Once considered Ihsahn’s backing band, Leprous have since paved their own way into the world of progressive metal and now straight-forward progressive rock or art rock if you will. Even though their latest output Malina might sound similar to that of famous Mortal Kombat femme fetale Mileena, the disc doesn’t have quite as much force or bite as the demonic outworld ninja and it most certainly doesn’t cover the brutal spectrum of their earliest releases. By now, it’s safe to say that Leprous have moved on from metal altogether and are now encompassing territory similar to Muse and The Mars Volta, which might not be such a bad thing after all. That just depends on what kind of listener you are, because this is literally the exact same thing as the old-era Opeth vs the new-era Opeth argument. Whereas Opeth delved into sixties prog rock, Leprous have driven themselves right into modern prog rock, which one might say was their destination which could be seen as far back as Coal. I saw the writing on the wall, and definitely don’t take as much of an issue with it as some will.
Ignoring the slow to start opener “Bonneville” we enter “Stuck” which continues to show a natural evolution from 2015’s The Congregation, particularly in the vein of the saccharine pop choruses. Frontman Einar Solberg knows what he’s doing here, almost melding together progressive rock and Norwegian pop music into a beautiful basket that features more intellectual muscle than many of the pop artists here in the states. For instance, “Stuck” is nearly seven minutes long, despite it’s huge chorus reverberations (much in pop music fare). There’s an atmospheric pause where classical instrumentation is referenced, as well as some down-tuned guitar (they haven’t stripped it down completely) and a few vocalizing effects (almost comparable to American over-singing, but not a detriment in this case) that do not lead back into the chorus, which is surprising. If this had been a US pop act, I’m pretty sure that the chorus would have been hammered at least once more before the end. “From The Flame” currently has a hundred percent from someone on Metal Archives who apparently hasn’t heard of Tool or Karnivool before, as Tor Oddmund Suhrke’s riff style here sounds nearly identical to that of Karnivool, only to change to the orchestrally backed chorus. Now, unlike “Stuck” the band chose to hammer this one into oblivion. I’m actually waiting for it to appear in an advertisement for something, like a move or game trailer. The ending note, “from the flame, I’ll take my aim” alone sounds like something you’d hear at the end of a game trailer, right before the release date appears on the screen.
That being said, do I think it sounds commercial? Well, it can and that would depend entirely on the song. I can’t honestly blame the band for trying to make their music more accessible, even though an equally short piece like “Captive” may have a little more chunk than could appear commercial as it’s the kind of piece that goes into such an experimental direction in the time signature department that most executives won’t be able to get their heads around it. Solberg’s chorus is just as catchy as some of the others, but the piece shows that the band are not completely willing to compromise themselves. Solberg’s keyboards are more prominent in the more electronic “Illuminate” with Suhrke’s guitar sounding equally robotic. As far as the drumming is concerned, Baard Kolstad might be the drummer for Borknagar, but they could have had programmed drums here and I wouldn’t have been any the wiser. His performance is so simplistic that it doesn’t matter if he was behind the kit at all. Comically, “Illuminate” is so robotic that programmed drumming would have went right along with it.
As we continue on, “Leashes” just feels like progressive hard rock with a thumping, poppy chorus. It’s getting to the point where people who like Leprous for their pop meets prog rock will be the same people that like Ghost for their pop meets doom/occult rock. Not to say that it isn’t intelligent, but I don’t think I’m hearing anything here that I haven’t really heard before. As strong as the chorus hits here, there’s a vocal effect that Solberg does with the chorus that I don’t care for one bit. It seems like it comes off the heels of Katy Perry and Taylor Swift – that “awhoaaoh, awhooah” piece. Just turns me off the song generally, far too much US influence there and one of the reasons that I feel the pop scene here is incredibly plastic. This also might be a reason why I saw so many negative comments from metal fans when metal pages were advertising this album on their social media feeds. Many of them were homophobic, which I kind of expected. However, there were others upset that the band have evolved past their earlier, heavier material and I can understand that. But honestly, it isn’t like Leprous aren’t trying. “Mirage” is a rather strong pop number, with a catchy chorus that works well enough amidst some djent injections and light melody. It can sound a bit ethereal, but equally robotic. While again, this is nothing that I haven’t already heard before; it’s still quite solid and I wouldn’t feel right bashing it just because I’m familiar with similar sounding material. The title cut is a depressing ballad with a slew of electronic background effects that remind me of Steve Roach’s artistically moving atmospheres. “Coma” seems to be more visually active, offering a more heated approach and dare I say, one of the heaviest tracks on the album. It’s still very saccharine, but reminds me of speedy surf-rock written by mad scientists.
Going no further into this nearly an hour long tenure, I think I’ve more or less spelled it out as far as Leprous’s current sound is concerned. Obviously, it will not be for everyone, and on that same note, not everything is. But, if you’re looking for rock music with a bit more intelligence and do not mind a glassy and almost feminine vocal approach, (not in the power metal style, this is something completely different) then I would recommend picking up a copy of Malina. If you’ve already stopped at Coal or Bilateral, this disc isn’t going to give you a reason to pick them back up. In fact, it’s almost doubtful that they’ll ever go back into those early extreme metal realms again. This is without question the most commercial that Leprous have ever sounded, and if I’ve said that before in my last Leprous review here at New Noise; then I definitely mean it here. As you might expect, not everything on the disc is marketable, but Leprous certainly are playing according to the pop rulebook, especially in the vocal territory. I’d be curious to what Solberg is currently listening to as that might give me an idea as to why the vocal approach here utilizes several pop tricks that I’ve heard countless times – almost to the point of insanity. Though it isn’t very heavy, there’s still quite a bit of brain here and that is what is most important. Malina proves that Leprous have not sanded the edges down all too much, even after such a dramatic change in form from the material that many remember years ago… and if it’s not broke, then don’t fix it.