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Leprous - Tall Poppy Syndrome CD (album) cover




Tech/Extreme Prog Metal

4.14 | 441 ratings

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5 stars The Student Becomes the Master

There are several albums in the history of prog metal that I could list as being something truly different. Something that makes you go "yes, this is prog metal", but at the same time "I have never heard anything like this before". But none of those records, in my opinion, compare to Tall Poppy Syndrome. It was such a stunning breakthrough ? a virtually unknown band, brought to the light simply by the the fact that the vocalist's sister married Ihsahn, producing such a stellar record, that not only blows everything the Emperor mainman himself has put out, but pretty much everything in progressive metal at the time. It's not my favourite in the genre, or even my favourite from Leprous, but at the time Tall Poppy Syndrome was released, it would have been the highest in terms of balancing ambition and forward-thinking sounds with sheer compositional quality.

When I reviewed Peccatum's final (and best) album Lost in Reverie a few weeks ago, I mentioned how that album may be the hidden cause for spawning Leprous. The Silent Waters demo (which basically no one has heard) had just been released at the time, but I'm sure Einar took a good hard look at his big sister and her world famous husband and said "I can do better". Sonically, Leprous and Peccatum are quite close, although without Ihriel, Leprous has none of the gothic undertones in their music, replacing it with some quirky, mathy, prog-with-a-capital-P sections. But at the core of both bands is the forward-thinking progressive metal spirit, of being heavy and intense, but never letting go of melody, because melody is the core of music. Peccatum's music had a rather forward avant-garde sense to it, whereas Leprous choose to throw it on the backburner. There's less avant here in the true sense of the word, and more prog-with-a-twist.

But there's one thing that Leprous have that Peccatum never had, and although Ihsahn does bring it into his solo albums occasionally, he will never have it completely ? Einar's voice. Einar has long been my favourite vocalist, and will remain there for a very, very long time, until someone truly remarkable comes along. I personally believe Einar's vocals finally hit their peak on Bilateral, and it was then that he was anointed the glorious "favourite vocalist" position, but there's no denying his performance here is spectacular, and I was certainly impressed on the listens to this. I have never been a fan of harsh vocals, of any sort, but Einar's were different. I couldn't really say whether I enjoyed them or not at the time, but they were so much more than usual. When my closest friend finally heard Tall Poppy Syndrome, a good few months after I did, he described them as "almost melodic", because they somehow have a pitch, unlike many harsh vocals. To this day, I can't really say whether I enjoy them or not, but I certainly know that I wouldn't remove them from the album, like I say about many albums with harsh vocals. Einar knows exactly when to place them, and when to sing cleans. He even utilises several types of harsh vocals, from the surreal pitch-screams I mentioned, to some (Ihsahn-inspired, obviously) black metal-lite vocals, to even some lower death growls, but always using them in good time.

The finale of opening track "Passing" heralds the best testament to Einar's ability on this record, and also the band's general ability as songwriters. The song more or less finishes at the point of the 'bridge', or it could, if the band didn't have something bigger in store. Ending with a solemn piano part, Einar pierces the silence with a brilliantly shrill scream of


followed by the most brilliant reprise of the song's opening theme, complete with Einar jumping between singing the high notes in full falsetto and dropping all the way down to the deepest growls he can form. It's an absolutely thrilling ending to the first song, and really does set a high bar for the rest of the tracks, one that is not truly met until the nearly 12-minute closer, "White". The song has an infectiously catchy main theme that flies at you instrumentally in the first few minutes, but it's the chorus that really sticks, as anyone who has been in the presence of me and my friends will know. Next to the latter half of "Forced Entry" from Bilateral, the chorus of White was our sing-as-loudly-as-you-can song of choice for much of our final year in high school. It's menacingly catchy, thunderously epic, and yet it has a rather dark edge, brought about by both the sinister lyrics and dark piano underneath, which gets a rather solemn and beautiful solo to close the album.

But the strangest thing about this album, and actually most of Leprous' discography, is that it's probably the highest rated album that I could also make a large list of things I don't like from it. I guess it goes to show that when this is good, it's really good, but also that it could be so much better ? it could be perfect. My biggest problems all lie within Leprous' strange obsession with being "prog" all the time. In the opener, the wonderful "Passing", the verses hold a really nice little melody, which Einar sings in his characteristic falsetto. But this section is delivered over a series of rather awkward and unnecessary time signature changes, to the point where Einar's vocals don't sound natural in the slightest, they're trying to find the beat the whole time, a beat that the band have mathematically plotted out, instead of allowed to come naturally. The other issue I have with this, also evident in this section, are the lyrics. It's not that they're bad, or that I generally care about lyrics at all, but most of them don't fit the music at all, and on more that one occasion Einar is forcing too many syllables into a melody or stretching one out over several. I realise I'm nitpicking, but this does make it rather hard to sing along to, and you can't help but think that it wouldn't have been too hard to write some that fit rhythmically with the music.

And the other big thing I'm not a fan of here, and this will certainly surprise some, are the guitar tones. I just don't like them at all. They're angular and dissonant, and I guess they fit with Leprous' angular and dissonant style of progressive metal, but I have never been a fan. It's good for them that they have a distinctive tone, because it really has become "the Leprous tone", but in my ears, many of these riffs could have been improved without the unnecessary high-end that this tone brings in. The solos here are certainly inventive, and actually hold my attention more than many bands, because guitar showmanship has never been my favourite part of metal music. I enjoy the way the solos are built around the rhythm, as opposed to number of notes per second. The two solos ? one clean and one distorted ? during "Fate" are probably the best on the record, and I love the way the second one makes some slight nods to the first in a couple of moments. But on the other side, there are still some unnecessary ones that I don't feel add to the music, most notably the final minute of "Dare You", which drags out what appears to be a simple instrumental track (with a vocal chorus) into one of the longest songs on the album. It never ceases to amaze me that "Phantom Pain" and "Dare You" are almost the same length, when the former seems to have so much more happening in its length. This is not necessarily a criticism, however; and I do love the way "Dare You" carries its length with just a few simple riffs.

But despite these flaws, I would still call Tall Poppy Syndrome a masterpiece. It may not be Leprous' true masterpiece, but it is one in its own right, because even though there are flaws, the positive aspects of the music outweigh them so much. Complex yet beautiful, subtle yet heavy, inspired yet innovative, this is complete proof that progressive metal is long from dead. I can see, in ten years or so, when this new style of prog metal becomes the prominent style (and Dream Theater clones finally die out), this album will be heralded as a classic within the genre, and even after only five years, its influence is undeniable on the metal world. This can only be a good thing.


Originally written for my Facebook page/blog:

Gallifrey | 5/5 |


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