Perhaps there exists a natural progression for certain artists to eventually return to their stylistic roots, but recent times have ushered in a very noticeable trend that has seen some of progressive metal’s most critically acclaimed luminaries gradually gravitate towards a more classic progressive rock sound. Why exactly this is so common is unclear, but one thing that is for certain is that the latest material from such acts has made for some of the most divisive recent releases in the metal and rock worlds. Whilst many extolled Opeth’s Pale Communion as one of their finest compositional accomplishments, others panned it for being a case of brazen worship towards the likes of Genesis and Yes, just as the metal and rock communities seemed to be split completely down the middle with regards to Mastodon’s newest record from earlier this year, Emperor of Sand, which witnessed the genre-defining progressive and sludge metal outfit integrate influences from Alice in Chains and Queens of Stone Age into a more progressive format. Although in both of these instances, I have typically landed on the more positive side of the fence, I can nevertheless understand why many have taken issue with these stylistic changes of pace, as they all circle back to one salient issue, that being the extent to which these groups sacrificed some of their most definitive characteristics in exchange for quite clearly channelling the signature styles of other major artists from across the rock and metal maps. Upon my first listen to the latest album from Norwegian progressive metal titan Leprous, Malina, my initial reaction was that this was bound to be a release to arouse similarly schismatic reactions from the music world and, indeed, this seems to have been the case. In fact, the controversy that the album has already caused is epitomised by the review published by fellow indie music blog Angry Metal Guy, who broke their usual format to issue a double-review of the record from the perspectives of two of their writers, the first of whom praised Malina highly, whilst the second review was a scathing one. Given Leprous’ past output, which pushed progressive metal into exceptionally avant-garde and technical territory, the striking tone shift marked by Malina was sure to cause contention. Although the convoluted compositional approach and painstaking precision of the prog panjandrum’s previous projects underpins their slight artistic makeover on Malina, there nevertheless remains a defined alteration to the overall spirit of their usual style across the album, with the evil, twisted tones being reined in for a brighter and more refined timbre that often strikes some of the stop-start technicalities of math rock. Where Leprous’ newfound stylistic identity differs from the renovations made to the sounds of bands such as Opeth or Mastodon, however, lies in the group’s ability to firmly grasp the same appetite for avant-gardism and taste for technical wizardry that has delineated their work up until this point, whilst simply framing these attributes within a more polished and progressive rock-orientated paradigm. As such, Malina may mark a manifest modification to the usual metal foundation that has propped up the band’s past work, but it is no weaker because of it, rather Leprous have merely recontextualised much of what has made the experimental metal mammoth’s music so compelling up until this point.
Despite the bevy of bands who have been cited by Leprous as inspirations, one could have never pigeonholed the group as a sum of their influences. Now, that’s not to say that this has changed on Malina, but compared to an album such as Tall Poppy Syndrome or Bilateral, the impact that an outfit such as Radiohead may have had on the band is a lot more apparent, compared to the more obvious cues taken from the likes of Porcupine Tree, Opeth, The Dillinger Escape Plan and Behemoth from their earlier, more metallic undertakings. As a matter of fact, such a stylistic reshaping is evident right from the onset with the opening track, Bonneville, during the introduction of which frontman Einar Solberg’s airy, legato, elongated whimpers flutter atop a backdrop of plucky keyboard licks and guitar harmonics, much in the way that one could have expected from Thom Yorke across much of the material from an album such as A Moon Shaped Pool. Over the course of the song’s opening passage, the arrangement is very much used as a backdrop to frame Solberg’s singing, with his dainty vocals soaring almost independently, as if completely disconnected from the glistening, glitchy soundscape below. Utilising long, swooping vocal melodies over an intricate and complex instrumental setting is by no means a new feat, and not even by Leprous’ standards, but on a song such as Bonneville, the instrumentation has more of a footing in electropop than it does in the group’s usual metal leanings, but they seem no less at home as a result. In fact, Leprous prove themselves to be just as capable at configuring tense build-ups and maximalist pay-offs within this stylistic incarnation of the band as any, with the gentle addition of flickering guitars, pulsating synthesizer hums and gorgeous, wispy vocal harmonies guiding the piece quite naturally towards its inevitable sea change during its midsection, as an outburst of razor-sharp guitar chords unsettle the calm tides of the opening passage, heralding the storm of thunderous drum work and the high-gain, low-pitch blares of roaring guitars. It’s towards the end of the cut, however, when the initial eruption of brittle guitar tones and pummelling drumming smooth out into a more rigid, but no less crushing, formula, wherein the epic heights of Solberg’s impassioned cries conclude the song’s escalation with a well-worked and emotionally-intense coda.
There’s evidence of an almost jazz-like quality to the way in which Leprous toy with tension and release across Malina and, undoubtedly, the same awe-inspiring apogees of Bonneville can be found elsewhere in the tracklisting, whether this be courtesy of the propulsive, punctuated rhythms of Illuminate that see buzzing, sawtooth synths and quivering keyboard whirs give way to one of Solberg’s stickiest refrains on the record, or the marching beat and bright, meandering guitar melodies of Leashes that, in a similar fashion, set the stage for the frontman’s hook-heavy vocal work to take flight during the chorus. Perhaps the key feature of the overall sonic palette of Malina that is underlined by the stark tonal dichotomy of the former and latter halves of Bonneville, however, is the means by which Leprous manage to maintain a heavier and more expressly metal edge to their sound across the album. Whilst the guitar and keyboard tones are notably cleaner, brighter and carry a less distinctive bite compared to Leprous’ earlier endeavours, much of the record’s versatility in its overall timbre arises from the nimbleness with which the drums, the bass and some of the lower guitar tones are able to really crank up the grittier edges to the group’s sound when necessary. The rapid, rumbling drums on Coma, for instance, ground the sharp, punchy guitar riff and Solberg’s soaring singing in a more rounded sound, whilst breaking down into cascades of rolls and accented crashes that could have been worked into a tech-death track, with this heavier groundwork bolstering the driving, off-kilter groove of the hook, as to make for one of the most forceful and vigorous bursts of energy on the entire record.
Whilst Leprous undoubtedly accommodate for the stylistic change of pace displayed on Malina for the most part, there nonetheless exist some moments wherein the choice to rein in the dirtier and more tangled tones of the avant-garde tapestry featured on their previous material leaves certain moments feeling underdeveloped or lacklustre in dramatic impact. The title track, for example, weaves its way through many of the same meandering vocal melodies, symphonic swells and surges of thumping drum work to have been integrated throughout much of the tracklisting, but the way in which they are applied lacks a clear-cut manoeuvre between a building up or release of tension, leaving the song coming across as rather aimless as a result, as if the group were attempting to capture more of a general mood than an engaging compositional progression. The closing track, The Last Milestone, too, despite striking some hauntingly luscious tones, courtesy of the sweeping interplay between the grumbling cello and expressive, higher strings, is deficient in a defined structure, to the point of sauntering aimlessly at times, with its lack of structure losing the engagement of the pieces that are more purposeful in their tortuous nature. Orchestral-based cuts can make for some exceptionally dramatic and climactic closing tracks when done properly, but in the case of The Last Milestone, its undirected ambling simply sees the song struggle to find its footing in any marked configuration, with its seven-and-a-half minute runtime soon running short of interesting tones to tide over the listener’s investment in the piece and, unfortunately, concluding the record on a tepid note. Outside of a handful of outliers, however, the strengths of much of Malina match those of Leprous’ past artistic achievements, all whilst simply incorporating them into a different stylistic structure, which, if anything, makes the album that much more impressive.
With much of Malina witnessing Leprous assume a somewhat more conventional format to their usual progressive stylings, a significant portion of the tracklisting strikes some moments of genuine accessibility, wherein the band comes closer to writing a conventional pop rock song than ever before. The fact that the average song length on Malina is substantially shorter than that of previous Leprous albums is enough to signal that the outfit were likely striving for a more digestible approach to progressive metal and rock on this latest project of theirs and, as was likely to be expected, it’s often the record’s shorter songs that see the band boast their abilities when it comes to crafting solid, infectious hooks, as opposed to their usual knack for convoluted compositional latticework. Once again, that’s not to say that Leprous completely phone in the technicalities that have given their most revered material a complicated, mathematical edge, but they certainly rework these trappings to suit a more palatable presentation. Case in point, just by listening to the album, it’s easy to guess the songs that were likely chosen as singles, which is not something that one could usually say about a Leprous record. The lead single, From the Flame, is infectious through and through, from the climbing falsetto of Solberg’s singing over the refrain to the bass accents that punctuate the propulsive groove during the verse, all whilst flurries of blindingly technical drum work are tastefully intermixed amidst the track’s instrumental passages. It’s across the second single from the album, Stuck, however, wherein practically every component of the song comes together to form a perfectly crafted concoction of crisp riffage, blistering rhythmic intricacies, sticky vocal refrains and solid compositional finesse, all wrapped up in an airtight performance from the band. The sharp stings of accented, uber-melodic guitars that introduce the track are oddly evocative of the slight blues tinge to the experimental rock-driven guitars that were prominent on La Dispute’s Wildlife, especially on songs such as I See Everything. Meanwhile, the verse section boasts a fantastically well-developed beat that balances the constant strumming of the bright guitar with a punctuated, bass-driven drum pattern, which is gradually fortified as the second guitar adds some meaty melodic body to the groove. The chorus places more of an emphasis on chord progressions, rather than flashy, labyrinthine technical skill, than perhaps any previous Leprous song, with Solberg’s mighty vocal heights reaching some of the potent, emotional peaks of power metal. As these songs, as well as the likes of Captive and Illuminate, demonstrate, the secret weapon in Leprous’ arsenal across Malina is their capacity to craft the catchiest hooks the group has ever laid to tape. Although the band has displayed a keen ear for strong melodic tones in the past, the word ‘catchy’ could seldom have been applied to their mathematically precise experimental metal stylings up until this point, but Malina marks an impressive revelation with regards to Leprous’ songwriting style and their ability to reconcile serpentine song structures and technical dexterity with an authentic semblance of pop appeal.
Although Malina has already proven to be a divisive release, this album sounds as much like a Leprous album as any other Leprous album from what I can tell, and this is wherein its greatest achievement lies. Whilst moving towards a comparatively more conventional sound that seemingly pulls from Radiohead as much as it does Rush, the group has firmly upheld the trademarks that have drawn so many prog fans to their work in the first place. Everything’s here, from Solberg’s ability to seamlessly switch between melancholic frailty and pure melodic power to the success with which the band straddles the line between contagious, hook-heavy groove craft and inch-perfect compositional prowess. As such, the core appeal of the avant-gardists remains wholly intact, to the point that those who appreciated the fundamental artistic principles behind their previous output will surely find similar points of intrigue here, even if they may appear in a vastly mutated form. It is unfortunate, however, that there is such an evident and significant disparity in the quality of the record’s most developed and underdeveloped pieces, but when it comes to the bearing that the more directionless songs have on the album as a whole, they nevertheless typically display enough whiffs of strong melodies and striking instrumental tones to not disrupt the fluidity of the tracklisting. All in all, although the Leprous presented on Malina may be sleeker and more cultivated, the progressive powerhouse proves itself more than capable of packing a heavy punch within this newfound, poppy paradigm.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7.5/10