Let it be kept no secret: I firmly believe Leprous are the most evocative band operating within progressive metal today. While I had been impressed with their breakthrough release, Tall Poppy Syndrome, their 2011 monument in Bilateral took me by storm and still stands as one of the most inventive, breathtaking observations in metal this side of the new millennium. Each new Leprous album is an instant classic in my eyes, and even if time will inevitably be kinder to some of their records over others, I rest assured in the near-certainty that I’ll still be listening to them a decade—or even two decades—from now. It should suffice to say there are few other contemporary artists I could say the same in truth about.
Much like their considerably more uplifting British counterparts in Haken, Leprous have paired their startling quality with a prolific work ethic. Every two years, the band have taken their sound a step further. Now, with The Congregation, 2015 brokers no exception to the pattern. Given how much love I’ve had for their past masterpieces, I need not specify how eagerly I awaited hearing Leprous’ fifth offering. Whether or not it was going to be fantastic wasn’t even a question in my mind; rather, I was more intrigued by how they might change their sound. If Bilateral was defined by its sporadic urgency, and its follow-up, Coal, responded in turn with greater focus and minimalism, then The Congregation may be seen both as an advance on this trajectory as well as an acknowledgement concerning things Coal didn’t do as well as its predecessor. Namely, the new album brings a revitalized emotional immediacy to Leprous’ music, and in this respect I am more affected than I have been by an album in many a while.
This is a masterpiece of sorts, to be sure, and though it bears strong resemblance to Coal, the vocal few who rightly declaimed the band’s last album as a weaker offering than Bilateral might find themselves pleasantly surprised here. No, The Congregation doesn’t strike me with the same impetuous spontaneity as Bilateral, nor does it keep my left-oriented brain quite as much on the edge. However, I also think that repeating that same formula would have proved fruitless, both on this and Coal; being sporadic and jumpy is a trait of youth, and Leprous have long since matured as a group.
This matured Leprous—occasionally better likened to an avant-garde, theatrical Anathema than the metal of their heyday—was proudly introduced on Coal, but it’s only on The Congregation that the emotional resonance has built up to match their obvious technical abilities. So many of the ways I would describe the last album could again apply to this one: heavy, but not for the blunt force of the parts so much as the way they are used. Vivid and occasionally dissonant instrumentation, like an unchained King Crimson. Secretly more groove-oriented than any prog-rock band has any right to be, and, not least of all, indelibly fuelled by the voice of frontman Einar Solberg. All of these might go on to describe The Congregation even more so than its predecessor, but the amplification of Coal‘s best elements has resulted in a much different tone and experience. The Congregation may be the most emotionally hard-hitting album of Leprous’ career thus far, and I’m including my personal favourite in that count as well.
Where some of my favourite progressive albums take a few listens to reach a point of understanding, The Congregation had me hooked from the first listen. Although Leprous are one of the best musical units around (you’d have to be to play alongside Ihsahn), I’ve always thought vocalist Einar Solberg to be the band’s shining light. Even when the band are immersed in a polyrhythmic groove or focused build-up, he uses his considerable range and presence to convey depth currently unsurpassed in the genre. Though this thought is by no means exclusive to The Congregation, I do think Solberg’s voice is a large part of what makes Leprous one of my favourite modern acts. His soaring delivery is comparable to Muse‘s Matt Bellamy, albeit without the adolescent whine attached to it. Although it may be a further stretch to describe them as a progressive metal Mars Volta, high-register vocal acrobatics are at least one thing he shares with Cedric Bixler-Zavala. Suffice to say, the band has become increasingly vocal-oriented with every album; the veer towards minimalism and gradually building grooves over the past two albums have offered Solberg much greater opportunity to test his voice, and his vocals have become proportionately sharper to compensate.
Valid arguments may be fostered to the contrary, but I do think this is the most musically complex work that Leprous have produced. There aren’t any abrupt shifts in pace, but the ingredients are often mind-bending, potentially even more so given that they work so smoothly together. The addictive groove on ‘The Price’ (easily the most compelling single I’ve heard in 2015) would probably look like academic jabberwocky on paper, but the way Leprous pull it off feels accessible. The syncopated guitar noise of ‘The Third Law’ sounds far-flung enough to befit math rock than anything of a stately, progressive angle. I could give many more examples; my point is that Leprous have mastered the use of technique and complexity to such an extent that they can effectively mask it.
Orchestrating complex music is difficult enough a task on its own; to draw those orchestrations full-circle to the point of becoming accessible is an entirely different game. As much as my life and listening have been altered by progressive music (for the better, I hope), it is a rare thing to hear an artist back away from their wizard hats and Mellotron collection to make complex art with a grasp on the heart. I don’t mean that flimsy Floydian ‘feeling’ every progger with a knack for pentatonic scales tries to shill out—I mean an addictive, balls-hitting, cutting-edge passion. The Cardiacs had that game nailed; Anathema does it; Haken does it. At this point however, I don’t think anyone has Leprous beat.
Given The Congregation‘s subtly mind-bending complexity, it’s all the more an accomplishment that the album manages to hit so close to home emotionally. Upon my first spin of the album, I remember ‘Slave’ coming on and coming close to welling up. Although the lyrics aren’t particularly poignant, Solberg’s delivery tells a story of its own. Though Coal was forged from many of the same elements as this, the music there was tense; even angry, at least as far as the term can apply to progressive rock. With The Congregation, that anger has subsided to an introspective melancholy.
I’ve seen it written more than once that Leprous reviews tend to fall short of describing the music with precision. This challenge should be testament to the band’s originality as an act, especially considering that they manage to get this impression across without using truly outlandish shortcuts. Be that as it may, I’ll give my best attempt here. As far as The Congregation goes, think what Gojira (circa The Way of All Flesh) would sound like if they were using the amps and production of Queens of the Stone Age. Or maybe Weather Systems-era Anathema, fuelled with the energy of a progressive metal Mars Volta. All of this, fronted with one of the strongest voices I’ve heard in years. The Congregation isn’t quite as much of an evolution in style as the last two records were. Indeed, there are a couple of issues that have been apparent from the first listen onward; the lyrics are a little too laconic to say anything on their own, and the album has little in the way of complimentary flow between songs. I do wonder if the album may have been made better by changing the sequence of tracks up a bit. Nonetheless, this is a great step forward for Leprous, and a masterful one at that. The introduction of drummer Baard Kolstad to the fold has been of the most propitious lineup changes I’ve seen in a band in recent years. With The Congregation, Leprous have once again proven that my recognition of them once as the most promising band in progressive music has been well-founded. Time and again they’ve delivered on that promise, and I cannot wait until their next presumably unfolds in 2017.
01) The Price
02) Third Law
04) The Flood
06) Within My Fence