“Too big to fail” is not something which exists in music (if it even exists anywhere, at all). There is no correlation between how much you love a band and the chances that they will disappoint you. Even an artist which you’ve followed for decades can release an album or even a series of albums which you’ll not take kindly to. These are facts. Thus, listening to music in an intense fashion (that is, a more than casual way) requires that you learn, at some point, to handle disappointment. Do you take this disappointment in stride, looking at it as a mismatch between you and the artist, a lack of configuration between what you want and what the artist has made? Or do you extrapolate something more from it, writing off artists and passing judgment on their direction? Make no mistake, the latter response is perfectly understandable; the larger the love, the more painful the eventual disappointment.
I chose to open this review with that question because I am facing such a crossroad myself; Leprous are among my favorite artists. Their sense of aesthetic, their delivery, their approach to emotions have all taken root in my heart over countless of hours of listening, a couple of live shows and four albums. But now, I am faced with Malina, an album that represents, to me, a surrender of their sound, a certain complacency which I never thought to find in their work, ever. Do I cast my judgment on the band’s essence, consigning them to derision, or do I try and appreciate the effort and intention behind the album and attempt to glean the essence beyond the phenomenon? The answer, as befits such complex questions, is a bit of both. On one hand, it’s very easy to find something to hold on to with Malina; we’re still talking about an accomplished and skillful band here, who are able to produce good music. On the other, that music is of shifted direction and style.
Make no mistake; Malina is not all bad. Tracks like “Stuck” and “Mirage” still hold the unassailable musical quality inherent within the Leprous name. The bass in particular shines bright on these tracks, beautifully interacting with the drums (still expertly handled by Kolstad, arguably one of the best drummers in the field today) and the more “airy” guitars/synths. Especially commendable is the structure of these tracks, eschewing a repetitive design in favor of a more complex offering. They can be described as juggling the latter impact and feel of Coal and the alternative rock vibe of Tall Poppy Syndrome, creating something that is both approachable but technically and emotionally engaging. The issue with the album is that these are the odd birds out, the exceptions to the rule. Leprous tend to shine when they’re flamboyant and over the top, when they’re pushing boundaries while simultaneously plucking on one’s emotional strings. Instead, with Malina, we see a distillation of the band’s sound to a few of their key elements, and those elements aren’t necessarily the band’s strongest suit.
The rule is that of the staccato riff which has become so wildly associated with Leprous. That type of riff, which has become one of the largest signifiers of modern progressive metal/rock, sees egregious use on the album. On tracks like “Captive” for example, it seems to be nothing more than a crutch, covering over weak bridges and transitions between parts of the tracks. Too often is it used and then discarded, the riff used and then set aside until the chorus arrives to bring it back. When it does stay present throughout the track, like on the following “Illumine”, it simply has no impact; it is a tool we’ve grown too used to and doesn’t seem to have much justification beyond “this is what a Leprous track should sound like”.
Other areas of the composition of this album are lacking as well. Einar’s vocals seem to be less powerful here, or at least less well written. In the wake of the powerful and full intonations he is known for, we see two solutions: one is the airy sort of performance that come to infect so much of this genre. While this is one of the signature Leprous sounds, used heavily on Coal for example, it is stronger the less you use it. When it is sparse, its power is obvious; it denotes important parts and emotionally effective passages. Here, it mingles with itself and its meaning is lot. Nor is the second solution preferable; it comes in the form of many, many vocals tracks, creating a choir that is supposed to amplify Einar’s voice but does the opposite, landing tracks a sense of epicness that is out of place and context. The aforementioned “Illumine” is a good example of this dissonance, as the track peters out only to be accompanied by a choir performance from Einar which makes little sense. The different approach to vocals is surely intentional, as it marks a stylistic shift in the band’s core vision for themselves. They seem less interested in big, powerful moments, and more in ambient, ephemeral, or generally more mellow tones.
Funnily enough, it is when these elements are embraced to their fullest that Einar, and the track, sound best. The leading single, “From the Flame” is probably one of the best tracks on the album. The “indie prog” approach is embraced fully and a banger is created; the track is less concerned with sophistication and more with effective deliverance. Einar makes no attempt to emulate the Leprous sound and instead just focuses on making the track work; and work it does. But elsewhere, Malina is tainted with the desire of a band to be themselves. Because that self is fucking Leprous, some of the tracks are still great. But too often the album feels like a carbon copy instead of a fresh approach, landing its blows exactly where you’d expect and for no obvious reason other than that they were there.
So, do I write off Leprous or give them the benefit of the doubt, understanding that they are their own entities, apart from my expectations? As I said, the answer is both; Malina is its own beast and I can understand what Leprous were going for and why. However, I can’t appreciate it; I see little reason to listen to it beyond one or two tracks and not the countless bands which Leprous have spawned in their wake. Hopefully in the future, they return to reanalyze and refresh their sound; until then, we might be forced to look elsewhere for new takes on this old and great vibe.
Leprous’s Malina will see release on August 25th. You can pre-order it and stream once it’s available here. I urge you to do so and form your own opinion; this is not a band to be taken lightly.