White Willow, a group of Norwegian progressive rockers, has long since given up its early folk-rock roots, moving towards a symphonic prog sound with an aggressive edge that has made the band popular on the Scandinavian circuit for the past few years. Signal to Noise
is a logical progression from Storm Season
(2004), continuing to forge an interesting blend of ethereal Goth and progressive rock that's more song-focused than this and earlier efforts on the Laser's Edge label.
Only guitarist and chief composer Jacob Holm-Lupo remains from the original group, founded in the mid-1990s and responsible for the cult classic Ex-Tenebris (1998). But while there are still extended tracks like the nine-minute "The Lingering, there's a greater reliance on shorter, radio-friendly songs. "Joyride is pure pop; new singer Trude Eidtang occupies Tori Amos and Kate Bush territory. "Night Surf is darker. Keyboardist Lars Fredrik Frøislie's mellotron is present but less dominant, Holm-Lupo's guitar sounds more metal-edged, and the rhythm section of bassist Marthe Berger Walthinsen and drummer Aage Moltke Schou is more aggressive.
White Willow has been compared to Scandinavian bands like Ã„nglagård and Anekdoten, but the resemblance is superficial at best. While both of those groups are extensions of Red-era King Crimson, the progressive component of White Willow feels more akin to the pop leanings of Genesis, albeit often with darker, more angst-ridden undertones. Still, along with "Joyride, songs like "Splinters find White Willow in a considerably more optimistic mood.
The instrumentals are as tightly written as the vocal tunes that dominate the record. Ketil Einarsen's flute and Frøislie's warbling synth on "Ghosts tie White Willow even closer to Gabriel-era Genesis, as does Holm-Lupo's overdriven, Steve Hackett-style guitar. Nobody is particularly virtuosic, which separates them further from comparisons to Crimson's complexity. The most impressive solo, in fact, comes from Ex-White Willow keyboardist Brynjar Dambo, who makes a guest appearance on the gentler and more symphonic "Chrome Dawn.
The brief Middle Eastern inflections of "Ararat close the album on a haunting note following the anguished and isolationist "Dusk City. Eidtang possesses a lovely voice that is capable of greater drama when necessary, but she never approaches excess, using subtlety rather than melodrama and layering her voice multiple times to create a lush vocal wash.
Signal to Noise finds White Willow in a state of transition. Maintaining a foothold in the symphonic Nordic sound that defined its earlier records, the group is also targeting a larger audience through stronger song form and simpler writing. Committed progressive rock fans may not be happy with White Willow's direction, but the more radio-ready sound of Signal to Noise should appeal to a younger demographic and might just make this the record that gains this group greater international attention.