Bonneville (5:28), Stuck (6:48), From the Flame (3:51), Captive (3:43), Illuminate (4:21), Leashes (4:09), Mirage (6:48), Malina (6:15), Coma (3:55), The Weight of Disaster (6:00), The Last Milestone (7:30),
Kevin Heckeler's Review
Norwegian band Leprous are no longer newcomers to the progressive scene. Their 2015 album The Congregation (review here) received plenty of accolades and they toured extensively to support it. They're spoken in the same breath as other progressive metal and djent bands I enjoy, but until now I've yet to own and truly immerse myself in one of their albums.
I have an immediate love/hate relationship with singer and keyboardist Einar Solberg. He's a very melodic and accomplished singer. Many of his vocal parts work well with the material, but there are times (starting at 1:23 on the track Coma as one example) that his higher register, pop-inclined style seems to ride above, not within, the framework of what the rest of the band, and ultimately the music, is doing. It's the same criticism I have for Tesseract, where the music is often clearly heading in a heavier direction than the vocals seem to allow.
For what it's worth, this juxtaposition actually works for me on the tracks Stuck, Illuminate, From the Flame and The Weight of Disaster. In contrast, Dream Theater's James LaBrie has similarly higher register, operatic vocals but most prog listeners (myself included) tend to turn a blind ear to this, for the sake of the music being exceptional and genre defining.
Then there's the prog-wide problem with shoe-horning lyrics into technical music. Although this is at a minimum here, there's certainly some tongue-twisting and rushed-lyric-delivery, symptomatic of the music and words not being intended for each other.
So while my opening criticism would foreshadow a gloomy overall impression, the remaining elements of the music, and Einar's successes mentioned above, salvage the experience. All of the songs have something I can find enjoyable. They walk the tightrope between math prog (or fusion) and a more musical approach, similar to many of the current crossover progressive artists. Leashes has an alternative rock feel, while staying true to the band's roots, injecting heavier elements that actually support the melancholy, and the introspective lyrics. Mirage is a standout heavier track, flashing some of what helped define the band on their last album while seamlessly blending a towering Nu Metal chorus. The Weight of Disaster incorporates the whole repertoire of Leprous styles and succeeds in its execution, groove and sheer ambition.
Will Leprous fans enjoy the new album? I really can't say, as my time with their other material is limited and this isn't entirely like their last album. I wouldn't say it's as alienating as Steven Wilson's latest To The Bone has been. There's still a hefty slug of metal at the core of Melina, but I would suspect the fans that also enjoy other less heavy forms of prog would enjoy this the most, since the album is lightened up a bit, with a few softer tracks. The songs that I enjoy the most on the album are standouts, worthy of repeat plays. I could loop Mirage and From the Flame all day. But I find the title track and The Last Milestone entirely skippable.
Finally, I want to briefly applaud the band for not brick-walling the recording. The album's levels are relatively tame compared to most modern recordings. This adds tremendously to my listening enjoyment, as the louder and harder moments really punch through and I found that the overall production was very well done. Thank you! It's my hope that more artists will follow this approach. We all have volume controls on our music players. Let us decide how to listen to the music. Just give us something to listen to that doesn't hurt our ears at every volume setting we choose.
Raimond Fischbach's Review
Is there anything better you can say about a prog band, than that it progresses in its style? I bet not. Album number five brings another sonic colour to Leprous' discography, and the band's stylistic horizon is opened a tad further again.
On one hand, writers Einar Solberg and Tor Oddmund Suhrke have managed to combine the styles of the previous albums in great arcs, and on the other hand they bring in new styles and influences to enrich the latest experience. This of course has the consequence that Melina is not another heavy blast-through like The Congregation and Live at Rockefeller (review here) had become. Rather, it is an album of arcs of emotions and (most of all) tones.
With Bonneville the album begins very fragile, with a lightly woven, weird-metered pattern of guitar flageolets and a tapped bass. Some very jazzy snare play, with lots of great ghost notes, and a most fitting and colourful use of cymbals, appear at the scene. A sparse analog synth sound supports it all, when Einar starts his vocal line, that then spirals upwards into a jaw-dropping falsetto of a quality that reminds me of Klaus Nomi. From there the song drags into the heavy, dramatic abyss of Leprous' emotional style.
Here it is already obvious that Einar brings in a newly acquired influence, the first one I've ever recognized in the band. Icelandic alternative proggers Agent Fresco, a band that is celebrated by so many prog bands at the moment, have had a huge impact here. A couple of Einar's melodies remind me hugely of Dan Arnor, even though the Norwegians have their very own interpretation, as well as ways to include it into their style. Also many of the arrangements on Melina seem to be influenced by Agent Fresco. And that way, the Leprous sound opens up and gives much room to study their newest tonal explorations, which are quite delicate.
There are of course Einar's unique keyboard sounds; ones that you would not expect in metal. He's using mainly analog sounds that remind me of Depeche Mode and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark: those that were right there at the beginning of the digital era. And he does it in a rather clever way. But also the guitars have changed a bit. They are way less-distorted, and the clean tones have some really delicate effects added, for a more intense listening experience.
That way the band's next novice is introduced perfectly. Robin Ognedal, who replaces Oystein Landsverk, brings in his Stratocaster and adds a lot to the band's guitar soundscape. And while things have gone less digital sound-wise, the metal mad man on drums, Baard Kolstad, has reduced his playing to a minimum wherever needed, and keeps the shred away from many parts where it would only cause disturbance. He has also changed his drum sound to a very warm, natural one. But when it is needed, he blasts off like no-one ever did before! In his heaviest moments, he has even changed his set-up, and put one floor tom to the left, for a broader boom.
It is not only the emotional roller coaster that spins over this album that makes it so unbelievably good. Also the focus on clever instrumentation and tonal variety does its part, plus newly acquired influences that bring this next dimension to the sinister universe of Leprous. It is for a reason that this band has gained such a huge standing in the prog metal scene so rapidly. They still are a singularity in style, and do everything they do with ultimate perfection, be it in the studio or on stage. As unbelievable it may appear, they are even better as a live band.
Melina takes a couple of spins until you explore all the beauty on it, but then you will love it. And just by the time you put it onto your stack of well-listened-to albums, you'll get the chance to experience their live powers in November, when they go on tour with their no less great colleagues: Agent Fresco and Astrosaur.
Dario Albrecht's Review
Being labelled as a major driving force of modern progressive metal, plus with constant praise using the highest superlatives for all of their previous albums, doesn't make it easy for a band. But Norway's hottest lepers from Leprous seem to have taken up the challenge to raise the bar once more. Following their 2015 breakthrough album The Congregation, their fifth release goes by the name of Malina, and presents a band at a turning point.
This new album is a logical continuation of their evolution through the last ten-plus years, yet in some parts it is a complete re-invention of the whole band sound. Thus it is an album that doesn't make it easy for the long-term Leprous enthusiast. But if you give it enough time, which is mandatory for everybody who is interested in progressive rock and metal sounds, you will ultimately be rewarded with some of the most progressive, yet most poppy songs Einar Solberg (vocals/keys), Tor Oddmund Suhrke and their companions, have ever crafted.
How is such a thing possible, you might ask. Well, if one dissects the songs on Malina theoretically, you will find a myriad of brain-twisting rhythms courtesy of drum wunderkind Baard Kolstad; a whole lot of beautiful harmonic arrangements, mostly within the vocals, often augmented and enhanced by guest cellist Raphael Weinroth-Browne; and thrilling song structures everywhere. But when it comes down to it, at the end of the day, what matters is the emotion purveyed through the melodies. And vocal-chord-wonder Einar Solberg excels once more, with a jaw-droppingly perfect performance, oozing emotion and urgency from every single note, and also showing more facets of his falsetto than ever before.
The growls are gone for good (sorry death metal heads) and so are the heavily distorted guitars (sorry metal heads in general). Wait! What? No metal guitars in Leprous anymore? Well, yes and no. If you measure the heaviness of a band by the amount of distortion in the guitar sound, then Malina might not be the album for you. However, if your definition of heaviness is not limited to distortion levels, you might be in for a game-changing treat.
The heaviness has to wait a little though, as the opener Bonneville starts off with a subdued, flageolet guitar lick before slowly building towards a huge climax towards the middle of the five and a half minute song. It is quite daring to open the album in such a way, especially given that drummer Baard only seems to find a steady groove in the final chorus. But in the end, it is the perfect way to begin this particular album, as it sets the tone perfectly.
The second song was also the second video single, and the uplifting mood that Stuck presents, for the most part, is something that requires getting used to in the Leprous sound universe. The anthemic chorus saves the song, just as it was in danger of becoming a little bit disappointing. And when aforementioned guest cellist Raphael Weinroth-Browne enters the fray for the first time, the swathing symphonics of the ending part compensate fully for all the (relative) happiness at the beginning.
There is not much to say about the first single, From the Flame, as I assume everybody has listened to it by now. Except for one thing: a realisation that hit me at the one-hundredth listen or so. For a 'rhythm amateur' like me, while the music remains accessible and catchy, it is nearly impossible to determine the time signatures and rhythmic shenanigans throughout the most part of the album.
The following Captive and Illuminate might be a little less catchy than From the Flame, but remain fascinating and gripping.
The next three songs couldn't be more different from each other, yet still follow an unwritten dramaturgy that weaves through Malina like a thin red line. Leashes treats us to the most gorgeous guitar lick and could be seen as a somewhat unorthodox ballad. Mirage contains a startlingly massive synth/bass 'oomph', paired with a rhythm that seems to wait for the hand-brake to be released. And, finally, the title track is basically of an ambient nature, if it wasn't for the crazy, underlying drum/guitar rhythm.
The closing triplet of Coma, The Weight of Disaster and The Last Milestone continue this path of diversity. The first one comes across as the fastest and heaviest song of the whole album; Then the middle one is giving the wrong impression of being the epic closer with a chorus to end all choruses, only to be rendered oblivious by the closing Last Milestone, with its pure synthies, cello layers upon cello layers, and Einar's stunning vocals (maybe even his best performance to date). It is a song that will divide fans like no other on Malina, and there are quite some songs on there that could be met with mixed feelings from long-time Leprous lovers.
As a cellist myself, growing up with classical music and all that, this final song is the ultimate culmination and perfect marriage of these two worlds, reminding me of the recordings by the 12 cellists of the Berlin Philharmonics. And as the last notes fade, the urge is strong to hit the repeat button and discover even more things to love about this album. It might have not been love at first listen, but as I said earlier, persistency might ultimately be rewarded with an almost transcendent experience.
Malina is a bold statement by a band that refuses to stand still; a true testament to the relevance of the term 'progressive' in the Leprous universe. Thus, my own personal 'leper affinity' remains untouched.