Written By: Angry Metal Guy
Leprous is one of Norway’s finest acts and one of the excellent stable of modern prog bands that we have covered here at AMG in the last 5 or 6 years. In recent times, their profile has risen as their singular approach to progressive metal has inspired high praise from myself, Kronos, and the metal world at large. I adored Bilateral, but (as one might have expected, given AMG’s Law of Diminishing Recordings™) the band’s later material has been spottier. I did enjoy some of Coal—which featured one of my Songs o’ the Year—but I found 2015’s The Congregation to be difficult to enjoy. With time, Leprous has dialed down the heavier elements of their sound, developing a chorus heavy style that didn’t work for me on The Congregation. So I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got my hands on Malina. Was I hopeful? Not really. Was I surprised? Pleasantly.
Leprous doesn’t sound that much like a metal band in 2017. Scoff if you want, but the more I listen to Malina, the more I’ve come to accept that it’s a glitchy indie pop record. Malina sounds like Leprous made a super fucking weird Arctic Monkeys album; albeit infinitely more interesting than the aforementioned band of hyperborean simians. Rather than falling into the simplistic groove of a pop band, Leprous’ songs lilt along, with their trademark polyrhythmic glitch—or as my grandpa called it, “arrhythmia”—punctuating their songs. Malina hews to the arc of Leprous’ sound since Coal, playing heavily with syncopation in what would otherwise be straight time, and resting heavily on the voice and melodies of Einar “Fucking” Solberg to keep their songs memorable.
Calling Malina an indie-pop album is only a slight exaggeration for comic effect. The album’s tone is different from their earlier albums. The most obvious difference is the guitar sound, which is cleaner, brighter, and thinner. The intro to “Stuck,” an undeniably sticky song, features the bright—almost surfy—tone favored by dudes with mustaches, flannel shirts, and winter caps that only cover their bald spots (see: Beaten to Death). The bass and drums hold the album on the heavier side of the spectrum, fortunately, with the rhythm section eschewing minimalist tendencies and tone. Malina still has a heft to it that will translate well in the live setting. Moments like the bass slides on the title track are reminiscent of the title track off Coal, while “Coma” features a pummeling rhythm section topped by an ethereal vocal performance that could have passed on any of the band’s previous albums. But you’ll be unsurprised to know that the screams that accentuate “Coal” get nowhere near Malina. The rough edges have been hewn off, replaced with something that is unapologetically chill and groovy, though swelling and dark. There’s still something here which threatens to break loose, but it never does.
Yet, I think this is Leprous’ strongest work since Bilateral. The strength of Malina is carried in its songs. The songs have a high Rush Quotient™, hitting that elusive balance between catchy and proggy. Particularly effective is the band’s continued mastery of choruses—which tend toward epic and are always memorable. Songs like “From the Flame,” “Stuck,” “Coma,” and “Illuminate” are infectious. But Leprous doesn’t have the metalcore tendency of writing throwaway verses that are just foreplay to gaudy choruses. Malina’s songs feature sophisticated builds, savvy writing and subtle, haunting harmonies. None of what I’m describing cleaves far from Leprous’ beaten path, but Malina sees the intensity dialed back and a vision that is more circumspect. Rather than hitting hard, the tracks seethe along—“Bonneville” opens Malina at a crawl, while “The Last Milestone” is an orchestral dirge. The peaks and valleys have been replaced with beautiful, rolling foothills and foggy glens.
Malina will split fans, for sure, but I have trouble seeing how admirers of the band’s previous work won’t find something they like here. This album echoes Bilateral and Coal, even if it lacks the heft of a young Norwegian band’s developing sound. Malina is a poppier, simpler, more polished album than anything Leprous has produced. And maybe I’m just getting old like they are, but the slicker songs and their distinctive pop profile just seem to work for me.
Written By: Kronos
Though I gave it a favorable review, time has convinced me that Leprous‘ last album, The Congregation, just didn’t live up to the legacy of Bilateral and Coal. I had a few different reasons for not listening to it much after it came out; it was long, a bit too melodramatic, and it didn’t pack the same punch as the band’s earlier oeuvre. I’ve realized in time that most of these are a result of the same pernicious feature: choruses. Just to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with a classic verse-chorus-verse format, and indeed, nothing wrong with a catchy chorus itself. The chorus becomes a problem when it’s overused as a tool or repeated ad nauseam. The Congregation was guilty of both. So is Malina.
Let’s start with an illustrative example, Malina‘s first single, “From the Flame.” A generous count has the chorus repeated four times – but each of those four times, the actual lyrics get repeated twice. So to me, already irritated again with the song’s bland lyrics, that’s eight repetitions. Keep in mind that “From the Flame” is three minutes and fifty-one seconds long. Sandwiched between those choruses — which are very catchy, and admittedly, I like them in small doses — are a really annoying synth lead what sounds like U2 learning about odd time. It’s obvious that Leprous aren’t trying to be a metal band anymore, which is fine1, but they could at least try to be an inventive band.
Now some of you may protest, “But Kronos! They are inventive! There are violins on this album.” Good point. Nobody ever thought to put strings on an album to artificially add drama before. Oh, and those strings do jack shit on Malina; they back up chords like in every other metal album ever. Only when the entire band dips and it’s just Einar and the strings — the beautiful-at-times “The Last Milestone” — do they play any substantive music. Of course, their part is nearly as over-the-top melodramatic as the singing. And on that matter, the singing on Malina is also a disappointment. Einar’s considerable talent and vocal range are not on full display here, and he leans far too heavily on his falsetto. This works in some of the album’s quieter moments, especially along the harmonics-littered groove that opens the album on “Bonneville,” but most of the time I’m left wanting a more powerful delivery.
To make matters worse, this album has, by my count, about one memorable riff, and it’s this terrible pop-punk thing from “Stuck.” I just hate it. Leprous had pop sensibility from the beginning, but this is just trash.
Malina isn’t a complete failure. The choruses are, for the most part, fun to sing along with, there are shots of dense syncopation typical of Leprous, and the songs don’t drag on for days like they did in The Congregation. What irks me most about Malina is that Leprous could have gone in two really cool directions with these ingredients. They could have made a really interesting, enjoyable pop record and transitioned their style with style. Prog rock/metal bands have done it before — see Octahedron. They also could have made an even more respectable avant-garde album. With all that melodrama, rhythmic adventurousness, and a string section behind them, they had just about every ingredient lined up for the Storm Corrosion follow up that I want but is never going to happen.
But Leprous didn’t attempt to do either of those things; they made this predictable, bathetic, milquetoast instead. Any good moments are undermined by repetition. The title track starts out as close to Storm Corrosion as the album comes, then ends by Einar singing the same two lines four times in a row, stretched across what feels like an eternity. The only good song is “Bonneville,” and the album has like forty or fifty minutes to go after that. Malina is pleasant to listen to in the background at times, it’s even passable if you pay attention to half a song, but when I really pick at it, when I stop making excuses for a band that has produced records that I really like, it reveals itself as just a sappy, catchy pop record with a few odd rhythms. Malina is gutless, pretentious, and boring, and I’m quite relieved to never have to hear it again.