Prog metal has come a long way over the last 30 years, and Norwegian band Leprous have been making an indelible mark on the genre since their debut album in 2009, not that they see themselves as tied to any particular style.
But has the genre actually moved on? Most of the associated bands seem to plough a very well-worn furrow – as evidenced by the number of (often horribly derivative and sub-standard) prog metal albums that turn up for consideration at TPA Towers. It has become an insidious problem, the very thought of prog metal turning a lot of people right off, but whilst the majority of releases add nothing, just a few of the bands lumped into the PM mass spread their wings to push the envelope album after album. Leprous certainly fall into this category and, like Opeth, have in large part moved away from their original core sound in a fascinating journey of discovery and experimentation, truly progressive and often cutting startling new ground. Over the last few years they have toned down the harder, denser edges, dropped the harsh vocals and truly moved forward. If you’ve dismissed this band previously, I urge you to listen to 2017’s Malina or new album Pitfalls with fresh ears and an open mind. The band defy categorisation, and that’s the way it should be, their musical inspirations coming from numerous sources and styles. As the press release for Pitfalls states, “If you think you know what to expect from Leprous, then you are about to have your world shaken up.”
Leprous inhabit an exalted and very interesting corner of the prog metal universe where, these days, their recorded excursions into the heavier end of things are self-limited, becoming much more effective as they vie for space amid a myriad of dynamic sounds. At the heart of Leprous’ sound is the jaw-dropping voice of Einar Solberg. There are plenty of good singers about, Einar is off the scale. Not only that but he also delivers the songs with their full emotional impact intact, never more so than on this album which is built on his own recent experience with depression, the songs written in real-time as he fought his personal battles.
“This is honestly the album nobody expects from us”, and Solberg is right. There can’t be many that would have expected such a massive leap, such a refocusing and experimenting with the sound, and in doing so Leprous have produced a wonderfully rewarding collection of songs.
And songs they are, this is not about technical ability over content – although Leprous are heavily imbued in that area – it’s about the songs, the ideas that are being delivered and the work of art as a whole. There are heavy elements, but they are used sparingly – this is in no way a metal album. The production (by Solberg and David Castillo, who also worked Malina) is top-notch, resulting in the disparate elements coming together to form a complete and genre-defying whole, “a leap of faith into fresh, exciting and challenging territory”. Leprous have expanded their sound, enhanced it and made it their own anew, and full credit to them for not only trying but pulling it off with such conviction. The results appeal massively to this fan of forward-thinking music, but it remains accessible too.
How a collection of songs can be shot through with such pain and anguish and remain uplifting and life-affirming is a real achievement. “Lyrically, this means so much to me”, says Solberg, “because what I am doing is talking about the last year and a half when I have been coping with anxiety and depression. And I am not talking about what I faced in metaphorical terms. I have written in a very straightforward manner, so everyone will understand what I went through.” The writing started as the depression began to take hold, the sequence of events unfolding in the lyrics, Einar managing to continue writing even through his darkest periods.
“It would have been very easy for me to have the songs flow chronologically, with the opening track talking about how I felt as things began, and then the last song all about being hopeful as I came to the light at the end of the tunnel. But that’s not how life works, and I never wanted this album to come across as some fluffy movie script. So, the final track is one of the least hopeful ones”, and at 11-minutes The Sky Is Red is the strangest and most disturbing part of Pitfalls. The expanded time allows the band to stretch out in wonderful new directions, complete with choir. The opening is near to traditional Leprous fayre – buzzing guitars over dense rhythms. It’s a bleak vision, but with a pulsing warmth from the soaring choral vocals. There’s a proper guitar solo, albeit one that goes some way to re-writing the rules for such things, and eventually it all pars down to a mournful rhythm with odd guitar tones. The meltingly beautiful choir emerges, light against the enigmatic darkness, the rhythmic density picking up as the two sides join forces in an exquisite bludgeoning that also lifts the spirit – and that’s hard to do! Light ultimately appears to come out on top – but does it signify death or rebirth? It’s a magnificent free-wheeling song of intense curiosity, intricate and unexpected, the perfect way to end such an unusual album.
Elsewhere, opener Below features a sparse and unsettling electronic backdrop upon which Einar delicately describes the scene:
Beneath the surface cannot grow
Curled and naked I defer
To shaky thoughts all in a blur.”
The vocal explodes into the chorus, as only Einar can, the rest of the band in support, but it’s the strings, from Raphael Weinroth-Browne and Bent Knee’s Chris Baum, that draw the attention. The second half mixes dance rhythms and choral backing: this is probably not what most listeners would be expecting. The sparse arrangement of the band works a treat, the drums having a tasty live sound, violin and cello filling things out. The slow pace underlines the melancholic air, Einar’s voice a breathtaking thing as he uses his range to wonderful effect. There’s an unexpected disco edge to I Lose Hope, the pummeling drums of yore replaced by a precise strut. The treated guitars and keys give an unusual atmosphere, made more otherworldly by the strings. Einar’s astonishing falsetto soars over bubbling bass in the chorus, elsewhere it slinks along, dramatic outbursts underscoring the fragility of the mind that he is describing.
The tinkling keys of Observe the Train support a plaintive vocal over a singular drum beat rhythm. The vocals open into choral, bass and guitar enter, it’s still sparse but it’s captivating; Einar could sing a shopping list and make it sound swooningly emotional. By My Throne is more orthodox, strange angular guitar tones and a more insistent rhythm, and when the layered vocals and rhythms mix, it’s glorious. The chorus is more typically Leprous – or is it? It has the intent and the depth, but is unusual and takes the sound somewhere new. This is a band stretching out in a mature work to be celebrated, only hinted at in their previous releases, surprising yet hugely listenable.
Aleviate sees voice over keys, elastic bass with string additions and stabs of guitar moving into a superbly singable chorus, and again on At the Bottom, but with a more thrusting rhythm, the chorus adding the band to fine effect with an angularity and grit to the vocal set against an almost show tune theatricality. The arrangement is superb, bringing in violin to solo beautifully in the second half. The pulsing rhythm that emerges gradually takes over as it builds towards an epic close, masterfully delivered by Einar. Distant Bells is a massive highpoint as amid icy cold piano stabs, Einar’s voice emerges with a touch of echo:
What still remains?
Guitar edges in, almost apologetically given the overtly personal nature of the words, Einar’s voice rising effortlessly to the falsetto heights and evaporating to nothing. It’s gorgeous and very sad all at the same time, a stunning set-piece shot through with pathos from the soloing violin, as the band slowly huddle around to offer comfort. The voice drips dark tears of emotion before bursting out with a release of pent up energy at the end. Quite breathtaking.
If you want your albums heavy as a sack of chisels with faster-than-a-speeding-bullet riffing then Leprous, at this current point in their recorded development, may not be for you. However, if you seek more exotic meldings and influences, delivered with panache, energy and creative enthusiasm with a desire for exploration, then Pitfalls – and also Malina – would be well worth your attention.
I’ll leave the last words to Einar Solberg:
“I can honestly say that Pitfalls is the album we set out to make, and I am proud of what we have achieved. I hope everyone enjoys it. But what matters most to me is that I love it. That’s all any artist can ask, to be happy with what you’ve created.”
01. Below (5:53)
02. I Lose Hope (4:44)
03. Observe the Train (5:08)
04. By My Throne (5:45)
05. Alleviate (3:42)
06. At the Bottom (7:21)
07. Distant Bells (7:23)
08. Foreigner (3:52)
09. The Sky Is Red (11:22)
~ Bonus tracks on Ltd.Ed. Mediabook:
10. Golden Prayers (4:28)
11. Angel (6:27) (Massive Attack cover)
Total Time – 55:11 (66:36 for Mediabook)
Einar Solberg – Vocals, Keyboards
Tor Oddmund Suhrke – Guitars, Backing Vocals
Baard Kolstad – Drums
Simen Børven – Bass, Backing Vocals, Keyboards
Robin Ognedal – Guitars, Backing Vocals
Raphael Weinroth-Browne – ‘Cello
Chris Baum – Violin
Record Label: InsideOut Music
Country of Origin: Norway
Date of Release: 25th October 2019
– Silent Waters (2004) (Demo)
– Aeolia (2006) (Demo)
– Tall Poppy Syndrome (2009)
– Bilateral (2011)
– Coal (2013)
– The Congregation (2015)
– Live at Rockefeller Music Hall (2016)
– Malina (2017)
– Pitfalls (2019)