White Willow: Ex Tenebris/Sacrament

The 90s prog pioneers remastered and expanded.

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This Norwegian outfit’s 1995 debut, Ignis Fatuus, came at a point when black metal was gathering international momentum, but there was little on the Nordic scene that might be called progressive rock.

Thankfully, guitarist Jacob Holm-Lupo’s contrarian instincts led him to swim against the prevailing tide, and towards exploring a potent mix of medieval folk and the anthemic qualities resonating within the early work of Genesis and King Crimson. Despite unexpected sales and a breakout appearance at that year’s Progfest, the line-up couldn’t agree on a musical direction and fell apart. Holm-Lupo embarked on what he assumed to be a solo project, but the pull of White Willow-style material proved too strong to ignore, resulting in 1998’s Ex Tenebris.

With lyrics emitting a gnostic afterglow and music replete with measured and intricate detail, an unmistakably gothic undertow carries the album far from the initial pastoral light radiating from The Book Of Love toward an encroaching darkness that ultimately subsumes A Strange Procession. Traces of ominous church organ and Mellotron, with fragile acoustic guitar motifs, entwine around the album’s elaborate construction like ivy about the columns of an ancient ruin.

By 2000 the band were still steeped in their folkish roots but less indebted to their early influences. Sacrament represents both consolidation and growing confidence, the sound of a band well underway. Elegantly driven by flute, penetrating acoustic and electric guitar and tastefully concise keyboards and drumming, skilled arrangements with an astute grasp of dynamics ensure the music appears naturally powerful without recourse to any unnecessary bombast (too often the fatal flaw in many of White Willow’s contemporaries). Some of the mystic lyrics feel laboured and dated now, but consistently strong performances make up for that.

Housed in simple yet beautifully produced packaging, each release also contains revealing demo recordings and, like everything else here, the quality is astonishing. A cover of Nick Drake’s Clothes Of Sand added to_ Ex Tenebris_ gives an early pointer towards Holm-Lupo’s pop-orientated alter ego within The Opium Cartel. Perhaps the best of these extra features are what the guitarist describes as “warts and all” live recordings, highlighting an outfit of considerable and impressive energy, and suggesting a vintage live album would make a welcome accompaniment to this series.

While markedly different to their current output, these exquisite reissues trace the developmental path taken by one of the scene’s more interesting outfits and deserve to be savoured.

Sid Smith

Sid's feature articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including Prog, Classic Rock, Record Collector, Q, Mojo and Uncut. A full-time freelance writer with hundreds of sleevenotes and essays for both indie and major record labels to his credit, his book, In The Court Of King Crimson, an acclaimed biography of King Crimson, was substantially revised and expanded in 2019 to coincide with the band’s 50th Anniversary. Alongside appearances on radio and TV, he has lectured on jazz and progressive music in the UK and Europe.  

A resident of Whitley Bay in north-east England, he spends far too much time posting photographs of LPs he's listening to on Twitter and Facebook.