(2013) Leprous – Coal: Anniversary Special

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The Norwegian progressive metal bunch, LEPROUS, racked up nothing but solid praise for their 2011 release “Bilateral.” So, it would have been quite easy for them, back in the day, to tap into that vein and drop a few more albums of the same kind: a bunch of new songs with frantic, yet groovy polyrhythms and almost poppy choruses – with the term, ”poppy,” referring perhaps both to the plant, papaver somniferum, and the music of popular acclaim, in this particular case. After all, their 2009 debut WAS entitled “Tall Poppy Syndrome.” Well, in a way, that’s just what they did with their next endeavor, the third studio album, “Coal,” released on May 20th, 2013, via Century Media. There was one major difference in comparison with the previous outings, though, and it was such a big leap forward that it refreshed the band’s whole craft. Every bit as amazing as the first two albums were, the third installment in the band’s haunting back catalog was a tad more atmospheric, stripped-down in its approach to songwriting, and, perhaps because of exactly that, a good deal more coherent. No doubt, operating as the touring lineup for Ihsahn had worked its magic, in terms of sharpening their songwriting prowess. “Coal” is a truly unique treasure trove of atmospheric prog metal.

The album opens with a genuine matryoshka doll for a song, entitled “Foe.” The song unfolds, layer by layer, into a beautiful quagmire of vocals and reverb-drenched guitars over a simple, yet diabolically syncopated 7/4 beat. The vocal coda, which actually takes up almost half of the song’s length, could be a homage to the American avant-garde musician, Laurie Anderson, I reckon. A stunt like this is not something you normally come across in a major label release, that’s for sure. So, pretty early on, it becomes crystal clear that the album pulls no punches. The opener also sets the mood for the whole album, of a substantially darker and more melancholic sort than that on those previous albums. The dynamic range is still very broad but it is stretched over the album as a whole rather than over individual tracks, one at a time.

Next up, “Chronic,” with its almost FAITHNOMORE-like crossover vibe, could be thought of as a remnant from the more playful “Bilateral” era, if you will. Of course, the proggy twists are something you would probably not encounter on any FNM album – vocalist Einar Solberg‘s operatic vocals, on the other hand, you probably would. In terms of vocals, LEPROUS have always been in a league of their own, and if you have not yet seen these proggers on stage, you’re in for a real treat should you ever consider doing such a thing – yes, even though the band has embarked into a very different musical realm with their last couple of albums compared to these older efforts. The title track, “Coal,” is one of the gems on this album where Solberg really shows his vocal range, what with one moment singing like an angel, then belting fire and brimstone the next.

There are three standout tracks on the outing. First up, “The Cloak” throws a genuinely heart-wrenching gut-punch, with Solberg going into falsetto and the dynamics of the song following suit. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the other standout track, “The Valley,” is up next. Despite being a rather lengthy song, clocking in about 9 minutes, it instantly demands to be put on repeat for a dubious number of times, because when the chorus kicks in for the first time, the song tears your heart out of your chest – and you simply can’t get enough of that. The song is seemingly very simple – just a few sparsely played riffs in some weird time signature and that’s it – but the impact they make! The band honed this diabolical trick to perfection on their 2015 album “Congregation” but, here, they already offer a delicious teaser of what is to come.

After these two tracks, it takes a bit of effort to gather your bearings. So, I guess it was a good move to place a mellow song like “Salt” next. It is a piano-driven song where the band’s signature prog conduct gets a power-pop frosting. Perhaps stemming from Solberg‘s haunting falsetto, I get spine-chilling flashbacks of the Australian prog act, THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT, as well as the Swedish proggers, PAIN OF SALVATION.

The third mind-blowing standout track is “Echo.” Once again, the song unfolds with rather subtle moves: a strong melody that grows huge little-by-little, robust riffs weaving an intricate tapestry in the background, and Solberg‘s haunting vocals to top it all off. If you aren’t stunned at this point, you might do yourself a favor by contacting a hearing specialist or checking if your ears are simply clogged.

The standard edition of the album ends with “Contaminate Me,” featuring Ihsahn‘s snarled vocals. The song is epic enough to do the honors with flying colors, indeed. If the riffs weren’t bouncing to and fro in such weird, off-kilter time signatures here and there, the song could easily fit onto any solo album by this one-time EMPEROR frontman. Once again, the coda is something out of the ordinary: ambient soundscapes with bursts of Ihsahn‘s barbed vocals, gypsy-jazz violins, and free-jazz drums. Well, that’s one way to bring things to a closure, I guess, and I don’t mind.

The special edition comes with two additional tracks, of which “Bury” sounds like a leftover track from the “Bilateral” era. It’s a nice prog banger, don’t get me wrong, but I get why the band chose to add it only as a bonus track. It resonates with a tad different aura than the rest of the tracks. Then, there is an ambient remix of the opener which, quite frankly, is but a curiosity for the diehard fans.

Coal” proved to be the last album to feature drummer Tobias Ørnes Andersen and bassist Rein Blomquist; maybe it was a telltale sign that the band was heading in a new direction. The thing is – all the aspects that made this album so thoroughly haunting, LEPROUS honed to perfection on their next album 2 years later, before taking off on a whole new tangent again. I was already familiar with the band’s prog conduct when this album came out but, in retrospect, it was “Coal” that finally cemented my undying love for this crazy Norwegian bunch. This album still gives me goosebumps.

Written by Jani Lehtinen

Tracklist

  1. Foe
  2. Chronic
  3. Coal
  4. The Cloak
  5. The Valley
  6. Salt
  7. Echo
  8. Contaminate Me
  9. Bury
  10. Foe (Remix)

Lineup

Einar Solberg – vocals, synths, grand piano

Tor Oddmund Suhrke – guitars, baritone guitar

Øystein Landsverk – guitars

Rein Blomquist – bass

Tobias Ørnes Andersen – drums, percussion

Label

InsideOut Music / Century Media

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