noughties.

The classic Prog of the 70’s had been followed by the neo-prog wave through the 80’s and these bands in turn inspired new artists such as Porcupine Tree, Big Big Train, The Pineapple Thief and Spock’s Beard in the 90’s. The Nordic countries had their own prog community at this time, with White Willow joined by Änglagård, Gazpacho, and Anekdoten, amongst others.

Many of the classic period bands were still in existence and releasing new music, and the cream of the neo-prog scene had very much established their places in the prog community. The challenge for these newer bands to breakthrough was an extremely tough one and it was well into the new century before they would truly win the hearts and minds of audiences such as ourselves. Early releases from these bands were often experimental and inevitably made more cheaply, with lower production values, and the sleeve notes for the album readily admit that “the recording (of ‘Ex Tenebris‘) was quick and dirty, done on a shoestring budget”, although the re-mastering process has been done very successfully.

The first album had been well-received but multi-instrumentalist and song-writer Jacob Holm-Lupo was still finding his way at this early stage in his career and on this second release the blending of all his various influences resulted in an inconsistent and patchwork album. Nevertheless, it did showcase the qualities that the band would eventually meld into a more coherent sound. The album can be seen as a stepping stone on the band’s journey that sees them still active today, with a strong catalogue of seven original albums, and a loyal fanbase built up through touring and embracing the festivals’ scene. Becoming more familiar with the catalogue over the last few weeks I would undoubtedly rate the later albums more highly, but the insight gained from listening to this early work definitely heightens the appreciation of what followed.

Tenebris is a Latin noun meaning darkness or shadow and the album’s dark themes are a feature of Jacob Holm-Lupo’s song-writing. In contrast, the musical arrangements are generally light touch, with acoustic instruments providing a contrasting folk-ish setting for the provocative, and evocative, story-telling. A major strength of this album is the way the listener is challenged by the way the band mixes the light and dark elements, particularly in the long-form tracks.

The first track perfectly encapsulates the many sides to Jacob’s musical backstory. Leaving the House of Thanatos is a song based around the mythology of the Greek god Thanatos, the personification of death. The 8 minutes or so have a bewildering succession of familiar prog elements, harmonious vocals, and there is a strong main melody to bind it all together. Rather than signal what the album as a whole will deliver, this track foretells more about where White Willow will eventually arrive at later on in their career.

NB: This version is taken from the original 2014 release…

The Book of Love is no more than a sketch, a naive pop tune with clichéd lyrics and an annoying, overlong play out, and next up, Soteriology, the study of religious doctrines of salvation, is a plodding hymn, complete with a dull church organ accompaniment. It takes a leap of faith to get past these two tracks, but the listener is rewarded by the second long-form song Helen and Simon Magus. This is another song inspired by Greek mythology. A gentle opening passage builds up gradually before Jacob unleashes a rare, melodic, electric guitar solo. The extended instrumental passage in the middle section showcases some interesting interplay by the electric side of the band before the acoustic folk side takes over again and the song ends with a spoken word poem. This isn’t the quality of music that will bowl you over instantly, but it’s a thoughtful and well executed piece of prog theatre that definitely gave me a sense that there is much more to come from the band.

Thirteen Days is the most interesting of the shorter songs, a Steve Hackett inspired acoustic number featuring flute and the charming vocals of Asa Eklund. It’s a highly effective contrast to the darker, longer tracks, and a sign that Jacob also has that in his locker, despite the much weaker examples earlier on in the set.

The album closes with A Strange Procession… and A Dance of Shadows. This epic two-parter begins with a doom-laden, drum and organ instrumental lament, the melody from which carries over to the second part, picked out first on piano and then on electric guitar. The short song that emerges from the soundscape is a delightful way to shine some light against the darker shades. For those familiar with Steve Rothery’s first solo project The Wishing Tree, the ‘vibe’ here is similar, but before we get too comfortable, Jacob presents another ambitious and ever more discordant instrumental passage, moving into King Crimson territory, before the song returns and plays the album out to a close.

Followers of the band will be delighted at this opportunity to hear the album afresh and Karisma are doing a great job of supporting the restoration of White Willow’s catalogue and celebrating the talent of Jacob Holm-Lupo. If you are new to the band and would rather jump in at the more mature stage of the band’s progression I would recommend starting off with Terminal Twilight from 2011, which also has the bonus of a guest appearance from Tim Bowness, whose voice fits perfectly with the laid-back folky elements of White Willow’s intriguing mix of shadows and light.

In Billboard’s “Guide to Progressive Music”, the band was named “one of the most significant progressive groups of the current era” and whilst we can all enjoy debating that claim I can certainly recommend that you take an opportunity to listen and make up your own mind.

01. Leaving The House Of Thanatos (8:06)
02. The Book Of Love (4:56)
03. Soteriology (5:05)
04. Helen And Simon Magus (9:16)
05. Thirteen Days (2:50)
06. A Strange Procession… (4:07)
07. A Dance Of Shadows (13:52)

Total Time – 48:12

Sylvia Erichsen – Vocals
Jacob Holm-Lupo – Acoustic & Electric Guitars, Organ (6)
Jan Tariq Rahman – Piano, Mellotron, Hammond Organ, Synthesizers, Theremin, Vocals
Frode Lia – Bass
Mattias Olsson – Drums, Percussion
~ With:
Teresa Aslanian – Spoken Word (4)
Åsa Eklund – Vocals (5)
Audun Kjus – Flute (2 & 4)

Record Label: Karisma Records
Country of Origin: Norway
Date of Release: 12th April 2024

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