Einar Solberg - The Congregation Acoustic

Einar Solberg – The Congregation Acoustic

Norwegian prog metal outfit Leprous are an exceptional band, both on record and in a live setting. Frontman Einar Solberg, with his ridiculous vocal range, imposing stage presence, exemplary songwriting ability and brutally honest lyric writing is a big reason for their continued success. In recent years he’s also branched out on his own, last year he put out an eclectic solo album, 16, which showcased a much wider musical approach and range of influences than you might have expected. Before that in 2022, when bands were still doing live streams in place of in-person gigs due to the threat of Covid, he performed an acoustic solo version of Leprous’s 2015 album The Congregation, the band’s fourth album, released during a period of personnel changes at the mid-point of their recording career to date. Reimagining it to perform alone at the piano as a one-man show was a very brave move indeed. Two years since the stream, you can now hear whether he managed to pull it off.

All eleven tracks on the album get the piano treatment here. Solberg was the main driving force behind the writing on that LP, co-writing those songs he didn’t create solo, so he knows these songs far better than if he had just performed on them. I spent much of my time on each listen to the album wondering if Einar does his songwriting on piano and if that means many of these songs aren’t being reimagined so much as going back to their original and truest form. That doesn’t always make a song better of course; I’m looking at you, The Who, and Won’t Get Fooled Again which was disappointingly taken back to its acoustic guitar roots when I saw them play at Wembley.

If these songs did start life on the piano, then why did I consider this performance to be so brave? Mainly in comparison to other, more well known acoustic shows that have made it to record. Most still maintain the overall tone and essence of the original and feature songs from a whole back catalogue, not just one album. When you hear a guitar band like Alice in Chains or Nirvana on MTV Unplugged, the instruments match those on the original songs, with a shift from electric to acoustic versions. It also helped with Alice in Chains that they had already released two acoustic EPs prior to their recording, which they could include in the set. The Congregation is built around guitar, keyboards, bass and drums. The shift to Einar’s voice and piano makes a big difference to the feel of the songs, especially the emotion behind them and that’s where his true courage comes to the fore.

Some songs feel made for the change, like The Flood, which InsideOut wisely released to the world first. I really wasn’t sure that others would work in such a setting, and from what I’ve read neither was Einar himself.

One of the songs I was most concerned about was the album’s sublime opening track, The Price. It’s a ferocious maelstrom of a track, a mainstay in Leprous’s catalogue and, based on their streaming numbers, one of their most popular songs. It features powerfully persistent staccato guitar blasts and non verbal vocals to kick things off, before the keyboards come to the fore as it builds to a wonderfully intense singalong chorus. It isn’t overtly heavy, but it has a rhythmic drive that is as relentless as it is impactful, and it’s a very good example of the kind of song Leprous does very well. Reduced to its bare bones, it really is quite a different proposition; slower, more measured, more precise, with Solberg’s vocal performance feeling far more tortured. Here he sounds far less like a man fighting his way back from the brink, like on the full band version. Instead he’s more like someone who is destined to stay there for good. I love music that changes my emotional state and this version gave me a totally different feeling. That feels like a theme to this collection of reworkings, the anger that fuelled him in 2015 is turned to sorrow in 2022.

The sense of foreboding that builds on the original version of Slave, for example, is replaced by a cold and chilling hopelessness, that tonal shift on the more meaty songs from the album is really quite something. Again, a song I didn’t think would translate has become a new thing altogether, a more desperate, more introspective, twisted number which showcases the sheer power of Einar’s ridiculous vocals. The further you go into this record the more it continues to surprise you and to tug at your heartstrings. Every song feels as unrecognisable as it can, while still being what you know from the original recording.

Solberg’s lyrics have often been about mental health, with a shift from the despondent to the beautifully defiant through the light and shade that a full band dynamic and a full studio production can provide. Here, Einar’s voice is much more at the centre of proceedings, which cranks up the emotion, making the sentiment behind the songs far more raw and affecting. In some ways though, it makes each song sadder, each lyric more poignant, like the final hurrah of a depressed cabaret singer.

A ‘Good evening’ and an apology for speaking in English is as much as we get from him between songs, but ultimately it’s the music that does all the talking. Even more than on Leprous records, you feel like you are working your way through the singer’s psyche, feeling his pain, sharing his despair. Like Steven Wilson, sad songs make me happy, but these versions veer into territory so bleak even I couldn’t always hold it together. It really is disarming from start to finish. This is like a totally different beast to the original record. This beast is beaten, broken and left in a corner bleeding. I like it just as much as the original album, albeit for almost polar opposite reasons. As someone who has had more than their fair share of mental health challenges myself, this album expresses how it can feel at your lowest and most isolated. That doesn’t make it maudlin or self indulgent, it makes it a beautiful piece of artistic expression. You don’t just listen to these versions, you feel them in every fibre of your being.

The lyrics take on a different meaning almost, like the same script being performed by a different actor, and I really wasn’t expecting that to be the case. After a few plays I wasn’t looking for the songs I knew any more, I was exploring almost completely new pieces of music. That experience is very far removed from a standard acoustic record, it’s not the extremes of say Roger Waters’s recent version of The Dark Side of the Moon, but it’s also a long way from A Ha’s Summer Solstice MTV Unplugged performance too. Science says that Nirvana’s Something in the Way is the saddest song of all time, especially when performed acoustically. As much as I like that song, it doesn’t come remotely close to the gut-wrenching feeling that the songs on The Congregation Acoustic made me feel.

If you like the original album, you should enjoy the way that these songs work so well with a different arrangement. If you don’t know the original, this could be your gateway to that record, but equally it might just be a stripped back emotionally charged piano album that you can enjoy with no connection to the band that spawned it. As a studio album this record would be impressive, as an entirely raw and unedited solo performance, it’s absolutely astonishing. The voice that recently won the Prog Magazine vocalist of the year is taken to breathtaking new heights here. If nothing else, The Congregation Acoustic is a reminder that Einar Solberg is one of the most interesting and talented singers and songwriters around right now, in any genre.

01. The Price (6:46)
02. Third Law (7:02)
03. Rewind (6:03)
04. The Flood (7:13)
05. Triumphant (3:29)
06. Within My Fence (4:03)
07. Red (4:56)
08. Slave (6:37)
09. Moon (7:11)
10. Down (5:33)
11. Lower (4:57)

Total Time – 60:03

Einar Solberg – Piano, Vocals

Record Label: InsideOut Music
Country of Origin: Norway
Date of Release: 16th February 2024

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