Listen to 16, and the question that will come to your mind is this: what will be the second best prog album of 2023? Solberg surely has the top spot nailed.
How important is the quality of a singer’s voice versus the music that accompanies them? If you take Barbara Streisand for example, then people surely listen to her for her voice much more than any song or album. On the other hand, people listen to Pink Floyd for their music more than the voices of Gilmour or Waters. This is the question that came to my mind when considering the career of the Norwegian group Leprous. Their 2009 debut album, Tall Poppy Syndrome, was a slab of heavy progressive metal, all riffs and plenty of growling vocals. Einar Solberg’s vocals do not stand out at all, and that album was all about the music. Over time, Leprous’ music has lost that metal edge, with a more progressive rock approach taking over. That brought Solberg’s voice to the fore, and by 2021’s Aphelion, Solberg’s remarkable range and powerful delivery was, to these ears, the main attraction in the band’s music. Two years later and we now have what was perhaps the inevitable next step: an Einar Solberg solo album.
As the primary writer for Leprous, Solberg faced the risk of producing a Leprous album under another name. One of the ways he avoided that was to pull in other songwriters to co-write songs with him. He describes that process as follows: ‘With some composers, I usually started with the first suggestion, then I’d sent it to them and say, ‘Okay, do what you want with it!’. Some people were less comfortable with changing stuff and mixing stuff up. Others were very unafraid in their approach and just went for it, 100 per cent and bring their character to it, changing a lot of stuff that I’d done. Then they send it back, and then I change some more stuff, and we’d throw it back and forth until both sides were satisfied. It was good to embrace so many different approaches.’ His co-creators also contributed with their instruments, and not just on the track they co-wrote, so the result of that is an extraordinary rich set of instruments being played on the album: keyboards, guitars (five different guitarists!), drums, bass, violin, cello, trumpet, trombone, French-horn, saxophone, and a church organ. And there’s a full choir to boot! Doing the arrangement and production for all that sounds like it must have been a daunting task, requiring some serious expertise, and yet Solberg did it himself. So, let’s dive in and see how he fared.
There are eleven tracks on 16 which might make you conclude that there are a lot of short songs but that would be misleading since the running time is almost seventy minutes. It barely squeezes into a single CD and requires four sides of vinyl. A good number of tracks are in the six-to-eight-minute range and the title track is a perfect example of one of these mid-length mini-epics. It opens hesitantly with nebulous strings that gradually emerge out of the fog to be joined by Solberg singing very slowly and tenderly and seeming to be lost in a reverie of nostalgia. He hits those gorgeous high notes in the gentle chorus where the strings now play pizzicato to provide some rhythm. Staccato notes on the cello (played by co-writer Raphael Weinroth-Browne) give some slight forward propulsion to the second verse and a short burst of drums arrives in the second chorus before a gentle coda from the strings closes the piece. It’s an incredible piece of music that is gripping for almost eight minutes despite being a simple structure and melody, and despite having no dramatic climaxes, no power chords (and maybe no guitars!), and vocals that barely get beyond a whisper. This and several other songs are characterised by his sort of light instrumentation which puts Solberg’s magnetic and mesmerising voice centre stage. If you’re wondering about the meaning of that song and album title then Solberg explains: ‘From 16 to 19, there were a lot of very life-defining moments that happened to me, and that changed me. That’s when I kind of lost my innocence and I started realising that life is serious and bad shit can happen’. Solberg goes on to say that it is not all about negative stuff but as we’ve come to expect from him, he doesn’t hide anything and this is an album full of emotionally-charged singing.
Another highlight amongst the longer songs is Where All The Twigs Broke, where Solberg is joined in the creative process by his sister Heidi (who has her own musical project, under the name of Star Of Ash). It is probably the most experimental song in the set, lacking any obvious hook lines and strangely flitting between gentle piano and thumping percussion with harsh synth chords. It has a vocal line that brought Fish-era Marillion to my mind. Like much of the album, the lyrics here are tantalisingly poetic, always fascinating, and open to interpretation. Similarly unsettling is Splitting The Soul, which has Solberg at his angriest, with the chorus embellished by growling death metal vocals. In contrast, Solberg sings the verses in a weird robotic tone, reminding me of Bryan Ferry in Roxy Music’s Every Dream Home A Heartache. If Splitting The Soul is all anger and angst then Over The Top is all delicate angelic singing accompanies by serene piano chords. That is, until it gets to the bombastic chorus where it’s strident singing and kitchen-sink time with the instrumentation. It’s simple, and to some degree predictable, and it is indeed over the top, but it’s outstanding and irresistible too. Believe me, you’ll be humming it all day. There again, if you’re not humming that, then you may find yourself walking down the street muttering ‘get me out here’ which is the catchy line repeated almost ad nauseum in Metacognitive, an excellent piece characterised by a claustrophobic atmosphere.
Of the shorter tracks, Remember Me is a highlight. It starts with synths and sampled drums, initially hesitant and then with a gorgeously sung earworm of a chorus. Strings briefly add different textures before an explosion of harsh guitar chords accompanies Solberg in a fierce rendition of the chorus. Without a doubt the most left field song is Home, written along with Bent Knee’s Ben Levin. It deserves a prize for originality, partly for its big band sound, but above all for its astonishing rap sequence – surely a first for Solberg! Home is in the middle-part of the album where two other tracks don’t reach the incredible results achieved elsewhere: Grotto, a fairly straight forward song and perhaps the closest to the sound of Leprous, is good but nothing special, and the overlong Blue Light which has a slow almost jazzy gait to it but never seems to quite take off despite a good stab at a climax towards the end.
How do you wrap-up an album of such outstanding material? Well, how about an eleven-minute epic which in terms of emotional heart-on-the-sleeve stuff, blows out of the water everything that has preceded it? That’s what Solberg manages to achieve with the remarkable The Glass Is Empty, where apart from his extraordinarily impassioned vocal performance, the surprise highlight is the drumming of Keli Guðjónsson. The fast percussion that accompanies the opening church organ is merely a hint of what is to come. Solberg’s meandering almost-spoken vocals are pure Peter Hammill, and as the choir enters like a ray of hope, it is brutally swept aside by fiercely repetitive drumbeats and power chords, swirling strings and Solberg now sounding like Hammill at his most angst-ridden. There’s a massive climax which takes us to the half-way mark before Solberg returns with barely audible yearning vocals with just piano and violin accompaniment. The pace gradually quickens up and the piano accompaniment is joined by the persistent drumbeat, quietly at first (sneaking up on us) but then more stridently as the orchestra swells and Solberg’s vocals reach an impassioned climax before the music stops dead and the listener is left in stunned silence. That’s some way to close an album.
Listen to 16, and the question that will come to your mind is this: what will be the second best prog album of 2023? Solberg surely has the top spot nailed. The other question is of course whether we will get more solo material from Solberg. The good news is that he states: ‘I will definitely continue with this because I really like it, but the next album will be more of a proper solo album, because I haven’t done that before’. And the good news for Leprous fans is that he has no intention of abandoning that ship either.