ROUND TABLE REVIEW
Leprous - Coal
Tracklist: Foe (5:17), Chronic (7:19), Coal (6:50), The Cloak (4:09), The Valley (8:59), Salt (4:30), Echo (9:41), Contaminate Me (9:04)
Dave Baird's Review
Leprous' 2011 release, Bilateral, was the album of the year for several DPRP reviewers, myself included, and earned a perfect 10 score from Andy Read who is somewhat an expert on Prog-Metal, the same score I would have awarded myself (in fact I played the album nearly every day for a year!). Leprous were catapulted into the Prog conscious and they've maintained the momentum since. Now in 2013 the band have released their fourth album, Coal, the second for Prog label InsideOut, and instead of touring Europe as a support act they now have their own headlining tour kicking off in September following a string of summer festival dates beginning with the much anticipated Sweden Rock Festival alongside, amongst others, Rush and Kiss. Quite a stellar couple of years for the young Norwegians and astonishing to think that they're still in their early twenties. Success however breeds expectation and Bilateral, amazing album that it is, would always prove to be a very hard act to follow.
Perhaps with this in mind, Coal is very much an evolution rather than revolution. Bilateral distinguished itself next to earlier Leprous releases, particularly Tall Poppy Syndrome (their first release, Aeolia, being very much an experimental affair), by virtue of a more mature approach to song-writing and a consistent presentation across the whole album. Nevertheless it had a lot of quirky elements and several avant-garde moments - nothing to totally throw the listener off, but enough to surprise. With Coal Leprous have almost entirely dropped these little musical diversions, so no weird trumpet solo this time, but what may be lost in invention is perhaps made up for in song-craft and even more cohesion than before. What hasn't been lost, and in fact I would argue has been enhanced, is the band's essential quirkiness. By that I mean: the off-kilter syncopated rhythms they use underneath the longer-phrased, melodic vocal lines of Einar Solberg, the guitars following a quarter of a beat after the drums - not quite where you'd expect, and the unusual dissonant chords that even Bob Fripp would be proud of. No other track on Coal exhibits this better than the title track itself and indeed it's one of the tracks that I classify as Bilateral-ish, the others being Foe, Chronic, and The Valley. Don't get me wrong, there's no copying of the past here, each song brings something new to the table: great super-tight guitar, drums and bass plus great hi-hat work in The Valley; lovely piano intro, drums & bass, brutal death-metal section, sing-along chorus on Chronic; start/stop introduction of Foe. All elements we haven't heard before from the band, but presented in a way that we feel comfortable with.
Where the band do stretch out is with The Cloak, which is much more down-tempo that we've heard before with soaring vocals and dreamy keyboards in the chorus, underpinned with heavy guitar, bass and drums - really quite a symphonic Prog-Metal track that evokes Dream Theater in the instrumentation. Salt is perhaps the weirdest track on the album - grandiose, symphonic and that off-kilter guitar again, this time opening the track with a dramatic pseudo-Spanish acoustic chord phrase. Einar's vocals here are just astonishing as he does his very best mezzo soprano choir-boy during the choruses - to say it soars is to do it an injustice. Then there's the sweet dreamy keyboards he's playing, it's tremendously haunting and very, very beautiful.
Echo once again returns to a more "traditional" Leprous approach and has a similar epic feel to Bilateral's Painful Detour, it fades out nicely and makes for an excellent closing track, except that it's not and the band have left the biggest surprise to last as the brutal opening of Contaminate Me jumps out of the speakers like the bogey-man from the closet. This is by far the heaviest track on the album and arguably the most intense we've heard the band. No doubt they take some influence here from Ihsahn - a fellow Norwegian and death-metal artist who uses Leprous as his backing band. In fact Ihsahn is a guest vocalist here and I suspect he's the one doing the cookie-monster vocals - he's also guesting on Chronic where there's also some death-metal screams. In any case it's hard to believe that the choirboy singing on Salt is the same vocalist who sounds like they're dying at the end of this track - sounds awful in description maybe, but it's very well done. I don't know Ihsahn's music so hard to say, but the other artist that immediately springs to mind is Devin Townsend circa Ziltoid the Omniscient. Regardless of the influence it's brutal stuff, much, much heavier than you'd hear from most Prog-metal bands, so perhaps a little shocking to some. This being said it's still very melodic and evocative, bombastic and melodramatic and then finally, at the last, Leprous throw in a bit of gypsy violin to accompany the death screams - and nice quirky end.
Coal is a worthy and safe successor to Bilateral. If you like challenging and intelligent Prog-Metal then it's a must-have. If you're a traditional Prog fan thinking to dip into the Prog-Metal waters then it's a very good bet as it's full of melody, quirkiness and not a hint of the usual neo-classical cheese that you'll often be confronted with. If you've never heard Leprous before then I'm sure you'll be astonished - they are a great band and you should give them a go. For those who know the band already it's a satisfying release that is unlikely to upset anyone and cements the band as a major player in the genre. For my part, if I'd never heard Bilateral then I would have been swept of my feet by Coal. As it is, I like the album very much, but still think Bilateral the superior, but it's a close-run thing and in a couple of years I might say the opposite...
Jez Rowden's Review
Leprous have certainly been on a roll over the last few years with 2009's Tall Poppy Syndrome laying the foundation for the exquisite Bilateral in 2011 which garnered a 10 out of 10 review from our own Andy Read. That album pushed the Norwegians to the top of the prog metal tree via their talent for injecting much variety into their stylish music and they have backed this up with plenty of live work as they moved from support act to headliner.
There's a lot riding on Coal. Having spent time and effort building a platform and a decent sized fanbase there certainly doesn't appear to be any reason to stretch the boundaries too far but this new release is certainly not a rehash of Bilateral and they have tried to move in significantly new directions. This endeavour and sense of adventure is to be commended but how did Coal turn out?
Well, it spent a long timed in the pile labelled 'confusing', taking a while for me to get a handle on it.
To start with, it sounds great. The production, by Heidi Solberg Tveitan and Vegard Tveitan (the real name of Emperor's Ihsahn who also provides the growling vocals on Chronic and Contaminate Me), and mix (by Jens Bogren) give depth and clarity, the first thing that becomes apparent is the awesome vocals of Einar Solberg. The band (Solberg plus Tor Oddmund Suhrke (guitar), Øystein Landsverk (guitar), Rein Blomquist (bass) and Tobias Ørnes Andersen (drums)) come across as confident and on the same page, the music oozing quality, and they clearly relish the challenge that Coal has provided, appearing undaunted by the possible pitfalls.
Compared with Bilateral, Coal is certainly a darker and more clinical affair. Solberg has used the word "severe" and I think this is a good description. The album is very in your face and some of the colour of the former has been lost somewhat, replaced by overwhelming power and a particularly sinister feel. The familiarly intricate rhythms have been ramped up to a new level and this is part of my issue with the album. Though clever, well done and different it does not exactly make for an straightforward listen. Obviously this isn't necessarily a bad thing but the album is just less satisfying than it possibly should have been and you get the impression that the band feel that it is better than it actually is.
The press release throws out names like Pain Of Salvation, King Crimson, Devin Townsend, Katatonia, Opeth, Porcupine Tree and Pink Floyd. To be honest I don't hear most of these, possibly touches of early PoS and some Devin but the rest escape me.
To the music itself and a track by track is probably a good way to go with an album such as Coal. Starting with a slashing chords syncopated with a slow drum beat, Foe is an excellent, thumping opener, in your face with Solberg's dynamic vocals immediately making an impression. As demonstrated throughout Coal, unusual use of rhythm is a key feature and here the stop/start rhythms are accompanied by an orchestral setting with Solberg verging on screaming at the top end of the vocal. With a lighter mid-section of acoustic guitar and angelic vocals this is very much a track of two halves although the quieter part does go on for too long with little variation. So far so good but less satisfying than I feel it should have been.
The piano intro and Muse feel of Chronic is mixed with injections of extreme metal from the guest vocals of Ihsahn with heavy guitars and drums picking out a staccato rhythm. The chorus is particularly epic and this is a track that moves around a lot, keeping up the momentum. The Muse influence continues through the verse and is that a hint of Queen? The buzz-guitar mid-section couples well with the vocals building to a peak with excellent use of keys. Solberg's soaring voice descends to more growling before the rhythm goes off at a tangent, throwing the listener for a few beats. The epic "chorus" section continues with an ever slowing pace to a crunching chord and keys fadeout.
The title track sweeps in on a wave of fluctuating rhythm, settling down into the verse with guitars playing off the beat. Epic is again the order of the day for the vocals and the sense of tension builds with the instrumental volume to conclude with a bass and drums release. The use of rhythm is very refreshing and helped by the clarity of the sound. Some familiar metal techniques are deployed in this one but the shifting rhythm keeps it interesting. A pause for breath with solitary keys then a thumping guitar riff and choral backed shrieking vocal makes for a very interesting section, guitar and drums coming and going in quick-fire bursts which drop away to a theatrical vocal and keys section to close.
The Cloak sees a pulsing guitar intro lead to high pitched vocal with, oddly, a hint of A-ha's Morten Harket about it! There is a melancholic feel to what starts out as a ballad but the drums, coming in bursts, change the tone somewhat, and the momentum really builds when the guitar comes in. The song progresses into a well presented epic, the vocal line sailing above the power of the band with, again, good supporting choral vocals.
The first of three 9+ minute numbers, The Valley, opens with an analogue keyboard and slow rhythm, the vocal is smooth against the rasping keys. When the guitar emerges we get a quite odd stop/start section with fast pulses of drums and guitar with complete silence between which breaks things up somewhat and sounds a little odd initially. The mid-section sees the bass bouncing along the bottom on a single note against a cymbal rhythm as the vocal soars, the tricky stop/start rhythm recommencing when the guitar returns. The whole thing is very well executed and certainly different and Leprous are certainly not sitting on their laurels but seeking new directions and ways of expressing themselves. The last section reduces some of the heaviness while retaining the odd rhythmic pulse against a straight 4/4 from the drums, the strangeness finally coalescing into a straight-ahead romp to the abrupt close - nicely done.
Skewed guitars start Salt with off-beat drums and an operatic edge to the high-pitched vocal. There's nice piano support and the drums change the rhythm again as guitar and vocal do their own thing. The chorus returns things to a smooth prog-metal vibe with emphasis on the keys before the band drop away to leave piano and vocal to finish.
Echo begins with an industrial beat thumping along with bubbling bass under a sailing vocal until the metal arrives. Vocals again benefit from choral support here and there with plenty of keys to colour a section of melodic bass. There's a change to a driving rhythm with guitar to the fore, drums breaking out into a pattern at odds to the rest, bass roaming widely before all return for another choral supported vocal to an extended fadeout.
Thundering in, Contaminate Me is by far the heaviest track on Coal with pounding rhythms and soaring vocal which goes into Death Metal territory here and there, courtesy of guest Ihsahn, becoming more intense as the track progresses and the tempo of drums and guitars increases. The rhythms are again very unusual and the track packs a lot into its unrelenting onslaught until the mid-point breakdown where violin adds colour, the pace slowed right down with howling vocals ending the album in a way that is very much at odds to what has preceded it.
There is much to impress in this release and Leprous have cemented themselves at the forefront of modern progressive metal. The metal is there as is the prog but although Coal is an interesting listen I don't find it as entertaining as Bilateral. It may well grow in stature over time but I feel that it is more likely to be a stepping stone to a new sound for Leprous but in the meantime it may be too far removed from Bilateral for some fans. It is certainly an austere listen with an almost overpowering aura of impending doom. Laughs are, it goes without saying, few and far between!
On the positive side the album sounds immense and the playing from all concerned is sublime with particular credit to the rhythm section for their dextrous work and the vocals which are superb, the choral support that is deployed on a number of occasions working very well. The death metal style creeps in here and there but, with the possible exception of Contaminate Me where it gets a little over the top, does not outstay its welcome.
There are not many pointers that I can suggest as to what this album reminds me of as it is pretty unusual and a brave step towards territories new. The band are certainly to be given credit for this and not sitting back and doing Bilateral II but, as stated previously, I just don't think that Coal is engaging enough. It is certainly a good album and worthy of recommendation but it is just lacking that little something that would make it a great one.
Jon Bradshaw's Review
Vocalist and synth-player Einar Solberg sees "...less interest in defining music than in creating music...".
Following the underground success of 2011's Bilateral and the international exposure developed by its general noise through European tours supporting Amorhpis and headlining in their own right, Leprous have also played ProgPower USA, hinting at their considerable global appeal. Their 'music without boundaries' approach transcends international barriers and defies classification. Bilateral was - is - brilliant, and Andy Read also began his 10 out of 10 review with a quote from Einar Solberg.
Of Coal and the creative process to compose a new album that is as fresh and as personality rich as its predecessor, Solberg has stated:
"Free of the boundaries of others' expectations, with loosened chains of your calculating brain. Only then can you walk one step closer towards the ultimate honesty of your unique expression"
before reflecting to add:
"With Coal I feel we are one step closer to this honesty. In this recording process, a lot of the choices we made were based upon impulsiveness. However, when you are lucky enough to have inspiring and skilful producers around you, they can help you to reach these completely honest layers of your subconscious. If you are too rehearsed, too sure about what you will do, it is hard to retrieve this musical spontaneity you had when you originally composed your part. If you manage to press the record button exactly when you perform with this kind of energy, you have succeeded to catch something pure and true."
He talks of the wild and untamed energy that was released when faced with the pressure of matching or surpassing Bilateral but concedes it is only when free of expectations that any honest work can be done. I can reveal the outcome to be remarkable. Coal is impossible to pin down, like poking holes in water their music has reassembled itself by the time your mind identifies it and you are listening to something else. There's a fine marriage of composition, musicianship and identity from which everything else hangs, and it feels like anything can happen.
Leprous repeatedly lead us into unexpected places - places that reveal themselves totally logically and coherently, like exploring a ruined mansion and its grounds. It's a magical, sometimes sinister, sometimes breathtaking and endlessly interesting place; rooting through the belongings of an undisturbed house from another time. Perhaps it's soon, perhaps it was long ago. Each track is a room in this place, it all belongs to something, but every room is wildly different in its contents and each with a dizzying array of cupboards, drawers and boxes to investigate.
This diversity of riches is overhung with a despondent and haunting gloom. There are restless shadows and lachrymose spectres, some of whom turn pathological in Solberg's mouth. This is a truly stunning vocal performance and the vocal arrangements are genuinely jaw dropping. Beginning in Foe and following a huge slab of a chorus that will delight Devin Townsend fans, we are transported by popping clouds of breath in a minimalist chorale to emerge into the excellent Chronic where Muse go toe to toe with Meshuggah. This is purposeful, driven and as aggressive as it is grandiose with stirring melodic ideas in a steadily expanding, epic finale. This is surely what is playing in Valhalla right now as they prepare for the final battle after Skoll ate the sun. They only hit this level of audacious brilliance once more and that's in Contaminate Me which closes the album and is a scabrous, violent piece of disturbed and disturbing mania and is far from being fun.
The rest doesn't quite sit right with me. Coal and The Cloak, whilst being attractive in many ways tend to tread frustratingly between the amazing and the forgettable. They strive towards the cinematic and panoramic and I sense an album trying to be more important than it actually is. The Valley doesn't fully command my attention but it is replete with invention. When it pulls me in there is everything you could want in a 3 minute song but it's spread over almost nine and here's the problem with my whole experience of the album. It lacks focus and it meanders, often spending too long in one place and is so busy looking for its own unique expression that it ignores me sometimes, brushing me off with its own seriousness and self-absorption. This is only made worse by my inability to work out what Solberg is singing and wondering if what he's saying is any good. It sounds good, it sounds amazing, but I suspect he might just be saying "Aaaaaaaaah. Aaaaaaaaaaahhh. Aaahhaahaaaahaa." These songs need the lyrical poetry that the music suggests and I'm not convinced by the snatches of words I am hearing. Here's just a snippet: "All alone in city light/Where you absorb the echo". What does that mean? Ever? What can it ever mean?
In the end, whatever label you want to slap on Leprous it will be neither appropriate or accurate and regardless of anything I may have to say, this is a piece of work that only they could probably create. The unfortunate and inescapable feeling is of a band on the cusp of finding their perfect alchemy between technical proficiency and atmospheric songsmithery, between horror and beauty, between loneliness and love. But not yet, not quite. It's certainly ambitious and brave and individual. I'd love to hear it properly, the review copy was just an mp3 so I can't tell you about the production. I get the impression its vast, but I fear the whole edifice of it will dry out, crumble, and blow away rather too quickly.
DAVE BAIRD : 9.5 out of 10
JEZ ROWDEN : 8 out of 10
JON BRADSHAW : 7 out of 10