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Leprous - Aphelion CD (album) cover

APHELION

Leprous

 

Tech/Extreme Prog Metal

3.85 | 86 ratings

From Progarchives.com, the ultimate progressive rock music website

lukretio
4 stars The aphelion is the point in the orbit of a celestial body most distant from the Sun, so that, no matter where the body moves next, it must get closer to the Sun. With the title of their seventh full-length album, Leprous splendidly capture the bleakness of our current difficult state of affairs, while at the same time sending a powerful message of hope for the future. This ambivalence also describes perfectly the atmosphere that pervades the new record: bleak, introverted and coming from a place of darkness, yet full of yearning and anticipation. Charged with these conflicting emotions and packed with loads of unconventional arrangements and sonic ideas, Aphelion may just be the most difficult, yet intimately rewarding, album released by the Norwegian quintet to date.

Over the years, Leprous have followed a path that is not unknown to a few other contemporary prog metal acts: starting from the extreme boundaries of progressive metal, they steadily navigated towards more melodic songwriting and lighter arrangements. This process arguably culminated with their 2019's masterpiece Pitfalls, a gloriously melodic fusion of progressive ambition and pop sensibilities. Aphelion germinates from similar seeds, but has taken a moodier, more introspective turn, shying away from the catchy melodicism and propulsive songwriting of its predecessor, and resorting instead to sparser arrangements, slow winding song structures, and complex vocal arrangements that take time and repeated listens before they properly sink in.

Sonically, Aphelion leaves few points of reference to rock and metal audiences. Vocals, strings, piano and synthesizers are often the sole driving force of the songs. Raphael Weinroth-Browne guests once again on cello as he had done before on Pitfalls and Malina, and is joined here by Chris Baum on violin. Their contribution to the sound of the new album is massive: their instruments are literally everywhere on this record, often taking the place of the guitars that are instead notable for their absence throughout most of the album (this must surely be Leprous' LP with the least guitar in it!). Yet, when Tor Oddmund Suhrke and Robin Ognedal do cut through the mix, their presence is all the more powerful for it. Meanwhile, Baard Kolstad's drumming and Simen BÝrven's basslines strike a great balance between clever rhythmic complexity and minimalism. As on Pitfalls, Einar Solberg's voice and keyboard textures take centre stage on Aphelion. Solberg is probably the best singer in progressive metal at the moment, not just for his impressive vocal range and the sheer brilliance of his multifaceted vocal arrangements, but also for his incredibly powerful and emotional delivery. His performance on Aphelion is nothing short of exhilarating, encompassing everything between the simple, heart-breaking melody of "Castaway Angels" and the vocal acrobatics (that even see a return to growls) of "Nighttime Disguise".

The ten songs of Aphelion are a rollercoaster of new and re-discovered sounds: they look back at the band's past catalogue while at the same time running forward, unafraid to push new ground. If "Running Low" is a fairly safe way to open the album, with strong melodic hooks that are reminiscent of Pitfalls and ominous strings arrangements that reference prog artists both past (King Crimson) and present (Steven Wilson), already on the second song "Out of Here" the Norwegians start subverting expectations, showcasing a new taste for hermetic minimalism and a stubborn refusal to provide that easy melodic release they have accustomed us to with previous albums. The nervous electronic backbone of "Silhouette" and its angular, unsettling chorus push the album in further dark territory, creating a mighty contrast with the bluesy melodic guitar lick that opens, unexpectedly, the next song, "All the Moments". But it's only a fleeting moment, as also this song soon mutates into a sparsely arranged, unnerving piece for voice, piano and strings that eventually explodes into an emphatic, Steven Wilson-esque chorus.

"Have You Ever?" continues with the experiments in electronic minimalism of "Out of Here" and "Silhouette", pushing them to a new extreme (English art rock band Everything Everything comes to mind here). "The Silent Revelation" revisits more conventional territories, with djenty guitar riffs and big vocal melodies that could have sat comfortably among the notes of Malina. But the next two tracks immediately propel the album in a different direction. "The Shadow Side" is again a string-driven affair that surprises with its mid-section a cappella vocal arrangements and an explosive melodic guitar solo that is a rare find in the Norwegian's discography. "On Hold" is probably the pinnacle of the album, condensing in its nearly 8 minutes all the disparate sound ideas that can be found throughout the record: obscure electronic beats, slow winding loops, dramatic strings, minimal yet incredibly inventive use of the guitars, complex vocal arrangements intertwined with surprising melodic twists that push the music almost in pop singer-songwriter territory (am I the only one to read some Amy Winehouse into that poppy, uptempo bridge?!), and an epic soaring chorus that is 100% old Leprous.

The album winds down with two more conventional (in the sense of being closer to Leprous' previous sound), yet nonetheless stunning songs. Most people will probably have already heard "Castaway Angels", a song that was written and released as a standalone track in late 2020. It is an incredibly beautiful piece of music that explodes into a powerful and emotional crescendo, with one of the most effective melodies of the whole record. "Nighttime Disguise" is instead the outcome of an experimental interactive songwriting session that took place in early 2021, where fans could contribute to the creation of a Leprous' song by voting in real time on its musical direction. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is the piece where the "old" sound of Leprous surfaces most clearly ? harking back even to the days of Coal. Yet, everything is reinterpreted through the voice of the "new" Leprous, with their focus on stark minimalism, string-driven songwriting and unpredictable vocal arrangements. It is a fantastic musical ride that unveils new depths with each fresh listen.

By constantly fluctuating between conventional and uncharted territories, while always rejecting easy melodicism in favour of challenging musical arrangements, Aphelion is not an easy album to love. Having sat with it for more than two weeks now, I cannot say that the record has truly "clicked" with me yet in the same way as Pitfalls, Malina or Coal instantly did after very few listens. In truth, I am not even sure it ever will. Yet, each time I listen to Aphelion, I can't help but marvel at the incredible depth, sophistication and inventiveness of its compositions. This is music that lives beyond progressive metal, rock, pop, electronica, and the other myriad influences that are carefully woven into the 56 minutes of this LP. It is the sound of a band that is unafraid to carve new paths to follow its own muse and bravely reinvent its songwriting formula with each new release. Aphelion is a genuine, riveting artistic statement from one of the most exciting bands in the progressive universe right now and, whether you'll end up loving it or not, it deserves your full attention and respect.

[Originally written for The Metal Observer]

lukretio | 4/5 |

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