The progressive metal genre is so big, so broad and so diverse that it can often be hard for bands to stand out. Some do so simply by being really bloody good at what they do. Others manage to carve a niche by doing something unusual and unique. Leprous are one of those bands who seem to be able to do a great job of both.
For those who don’t know the band, they hail from Norway (a metal band from Norway? No way!) and have been releasing music since 2004. Their debut full release, Tall Poppy Syndrome, came out in 2009. While it was released to little fanfare, it quickly gathered traction in prog metal circles thanks to its unique stylings, particularly in the form of Einar Solberg’s vocals which ranged from the beautiful to the bonkers. 2011’s follow-up Bilateral carried on where the debut left off, and in my view is one of the great metal albums of the last 10 years. For their third album, Coal, they changed tack slightly. It was a less heavy, darker, more rhythmic, and developed themes more slowly. While some of the changes worked and it has some great stuff, the album didn’t grab me quite so much.
So, how does their fourth full album, The Congregation, stack up? Thankfully, very well. Some of the features that were brought out in Coal have stayed, and some have even been taken further. For example, the band’s riffs become more rhythmic and percussive with each album. While on Coal, this at times felt a little uninventive – too much riffing on the same chord – on The Congregation it works superbly. Some of the rhythms take a number of listens to get your head around, but they are very infectious once you do. The album’s opener and lead single, The Price, is a great example of this.
But while Leprous have continued to push forward with their percussive riffs, melodically the album is (happily) more of a return to their earlier albums. By which I don’t mean that the melodies are similar to songs on Bilateral or Tall Poppy Syndrome, and indeed songs like closer Lower could easily have sat on Coal, but the way melodies are structured and the prominence of huge choruses harkens back to the band’s first two efforts.
Another sticking point with Coal, for some fans, was that the album at times felt a bit repetitive. The band tried to avoid jumping too much between moods, but some (myself included) felt the songs didn’t build enough, and on occasion the band got stuck repeating a riff or chorus that wasn’t even very interesting. Thankfully, that seems to have been a temporary fad. Not that the songs jump around from idea to idea on The Congregation, far from it. To me, this album seems to achieve what they were trying to do with Coal. Ideas are repeated, but they develop. Styles change, but don’t feel jarring. Where a chorus is repeated, there are subtle changes – a counter-melody here, a harmony line there – that helps the song grow and take the listener on more of a journey. The album’s second single, Rewind, while not perfect, showcases this feature nicely.
My favourite song on the album, The Flood, stands out because it brilliantly masters all three of the above points. The song begins with a dark ballad vibe that suggests this might be a bit of respite from the intensity of the opening three tracks. And in some ways it is, as parts of the song are very calm. But the song quickly kicks into an enormous and hugely catchy chorus – imagine a power-ballad but written by… well, by Leprous. The song continues to grow with some surprising but smoothly-flowing gear-shifts. After the final chorus, it closes with an immensely infections riff-driven section, reminiscent of In Memoriam by label-mates and recent touring partners Haken. Another favourite song of mine, Down, I love for similar reasons.
Performances on the album are top-notch, as ever, and Jens Bogren has done yet another fantastic job with the sound. In the vocal department, Einar is sounding great, and while he doesn’t utilise wacky styles nearly so much as he did on their first album, he continues to refine his style and sing in a way that fits what’s going in the music. In terms of song-writing, performance and production, this album is the perfect marrying of the best things about the band’s previous two releases, Bilateral and Coal. I don’t know if I love it as much as Bilateral, but it’s certainly making a bid for that number 1 spot, and gets better with every listen.