Fans cannot be fooled. Particularly the most loyal fans, who will see right through any insincere motivation behind a band’s sudden shift in style or change of direction. Twenty years ago, when Scorpions made the bizarre decision to release a dance pop album titled Eye II Eye, their puzzled fan base collectively groaned and tossed it directly into the trash (where it belongs). Metallica made the baffling decision with Lulu to push James Hetfield to the background and have Lou Reed bark and babble nonsensical poetry atop droning and uninspired riffs. Fans in every far-flung corner of the world who had the misfortune of being punished by that ‘artistic’ decision made the same mystified, worried face my parents made the day I came home from school and cheerfully announced I was going to drop out to become a painter (spoiler alert: I can’t paint). But outlandish changes and ulterior motives are not behind Pitfalls, the sixth and latest chapter in the natural evolution of Norwegian band Leprous. This isn’t an album comprised of premeditated, feckless alterations based on perceived demand from their fans, or anyone other than themselves. These songs are what they are because they naturally emerged from these five musicians as they strove to create something compelling and significant, that they liked first and foremost. And when art comes from a place that honest and genuine, it’s not likely to be poorly produced. In fact, it’s evident from the first listen that despite how unlike its predecessors it is, the Leprous DNA is woven throughout this stirring and seductive new album.
…atmosphere is king here…
If the album does suffer from anything, it’s perhaps that the emotional scope is narrower than it has been on past releases. Singer Einar Solberg takes on the lion’s share of the lyric writing (largely based on his struggles with depression and anxiety) which can propel the songs into bleakness and melancholy – there’s nothing as friendly or catchy as Malina‘s From The Flame, for example. That’s not to say there aren’t more energetic moments – there are. And as the album progresses, it grows stranger and more experimental. With conventional metal largely gone from their sound now, atmosphere is king here. Electronic layers have grown more prevalent while the guitars tend to occupy a different sonic space than in the past. Once again, the band welcomes cellist Raphael Weinroth-Browne, and new guest violinist Chris Baum (of last year’s tour mates Bent Knee) for added flavour. Solberg has always been an enthralling vocalist and front man, but on the first few listens to Pitfalls, I couldn’t help but think he has finally stolen the show – and that’s no small feat considering the excellent musicians who make up this band. Of course, as with any great album, further listens reveal more and more detail, with the intricate drumming of Baard Kolstad worthy of mention as one of the more awe-inspiring highlights.
Opening track Below is one of the band’s most effective, with its gloomy, sullen intro coming to a sudden end by the band crashing in and Solberg traversing the wide range of his vocal abilities across a sweeping, cinematic backing track. There’s a slow and hypnotic but funky groove almost in the vein of Another One Bites The Dust(!) to introduce the track I Lose Hope, but it soon takes on its own flavour as the guitars, vocals and keys come in and lead to a memorable chorus. Observing The Train is a beautiful track highly reminiscent of mid-period Porcupine Tree, with its floating, dreamy falsetto vocals and ethereal keyboards. By My Throne has a pulsing beat, but as it gets more complex and substantial in places, it’s unlikely to be played at a rave any time soon. Alleviate is the shortest track here, and the closest the band comes to producing a ‘normal’ sounding track. If you can conceive of a world where Leprous gets played on the radio, this solid, pop-infused song would be the one to introduce them to the masses.
…the album closes with a duality of menacing and celestial…
At The Bottom is an unusual arrangement that flips between minor and major keys, and signals the shift into the more experimental part of the album. Distant Bells spends its first few minutes in a morose mood before faint, ominous wisps begin to swirl in and finally the full band joins in for a grand closing, providing one of the strongest moments on the album. Another spine-tingler comes with Solberg’s ferocious roar at the thrilling end of Foreigner, a relentlessly driving and more concise track. This clears the way for the epic closer The Sky Is Red, an 11 minute dazzler that goes through several distinct sections. Opening with frenzied guitar parts and complex rhythms, the piece also incorporates a rare blues-tinged guitar solo. But it’s the final one-third of the piece that is the oddest and most inventive on the album: a sparse and mystical tribal sound is joined by angelic choir voices, and eventually the whole band playing a slow and sludgy riff, closing the album with a duality of menacing and celestial.
While there may be fans who won’t instantly warm to the sounds of Pitfalls, they should grasp that these natural progressions need to occur in any band that wants to maintain a sharply-honed creativity. Leprous haven’t been around long enough to be in danger of becoming a caricature of themselves. Nonetheless, they’re ensuring that danger never arises as they swiftly dart from strength to strength with each album, crafting purposeful, distinct works and building an impressive legacy. It’s as exciting as it is impossible to predict where they will go from here, and that’s right where they should be – it’s always best if nobody can tell. It’s hard to say whether this album is their watershed moment, or Malina before it, but surely now there’s no looking back anyway. There have been no tentative steps throughout this band’s career, each album is either a giant leap forward or an unanticipated and captivating swing to the side – or in the case of Pitfalls, somehow both.
Available from 25 October through many outlets.