We’ve dealt with the question of context many times on the blog, mostly when reviewing releases from beloved bands. What weight should we give previous releases when taking new albums into consideration? It is fair to hold the past performance of a band up to their current output or do albums deserve to stand alone as their own creations? At the end of the day, all of these discussions end up in the same place: whether we like to or not, our minds just aren’t able to divorce art from it context and, therefore, it’s pointless to try and do so. We consume art, and music most of all perhaps, as a product not only of the piece itself but of the narrative, style, and history of its maker and our own perceptions of it are further skewed by biases and personal history.
It should be obvious to see where I’m going with this; Leprous‘s Pitfalls comes at a crucial time for many fans of the band. The band’s previous release, Malina, was a divisive one. Personally, I found it lacking and often repetitive and devoid of the punch of the band’s previous releases, relying too much on the tropes of the band and not enough on an interesting execution. In that regard, Pitfalls is a marked improvement. On tracks like “Below” and “Alleviate” the band are possessed of the strength and depth of expression which drew fans to them to begin with. Einar Solberg, undoubtedly one of the key members of the band, sounds fresh and powerful, hitting those high notes he’s famous for with his distinctive timbre.
On “Alleviate”, the rest of the band also does really interesting things with the Leprous formula. The drums and the bass interact playfully to create a lilting kind of pace, while strings pick percussively at notes, speaking beautifully with the guitars which users in the track’s unfolding intro. There, the strings are more prominent, coming in majestically to amplify the rest of the instrumentation into a fantastic crescendo. During these moments, and in others interspersed throughout the album, Leprous sound as powerful and fresh as they have since the mighty Coal, blowing away most moments the band have produced since that album out of the water.
However, these moments of elation are also too far and few in between. A lot of the rest of the album seems much safer in comparison, echoing the more airy and less evocative sounds of Malina. The problem lies in each track separately and in how they interact together. First, the tracks themselves as their own units; too many of them feel like interludes, content with one form of their main idea and not much else. While no staccato riffs are in sight (and I thank the heavens for that), tracks like “Observe the Train” or “At the Bottom” feel like paint-by-numbers Leprous. Their structure is not interesting enough. It lays down a structure and, unlike the tracks mentioned above, they don’t bother to challenge it and develop it.
What’s worst, on the album level, all of these tracks hit the same notes; they channel a kind of moroseness and melancholy that has always informed Leprous’s music but ways always augmented by a broader emotional scale, containing anger, derision, rebellion, and love. Here, like on no other Leprous release, the emotional spectrum becomes somewhat monochrome and, as a result, less engaging. All of this is not to say that Pitfalls is a bad album necessarily; what it does, it does very well and, in a few moments on it, it also goes beyond that one thing. But in a time where bands like Disillusion, Agent Fresco, VOLA or Oddlands have already pushed the genre which Leprous undoubtedly pioneered forward, namely “nordic” prog, a release such as this hits far less powerfully than it might have in the past.
Indeed, coming from the band which released such varied and intricate albums as Coal and Bilateral, Pitfalls seems to lack the same kind of wild energy which they used to wield seemingly with no effort. Where that energy shines through, we are reminded of why Leprous became a legendary band but also of how far they have yet to go to recapture that savageness. Pitfalls is a step in the right direction after the somewhat lackluster previous release but leaves us hungering for more more than anything else. It’s definitely worth a listen if only for its best moments but it also leaves us yearning for a return to Leprous without the leash, for a Leprous that’s unexpected and raw. That’s definitely not the Leprous which made Pitfalls and it suffers for it.
Pitfalls releases on October 25th via InsideOut Music. You can pre-order it right here.