Here’s a trick: whenever a band puts out a few albums you don’t like and then, suddenly, one that you do, try to ask yourself what changed. Were you simply not in a place to appreciate the last few releases? Or did something for the band change? The trick here is that the answer is usually a mix of both or, if we’re being honest, sort of unknowable. After all, we don’t really have access to the biographies of every single band we like and that’s a good thing. But it’s also hard to know ourselves (as Socrates told us a few thousand years ago) and even if we did, our moods and perspectives are shifting things. OK, so if the answer is not really there, what good is this “trick”? Well, it’s good for one thing: letting go and allowing yourself to enjoy that one, surprising album, without trying to build a narrative founded on speculation.
If you’ve been following my writing over the past few years, as well as the blog’s podcast, this intro will probably make sense. For those of you not in the know, the fact has been that I’ve been disappointed with Leprous‘s output in the last few years. It seems that since Coal (one of my all time favorite albums) the band has lost something essential to their core. The Congregation was good but felt derivative, unable to break free of the Leprous formula. And then when the band did break free of the formula with the more subdued and indie/alternative rock vibes of Malina and Pitfalls, I didn’t think that they did it well. Something was missing, some spark; the music sounded one dimensional and emotion-less. What exactly was missing is a question that returns us to our “trick” above; it might have been me and it might have been them and it was probably both.
But here’s the thing: Aphelion really is excellent. Interestingly enough, it continues the line taken by the last few releases. It’s not Coal and it’s certainly not Bilateral. It still has the same alternative vibes that the recent albums had, preferring pop compositions, catchy choruses, big guitar hooks, and plenty of emotional content over anything which might be considered progressive or even heavy. But where the other albums felt empty as a result, Aphelion is veritably bursting with energy, engagement, and interesting, effective music. The end result is an album that feels Leprous without chaining itself to the band’s clichés (there’s nary a staccato riff, for example) but which also feels grounded and filled with direction.
The area of improvement in my eyes is Einar Solberg’s vocals. It’s no secret that Solberg is one of metal’s most accomplished and skilled vocals. But his performance on the previous few releases was my main source of disappointment: it felt disconnected and ineffectual. But this is definitely not the case on Aphelion. Take “Out of Here” for example, the second track and one of my favorites on the album. Solberg doesn’t need to scream or take up huge space in the mix to be effective here; his inflection on the quieter parts of the track, mostly in the beginning, lures the listener into these morose spaces. But when the track explodes (more on this below), his voice is incredibly powerful and present. This comes to a head during the chorus, where vocal melodies are used to great effect to underpin and support Solberg’s high notes. The melisma rings true and the whole thing radiates with the force of his delivery like it hasn’t since Coal.
And while we are on the matter, holy fuck what a chorus! It takes a full two and a half minutes to get to it but boy, is it worth it. The synths are amazingly produced, beautifully mingling with the string instruments that flit in the background. The bass is so groovy and when combined with the drums, creates one of Leprous’s catchiest lines. Speaking of which, the main guitar riff is one of the more inspired things that Leprous have recorded; it’s so breezy, light, and fresh, perfectly serving its role. Instead of taking over the chorus, it uplifts the rest of the instruments and allows Solberg to maintain his control where needed and underpins him when he needs an extra boost.
This kind of structure repeats throughout the album (another good example is the next track, “Silhouette” and it’s many choirs), where things just fit in better. No one instrument seems to stand out above the rest and the album feels like a more cohesive whole than it did in the past, where you could tell some tracks were written around a specific cool idea and didn’t really have their own reason to exist. Speaking of integrating things well, it’s amazing to see how the band’s collaboration with Raphael Weinroth-Browne has benefited them. His cello parts on this album are fantastic, adding heft and weight to the passages which need it. It’s also telling that Weinroth-Browne is “baked” right into the composition process. His strings never feel out of place or there just for the sake of variety; instead, they are built into the track’s structure. This is telling because it hints, again, at what I said above: everything on Aphelion feels necessary and premeditated, each note, turn, and twist planned for maximum effect.
I could go on; Aphelion includes much to like and much that’s new for Leprous (check out “Have You Ever?” for example for some darkwave vibes that are new to the Leprous sound). But to put a bow around it, it feels like a true return to form for the band which is especially impressive considering that it doesn’t return to their old sound. Leprous is one of those bands who have been blessed/cursed to release not one but two incredibly iconic albums, early on in their career. They will probably be forever stalked by Bilateral and Coal and I assume the temptation to just make Coal 2 (like another very famous progressive metal band is doing, ahem ahem) is always there. But instead, Leprous have chosen to show their die hard fans, their skeptics, and their adoring listeners what they can do which is to create moving, powerful, intricate music that’s great to listen to. Hell, if the previous three releases were “needed” to get them to Aphelion, then I’m glad they released them because the album really does feel essential and necessary. Welcome back Leprous; glad to have you.
Aphelion releases on August 27th. You can head on over here to pre-order it.