The Opium Cartel is the sister band of White Willow, whose last album, Future Hopes, we gushed over last year. The Opium Cartel seems to be a necessary outlet for bandleader Jacob Holm-Lupo, a way to explore a lighter, poppier style away from the weight-of-the-world concerns of White Willow. You’ll hear a similar palette of sounds—a smattering of synths and other keyboards, well-considered guitar—serving more muted dynamics and conventional song structures. The result is music with all the delicacy and craftsmanship of prog, but with vocal melodies that carry the song, rather than acting as mere embellishment to the prevailing musical fireworks. Their Facebook page describes them (with a knowing wink, I’m sure) as “Populist songs for elitist listeners.” The band follows the lead of predecessors such as Peter Gabriel, Japan, and ‘80s Roxy Music.
Just as White Willow previewed Future Hopes with a stunning cover of Scorpions’ “Animal Magnetism”, The Opium Cartel bring us “What’s It Gonna Be,” a track originally from Ratt’s 1988 album Reach for the Sky. Ratt were always great songwriters, sort of a menacing Cheap Trick armed with more wattage and hair. A song like “What’s It Gonna Be” can be twisted in any number of ways, and its strength and essence will remain intact. Here The Opium Cartel extracts the maximum sweetness from the track, turning it into an ’80s-style synth-pop number. It might be somewhat light fare for Hellbound readers, but think of the song as in the same spirit as last year’s favourites Moonlight Desires, except with the transformation working in reverse—metal becoming pop, instead of pop becoming metal. It’s all about playing with perceptions, seeing things from a new angle, and having some fun. A drum machine pounds out the beat, the Yamaha DX7 blares out the melody, the earnest vocals (in full Gowan mode!) bring the passion, and Holm-Lupo delivers a shredding guitar solo that salutes the song’s L.A. origins. It’s a throwback to the days when hairstyles and video budgets both grew to mammoth proportions.
“It’s Flashdance meets the Sunset Strip,” says Holm-Lupo. “Me and singer Alexander Stenerud had a blast recording it; we got to combine some of our favorite musical elements without concerning ourselves too much with good taste or genre rules.”
As a teaser for their third album, scheduled for later this year on Apollon Records, it’s ace. The Opium Cartel are already well versed in the art of the genius cover version—their chilling cover of BÖC’s “Then Came the Last Days of May” on 2013’s Ardor was my favourite recording of that year—and their own material always makes for involving listening. It’ll be interesting to hear what other surprises the album has in store.
“What’s It Gonna Be” is out February 23 via Apollon Records. Check out a preview below: