July 1, 2024

Karisma’s releasing of remastered versions of White Willow’s back catalogue continues unabated with this the group’s third album which initially saw the light of day in 2000. The Norwegian band had made a mark with a mixture of folk and prog, with 1995’s debut Ignis Fatuus leaning towards the former, and 1998’s Ex-Tenebris having more prog substance. Sacrament sheds many of the overtly prog rock elements and acoustic instruments dominate large sections. However, as we will see, this does not mean a simple return to the serene and pastoral nature of the debut album, and in many ways this album is more progressive than either of the previous efforts.  

There were a number of changes in personnel after Ex-Tenebris but the main creative force of Jacob Holm-Lupo was still in the driving seat, and thankfully Sylvia Erichsen and her delightful voice were still present too. Sacrament consists of just six tracks with a total duration of forty-eight minutes. Five of these are lengthy and fairly complex compositions. The sixth track, The Last Rose Of Summer, is a short three-minute acoustic ditty with Holm-Lupo surprisingly sharing the vocals with Erichsen. It almost sounds like Simon & Garfunkel but rather than melancholic the lyrics are downright depressing, making a typically Schubertian allegory of associating summer with a burgeoning romance and winter with the loss of that desired one –  ‘…and hope lies withered on the ground’ concludes Erichsen. Not very pastoral at all!

White Willow – on the way to the studio with their dinner?

Looking at the longer tracks, Anamnesis is perhaps the most typically White Willow composition. Erichsen’s voice dominates the first part with serene slow-paced singing over gentle backing. It’s almost a lullaby but be careful not to fall asleep because at the five-minute mark a strident and violent guitar theme enters, followed by powerful church organ and Erichsen’s voice transformed into an aggressive and rather ugly style. It’s a powerful song that demonstrates White Willow at their best.  Another strong track is the instrumental The Crucible which adds a little pace and some much-needed energy to proceedings. It’s a track that cleverly builds up to a burst of Tull-style flute and then some jazzy improvisations before an inspired piece of Floydian guitar work caps the piece.

One thing that is evident when listening to the album is that a lot of effort went into developing the arrangements of these songs. Ex-Tenebris was recorded in a hurry, and it shows. For this album, Holm-Lupo had much more time, even if he apparently had a full-time day job, meaning that recording sessions would often be running from the evening into the night. One wonders how much this burning the candles at both ends influenced the style of the music on Sacrament.

Despite the extensive use of acoustic instruments and the beauty of Erichsen’s voice, there’s a veiled dark undercurrent running through this album. That is until you get to the last track, The Reach, when the curtain is cast aside and we seem to be plunged straight into a terrifying nightmare. The opening sinister timbre of xylophone and oboe is stunningly original and Erichsen adds to the tension by mournfully singing the children’s nursery rhyme Ring a Ring o’ Roses. The song progresses with a curious mixture of instrumental parts, sometimes upbeat, sometimes a little jazzy, and odd vocal sections by Erichman including some wild vocalising over metal riffing. After a final crushing chord sequence, the track closes eerily with Ring a Ring o’ Roses. I’m not sure if I could recommend this as a great song in itself, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend its use as the soundtrack to a horror movie!

Sacrament is a very difficult album to sum up. Apart from one or two dramatic moments, the songs tend to meander along at a slow pace without ever reaching a definitive climax or conclusion. And yet, all the songs have enough complexity to satisfy any prog fan, and overall, it is a quite unique album. It’s definitely worth checking out if you are not familiar with the band.

The limited edition (500 copies) white vinyl version