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The Progulator Team is excited to take you through the nooks and crannies of Terminal Twilight, the newest effort by White Willow, so be prepared for the cluster bomb that is four individuals collaborating on an album review. We are quite pleased that we were deemed “worthy” to receive our first promotional copy of an album from the Norwegian prog masters, and that Jacob let Markus bounce his silly questions off of him as well. To celebrate, we all wanted to pitch in our two cents, and really dig into this meaty morsel of music. So, without further blathering, here we go:
A Brief, Yet Informative Pontification of White Willow’s History by Markus “The Padre” Cueva
For any of you who have read my humble works on this site, you probably know by now the fetish that I have for Scandinavian progressive music. Does this make me an unbiased reviewer? Absolutely not, which is why my fellow compatriots are doing all the dirty work. I will, however, start by saying that this album has proven to be nothing short of another stellar release from White Willow (to find out why… just keep reading).
White Willow has been around for more than 15 years, which in music years is long enough to have a back catalog but not long enough to be considered too old to be seen on stage anymore (I’m looking at you, Mick Jagger). I’ve already covered their place in the rebirth of progressive music in the 90’s (which you can read here, ’cause I’m not repeating myself), and I’m starting to think that this rebirth has less to do with the bands themselves (except for the entity known as Änglagård, and I don’t think I have to explain myself) and more to do with a talented and diverse pool of musicians that just happen to walk this earth at around the same time. What are the chances?
The lineup for Terminal Twilight makes my point for me. This current incarnation White Willow features the drummer for Änglagård, the keyboard wizard and leader of Wobbler, the flautist from Jaga Jazzist, and even a guest appearance from Steven Wilson’s partner in the band No-Man. Those of you unfamiliar with the bands I just named have some Googling to do – after you’ve finished this review, of course. I know there seems to be an almost incestuous relationship with bands and musicians in the Scandinavian prog scene, with musicians being associated with multiple groups (ahem… Mattias Olsson), but that’s still an impressively talented group of individuals that guitarist and band leader Jacob Holm-Lupo has assembled.
And that talented group of individuals, through the magic of pure human creativity and some nifty home recording techniques, have delivered a well-produced and immaculately composed album. And I liked it. But since Tyson received the promo copy INSTEAD of me, I wasn’t able to have as much special alone time with the album as he did. So I’ll let HIM tell you about it.
Tyson’s Nonsensical, ADD thoughts
Terminal Twilight arrived at my doorstep the same day that Opeth’s new album Heritage came in, the week after Dream Theater’s new album, a week before Steven Wilson’s Grace for Drowning, the same time I was trying to get my Dungeons and Dragons group back together, and while trying to finish Fallout 3 before all the awesome new games come out. Now, Opeth is in my top 5 artists right now, and I pretty much instantly love anything that Steven Wilson touches (and he touched Heritage quite a bit, incidentally), so to say that Terminal Twilight had some stiff competition for my limited attention span would probably be an understatement. Add that to the fact that Dream Theater’s new album was extremely fascinating due to the new dynamic present with the departure of Mike Portnoy, and it being one of the most inconsistently mixed albums I’ve heard in a while, my ears were in for a busy and very fulfilling month of amazing music.
Terminal Twilight by far got the most attention. Initially, it was because I had a review to write, and a deadline to meet. But, as I started spinning the other records, I was constantly drawn back to Terminal Twilight, and it even managed to pull me away from the ps3 more than once. There was something in this album that really spoke to me, something very personal and genuine, that Opeth and Dream Theater didn’t give me; while interesting and very good, they felt aloof. Terminal Twilight feels painstakingly crafted with a lot of emotion and care. The keyboard sounds and layers are intricately woven together, and the composition meticulously forged such that each song builds to a climax in a way that is both breathtaking and beautiful. Mattias’ drums are raw and biting, his sounds and samples are fitting and add depth and contrast, Lars’ sounds and layering are beautiful, Ketil’s flute playing is amazing, and Sylvia’s vocals are just perfectly, beautifully ethereal, either haunting, or relaxing depending on the song. There is also a subtle post-rock vibe that I really like, in the drumming and guitar, that helps build each song, for me at least. This album took me a little by surprise, but in a very good way.
The first thing I noticed was how good the album sounded. Terminal Twilight is easily one of the better sounding albums I’ve ever heard, especially compared to any music that’s been recently released. It doesn’t have the slickness of an expensive studio, but there’s just something so pure and natural about it that really complimented the personal and intimate nature of the music. To my surprise, Jacob mentioned in our interview that he recorded everything himself, onto his laptop no less (I’m sure its a nice laptop, but still). His goal, instead of doing a lot of post production, was to play with mic placement, mic choice, and room tone, letting the character of the really awesome vintage synths and other instruments speak for themselves, and they did so in a glorious way. Even though he was unsure at first, it worked amazingly well. For those of you who watched/listened to that video that they put up on youtube, it is in my opinion a very good preview of the album. So, with my general album impressions out of the way, I want to dig in to a few of my favorite tracks.
Hawks Circle the Mountain
This song fits easily into my top 3 for this album. It opens with some really dark keyboards and brutal chords (hello mellotron, I love you), followed shortly by Sylvia’s ethereal voice singing a nice melodic contrast to the synths, then it just gets better from there, going into some really interesting instrumental sections. The bass tone on this song is really aggressive which is just an interesting counter to the more legato and melodic instruments, but my favorite thing is the way that they build in and vary the initial motifs throughout the song to create a very impressive climax by adding subtle layers. The drums sound raw and biting at times, while mellow and beautiful at others. The electronic drum sounds are also interesting, and give good texture. Very solid track, so plan on multiple listens.
Ah, Tim Bowness, how great your voice sounds. I don’t think anyone else could have done this track justice. I don’t have much to say about this track, just because I can’t quite put my finger on why I like it so much. The subtle variance and building is there for sure, but I think its just the melancholy mood of the guitar, and sad nostalgia of the lyrics that talk of opportunities and dreams past that didn’t come to fruition that really strikes a chord with me. It puts me in that introspective mood that I fall into so often, then wraps around me like a warm blanket in winter.
This is another top 3 for me, possibly edging out the other 2, but I can’t quite decide. The intro is beautiful and manages to not sound contrived, I think due to the flute/synth. Even though the chord progression is very mainstream and predictable (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing), it manages to rise above sounding mainstream and predictable, resulting in a very beautiful first section that builds quite strongly into the strange instrumental section. The first part of this song showcases the subtle building composition that I love as good as any part on this album, with Lars and Jacob adding layers very delicately to the melody until it builds into a huge wall of sound. The picture painted for me is like a cozy post-apocalyptic evening, or (probably closer to the truth), a cozy evening/winter spent in an abandoned run down building watching while the world is falling apart. The lyrics definitely hint at something like that, and I’ve been playing a LOT of fallout 3 lately, so that may be to blame. The middle instrumental section is unsettling, in a good way, giving a sense of chaos and destruction, only to be book-ended by a reprise of the beautiful intro, detailing more destruction watched in peace from far above. The end section builds in tension until Sylvia takes us into oblivion with her haunting voice echoing alone. Again, I really found an emotional hook in this song, since there a huge and very important chunk of my life that is falling apart before my eyes, and I’ve had to step away from it all, and just marvel, watching from as much a distance as I can in a cozy shelter with my wife. “and the winds that howl and howl, like a lost and lonely beast, while this empty high-rise shivers, but for floor 67 where you and I sleep…” Go watch this before you listen.
Here’s my other top 3 song. This song is dark and epic, with some very emotional moments. There is a lot of pain and turmoil present in the sound, which, from what I can hear of the lyrics, makes sense. I don’t have a lot to say about this song because I keep getting distracted listening to it. I just really like it. The same building, layering, and very nice drum sounds are present here too. A very beautiful and moving song.
A Second (and Third) Opinion
First off, my biggest reaction definitely came from the song Kansas Regrets. I had been thoroughly enjoying the album all along, but when this song came on, I about pissed my pants in excitement and surprise: IS THAT TIM BOWNESS!!? A few seconds of Googling (since the only thing I knew about the album beforehand was that I would probably like it) to confirm that it was indeed Tim’s excellent and seductive (I use that term in the straightest way possible) voice featured on the song. You might be familiar with Tim Bowness from his collaboration with Steven Wilson on the project No-Man (if you haven’t, go buy Flowermouth).The soothing atmosphere of the song suited Tim’s voice perfectly, and I especially enjoyed the gentle swelling of keyboards during the chorus. This song was so relaxing I felt like I was getting the benefits of a nice long nap, in spite of being fully awake.
I don’t want to let my love of Tim distract from the vocal work of Sylvia Erichsen, however. Her vocals are beautiful and almost ethereal, being either soothing or haunting depending on the context of the song. A vocalist can be technically good, but not good for the music, but she fits the music perfectly. It feels like it was written just for her (and apparently it was, according to Markus’s interview). The vocals grabbed my attention from the album-opener Hawks Circle the Mountain, and impressed me all throughout the album.
Overall, the album is very ambient and atmospheric, with plenty of lush depth and texture provided by the excellent keys, including plenty of mellotron, which I absolutely love (my wife jests that a musician just needs to add mellotron to their music, and I will like them no matter what their music is like otherwise. This might be true. Perhaps I’ll try starting a mellotron punk band). Ostentatious displays of viruosity are thankfully absent, as I feel they would mar the carefully crafted atmosphere. Which isn’t to say that the music is simplistic, because it isn’t. Technical skill is everywhere apparent, but not thrown in the listener’s face (or perhaps shoved down their ear might be a better phrase).
Matt “The Italian” DiGiordano
Waiting to write a review until the moment where you get put in charge of reading and doing light editing of other reviews (which are fantastic) is the kind of situation where you realize that you’re at a loss for words, except for…DITTO! I’ll probably just end up echoing a lot of what’s been said, so I’ll keep it brief and simple. By the way, “Hawks Circle the Mountain” is worth the price of the album all by itself. Just saying. It’s that good. Grim and haunting mellotron and synths, infectious grooves, gorgeous vocals, pure bliss.
Honestly, Terminal Twilight is an album that does just about everything right. The first thing that caught my attention and which continues to blow my mind listen after listen is the production. This record just sounds so natural. It’s not only crystal clear, but incredibly rich; I’m like sitting around here looking over my shoulder every five seconds and wondering whether Lars’ massive piles of analog gear are going to collapse on my head from all around me. Any fan of analog synths will surely soil their pants at the incredible display of sound and texture. They sound that good. Somehow every sparkle is there without anything getting squashed in production. Once again, it has all the tangible awesomeness that you want without the poor recording quality that you get on many records, both old and new. It would be unfair, however, to say that it’s only the synths that sound great. In reality, every single instrument on this album cuts through the mix in splendid ways that just leave you grinning throughout.
What can I say about the composition? Like the production, it’s natural and has great flow. Sections of songs never ever feel forced. Everything that happens feels like it’s supposed to happen; there’s never a random moment where you feel like a decision was based off of a situation where the band had an agenda of what had to be there. I really feel like the songs move in the direction that they want to go rather than where someone wanted to pull them, which I think shows a ton of maturity from the band.
White Willow managed to make every track a feast of texture and ambiance with memorable vocals and melodies. In short, for me, this album simply sounds good and feels good. There is a very strong ethereal quality which is present throughout the album that makes the compositions very three dimensional. You can’t just turn this record on soft and expect to feel all the great stuff that the band is doing; you actually need the sound waves to hit you and wash over you. Since no one else has made the sales pitch yet, I will. Go out and buy this record, turn it up, and swim in a fantastic pool of sonic pleasure.