1. Hawks Circle The Mountain (7:09)
2. Snowswept (4:12)
3. Kansas Regrets (4:39)
4. Red Leaves (8.39)
5. Floor 67 (9:53)
6. Natasha of the Burning Woods (6:28)
7. Searise (13:10)
8. A Rumour of Twilight (2:33)
9. The Howling Wind (5:28) (bonus track)
Jacob Holm-Lupo – guitars
Lars Fredrik Frøislie – keyboards
Sylvia Skjellestad – vocals
Mattias Olsson – drums
Ketil Vestrum Einarsen – flutes, woodwinds
Ellen Andrea Wang – bass
Tim Bowness – vocals (3)
David Lundberg – Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer (3), orchestration (2)
Michael S Judge – guitar solo (1)
In the early Nineties, Norwegian outfit White Willow was among the contingent of Scandinavian bands that spearheaded a revival of progressive rock that in the next two decades would spread to the rest of the world. After almost 20 years of activity, appearances at high-profile festivals such as NEARfest, Crescendo and Summer’s End, and the release of 6 studio album, they have established themselves as one of the most important modern prog acts. Led by multi-instrumentalist and composer Jacob Holm-Lupo (owner of Termo Records together with keyboardist Lars Fredrik Frøislie), the band have gone through numerous line-up changes, and the release of their fifth album, Signal To Noise (2006) was followed by a six-year hiatus. Now down to a quintet, with only Holm-Lupo remaining of the band that had debuted in 1995 with the acclaimed Ignis Fatuus, White Willow have made their long-awaited comeback with the return of original vocalist Sylvia Erichsen (now Skjellestad), as well as two new entries – bassist Ellen Andrea Wang (of Norwegian avant-garde outfit SynKoke) and drummer Mattias Olsson (known for his work with Änglagård and Pär Lindh Project).
Before Terminal Twilight, White Willow were one of the (unfortunately) many bands with whose name and reputation I was acquainted – without, however, having ever heard any of their music. Being familiar with the “big two” names of the Scandinavian prog renaissance, and having read reviews of the band’s previous albums, I was expecting something along the lines of Änglagård or Anekdoten’s output, a riveting mixture of melody and angularity tinged with sadness, though never gratuitously depressing. My first taste of Terminal Twilight was, however, quite different, as some of the songs (especially those in the first half of the album) featured catchy, almost upbeat elements typical of successful “crossovers” between conventional progressive rock modes and more mainstream genres. Sylvia Skjellestad occasionally sounded like a gentler, less quirky version of Björk, and a few times I was reminded of Celtic/New Age artists such as Clannad or Loreena McKennitt.
It took me a number of listens before the many layers of the album began to unfold, revealing the sheer eclecticism of the band. While the album is not tainted with the blatant derivativeness that seems to be common currency nowadays, I was able to detect quite a few diverse influences while listening to Terminal Twilight. At first, the mainstream component (mainly conveyed by the vocals) seemed to prevail, but with successive listens the complexity of the compositions began to emerge. The classic symphonic component, represented by Frøislie’s impressive array of vintage keyboards, is at times cleverly concealed, and will often surface when least expected. With a line-up that reads like a “who’s who” of Scandinavian prog (besides Olsson’s past associations, Frøislie is also involved with Wobbler and In Lingua Mortua, and flutist Ketil Westrum Einarsen was a member of Jaga Jazzist), the stunning musicianship displayed on the album will certainly not come as a surprise, though listeners never feels they are being bludgeoned over the head with technical fireworks. In true Scandinavian tradition, the members of White Willow are ensemble players, and individual skill is put at the service of the end result.
Clocking in at about one hour, Terminal Twilight features eight “official” tracks, plus a bonus track, the strongly percussive “The Howling Wind”, which with its experimental feel might point to intriguing future developments in the band’s sound. Opener “Hawks Circling the Mountain” immediately evidences the contrast between the mellow, almost genial vocals and the intricacy of the instrumental sections. Frøislie’s keyboards paint a rich range of soundscapes, with chilly electronics competing with the warmth of the piano and mellotron to which the flute adds its distinctive voice, while the guitar remains on the sidelines for most of the song, emerging towards the end in a jangly, slightly discordant solo (courtesy of Mike Judge, aka The Nerve Institute). In the next two tracks, with their restrained running time and strong crossover appeal, White Willow veer into contemporary prog/art rock territorie,. The combination of martial, tribal-sounding drums and chiming guitar in “Snowswept” reminded me of U2, while the atmospheric “Kansas Regrets” sees a sensitive vocal performance from guest Tim Bowness of No-Man; not surprisingly, the song contains echoes of Porcupine Tree, as well as Jakko Jakszyk’s work as a solo artist and on the latest King Crimson project, A Scarcity of Miracles.
With “Red Leaves”, the album enters more traditional prog territory, with an orgy of Mellotron and other keyboards whose majestic sweep brings to mind Rick Wakeman and his essential contribution to the classic Yes albums of the early Seventies. Jacob Holm-Lupo’s guitar steps into the limelight in the second half of the track, lending both a harder edge and an almost Hackettian lyricism. “Floor 67”, the second longest song on the album, merges the poppy, Latin-tinged accessibility of the vocals (reinforced by the mention of siestas and verandas in the lyrics) with faintly new-agey acoustic passages, and heavier, drum-fuelled moments – in my view, not very successfully, since the track comes across as a bit patchy. On the other hand, the album’s pièce de resistance, the 13-minute “Searise”, will delight fans of vintage Anglagard and Anekdoten. Mattias Olsson’s sensational drum performance is aided and abetted by Froislie’s no-holds-barred keyboards (incuding some particularly fine Hammond organ runs), and tempered by gently pastoral flute inserts that reminded me of early PFM. Mostly instrumental, the song packs quite a few tempo changes, and its solemn symphonic structure is enlivened by glimpses of jazz and folk influences. The album is wrapped up by the short “A Rumour of Twilight”, a melancholy, mainly acoustic number with lovely guitar; the other instrumental, “Natasha of the Burning Woods”, hovers between rarefied and densely orchestrated without clearly choosing either direction, though enhanced by the clear, melodic tone of the steel guitar.
With its beautiful though faintly disturbing cover artwork, Terminal Twilight enjoys superb sound quality (not surprising to anyone acquainted with both Frøislie and Holm-Lupo’s painstaking search for sonic perfection), and achieves a commendable balance between vocal and instrumental sections. However, it is an also an album that requires time and attention in order to be fully appreciated, and the first approach might be deceiving as well as disappointing. Moreover, the album’s unabashed eclecticism may produce an impression of patchiness that only repeated listens will dispel. In any case, Terminal Twilight is a very solid release that manages to reconcile the classic symphonic prog tradition with the more contemporary trends of the genre, and is therefore likely to appeal to both conservative and adventurous fans.