- Total Presentation
If you perform a Google image search for “white willow storm season,” you’ll be met with myriad reproductions of one single image. It appears in several sizes and a wide array of hues, ranging from dark charcoals that mute the finer details to deep blues that emphasize a rainbow streak I’ve never noticed before. This is odd, because I’ve stared at this image dozens of times over the years that I’ve owned White Willow’s fourth album, Storm Season. It’s a fascinating cover, and wouldn’t be out of place as the stage backdrop at a goth metal concert. The female subject, with her decrepit umbrella and half-eaten apple, fits perfectly as some bizarro-Dorothy at her impossibly bleak midwestern farm.
I bring this up because, as of this writing, the aforementioned Google search produces exactly zero images of the newly remastered version of Storm Season, released by Termo Records at the end of 2014. Despite their commonalities, the new cover stands in stark contrast to the old; blond hair instead of black, innocence instead of eeriness, and a white umbrella within a white background. The dichotomy, at least to me, speaks to exactly what you’ll find in the latest of White Willow’s reissues: balance.
First, a quick history lesson. Back in 2004, when Storm Season was originally released, many music producers were engaged in a well-documented pissing contest called the “Loudness War.” The short version is that competition in the industry forced compression ratios, and therefore audio levels, ever upward until fans and journalists made enough noise to begin reversing the trend. Rush’s Vapor Trails came out around this time, and I can distinctly remember being in high school, hating the sound quality, and wishing Rush would just be more like Old Rush; Vapor Trails was recently reissued and it is, in fact, a lovely album.
The 2004 pressing of Storm Season suffers from the fallout of the “Loudness War,” albeit on a far smaller scale. Alan Douches is a fine sound engineer, with hundreds of credits to his name including Mastodon’s Leviathan and Leprous’ Tall Poppy Syndrome. But while he has mastered albums in a variety of genres he seems to have an ear towards metal, and I can imagine him ratcheting up the compression to achieve the unmistakable presence everyone was looking for at the time.
Bryan Reesman’s enlightening liner notes in Storm Season’s reissue provide some of the context to prove this theory. The Laser’s Edge, which was the band’s label at the time, had “been wanting (White Willow) to move in a heavier direction for years,” and the band was already heading down a songwriting path where heavier music was a natural outcome. And so a heavy, melancholy-drenched rock album got just a bit of the metal treatment. It’s hard to argue with the results: the album became The Laser’s Edge’s best selling record of all time. But the album wasn’t everything it could be. Enter the resurrection, as told by frontman Jacob Holm-Lupo:
When it came time to remaster, we managed to dig up the very first, completely uncompressed mixes, and gave them to Termo’s regular mastering guy, Jens Petter Nilsen. He hardly compressed the mixes at all, just some very gentle, analog compression. Mostly he worked with the EQ, to bring out some luster. So in a way you can say this master has been decompressed, compared to the original master.
The 2014 decompression is a thorough improvement over the original. Sylvia Erichsen’s vocal performance, most notably the intense highs, comes through with enhanced clarity but doesn’t sacrifice an ounce of presence. The middle of Insomnia in particular carries such emotion and finishes with such a primal call (“As the curtain falls down”); the remaster polishes the sound here in just the right way, adding even more gravity to a spine-tingling section.
The differences are probably most obvious at the beginning of Nightside of Eden. The overt compression muddles the original, crushing the low frequencies especially. The new version manages to keep the overall guitar sound in its rightfully prominent position (it’s driving the phrase after all) while bringing out a much more balanced bass attack. I’m not sure if this was an intended consequence or not, but I feel like the entire phrase transitions more naturally into the gorgeous piano part before repeating again.
Storm Season has always been my preferred White Willow album, and one of my personal favorites across any genre. There is no filler, dozens of bare, brilliant ideas, and excellent performances throughout. The fact that it’s so memorable is a welcome bonus. If nothing else, this edition makes those moments more dynamic — the Floydian guitar solo in Sally Left, the piano and strings in Soul Burn, the outro in Insomnia that sounds like a cross between dark surf pop and a mad scientist’s lab… memorable.
Add the inclusion of the excellent bonus track (originally available on the Avalon pressing of the record in Japan) and a few cool demo versions, and this Storm Season edition is a clear winner. I would honestly recommend this release as an upgrade to fans of the original, and if you don’t own it already, repent immediately and purchase from your local progmonger or Termo’s web shop.