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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 Børven'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]

Report this review (#2589546)
Posted Friday, August 27, 2021 | Review Permalink
5 stars LEPROUS is the mega band founded in 2001 playing on extreme tech at the start. They have approached IHSAHN and EMPEROR closely and make music that is almost unclassifiable, flirting prog metal then art music with a complex range, hard, djent, pop with the voice of Einar recounting his existential torments in the titles. An 8th album worked on in 3 different studios, covid obliges, album moving further and further away from their mentors DREAM THEATER, OPETH, CYNIC or WINDS. LEPROUS is also high and classic forays with Raphael and his magical cello, it is the violence of riffs associated with a divine voice, it is the association of hitherto opposing sounds united to create a new genre.

"Running Low" Leprousian attack with brass from the group Blåsemafiaen, slightly oriental atmosphere of the tune and the sublime voice of Einar which navigates between softness and trance due to his falsetto organ; not too accentuated this sound, minimalist break to properly stage the sounds, the emphasis is limited with a reminder of the recognizable 'pitfalls' sound and this Raphael cello solo that ends up tickling your ears. '' Out Of Here '' title intimate on percussions juggling with the hip-hop synth and bringing a dreamlike melody of any beauty, latent air; adrenaline rush with vocals and high guitar, its synth-wave starting with prog metal that keeps you going. '' Silhouette '' continues with a characteristic synthetic frame, the violin very present, the choirs, Einar vociferating, Baard's jerky rhythmic imposes on a surge of adrenaline that can induce trance; note the Leprousian airs anchored on the 'oh oh oh' furnishing more than anything else, necessary I doubt. `` All The Moments '' for the real progressive incursion with the classical orchestration and the melancholy strings of Raphael and Chris, the creaking country slide guitar, the sad rise which is transposed in beauty with this minimalist piano, we are not far from 'a depressive climate pointing to contemplation and again this inimitable voice. "Have You Ever?" Muted intro then synth flooding the sound space, almost pop, almost industrial, almost electronic, here we are dealing with a huge title; the east still very close, the keyboards invite to dance, the voice too, what can I say, we reach perfection in this animal air, undulating and hypnotic, short in time, long in musical sensations, a title which imposes it.

"The Silent Revelation" starts with the pure LEPROUS sound, jerky tune covered with a frozen synth; the angelic voice, whispered, siren or archangel, sets off on a good intriguing dancing rock; the electronic orchestration takes the bet on an intimate break then the raging guitars of Tor and Robin accompany the final chorus in an insane apocalyptic rise. "The Shadow Side" simple, minimalist, bordering on bombastic new wave with soft intro gives pride of place to fresh and airy synths; more common title jazzy limit where the voice is put forward to praise it a little more; the finale comes back to repetitive clichés on a high voice with riff, fortunately magnified by a too rare hyper energetic guitar solo which makes you want to put the title back. "On Hold" continues on an icy vocal harmony, spatial atmosphere; the longest track marshmallow, it's beautiful, it reminds me a bit of MANFRED MANN's keyboards on 'Chance' a time; the break with Raphael on the cello drives the nail on the beauty of an unclassifiable title, neither pop, nor rock, neither djent, nor jazzy; it is at the same time grandiloquent, cutesy and majestic with the rise of the voice and the rhythmic guitar, all amalgamated by the drums of Baard. from ANATHEMA, a deep basic air playing on a muffled sound pierced by Einar's voice; a dreamlike rise, progressive in fact which puts you in a trance after a few titles more behind, more overdone, too obvious; here it's power in crescendo with a crystal clear two-step solo; it sounds simple but it's perfect. "Nighttime Disguise" for the finale which goes off strong, riff of the drums, the bass, the synths, the Leprous what; a syncopated sound already on the distortion attenuated by the guitar and the voice; break metal then drift with again the Norwegian brass group Blåsemafiaen which gives another dimension, breaking all musical criteria; the interlude ends with what makes the strength of this quintet, namely its colorful swirling choirs; go for some growl, throaty sounds, some symphonic djent now for the final dreamlike explosion and an all too rare guitar solo; there it's finished.

LEPROUS due to the pandemic composed each title separately, without a frame except for the melancholy tone that emerges from it; powerful positive chaos whether in the register of rock, pop, djent, funk, trip hop or metal; Einar taking charge of the progressive soldering with an intrepid zest of inventiveness, ravishing melancholy and spleen that ANATHEMA would have signed immediately. Note the starting title "Adapt" sign of our company, "Aphelion" not being better since it expresses our maximum distance from our benefactor sun. Good mental health you will need to remain impassive in the face of this musical inferno, energy you will have while listening to this opus in the continuity of Pitfalls, heavy, nasty, metallic, depressive and high how overwhelming. A fresh, lively, intense album that can bring you to the musical firmament.

Report this review (#2590350)
Posted Sunday, August 29, 2021 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars A new release from Scandanavia's kings of stop and go, delicate and harsh, whisper and scream.

1. "Running Low" (6:30) tension's running high in this one. I like the heavy use of strings--and the use of hits to the piano bed as a baseline. Interesting that as the tension mounts Einar's voice gets softer, exhibiting more frailty. The chorus, however, disappoints. Great cello solo in the sixth minute. (8.75/10)

2. "Out of Here" (4:16) Einar at his best. How talented this singer is! (8.5/10)

3. "Silhouette" (3:45) a little foray into the Steven Wilson world of electronica--with, of course, the advantage of having the vocal acrobaticist, Einar Solberg. Interesting that the "real" drums happen to be great. (8.5/10)

4. "All the Moments" (6:52) a little raunch with some bayou pedal steel? Let those drums shine! Finally, a great chorus with awesome amped up walls of sound! The quiet, spacious, delicate verses feel a bit at odds with the power of the choruses. Weird song. Not sure it works. (13/15)

5. "Have You Ever?" (4:42) more noise electronica to open before odd percussives and odd synth horns begin to join. Einar enters in a gentle, soft voice. (Man! This guy is so versatile!) Middle Eastern strings join in at the end of the first verse. Interesting but somehow incomplete--underdeveloped. (8.5/10)

6. "The Silent Revelation" (5:45) unusual: this one opens as a kind of old-style rocker, but then it goes soft and sparse with typical Leprous-style overdrive choruses. Strings accompany the quiet second verse, but then band rams home the second chorus and continues to leave the instruments up to 11 despite a cool strings-accompanied vocalise section leading up to the end. (8.75/10)

7. "The Shadow Side" (4:29) a perfect balance between rock instrumentation and strings accompaniment is established from the beginning through the first chorus. Then an especially quiet, delicate second verse is followed by two heavier sections. The strings remain prominent. Nice segue into a gritty guitar solo in the fourth minute, followed by eerie strings to finish. Cool! (9/10)

8. "On Hold" (7:48) great vocal melody from the start over sparse electro-programmed tuned percussives and computer bass. A great song--truly unusual and intriguing weave--with, of course, another stupendous vocal performance by Mr. Solberg. (I find quite a little comparability with That Joe Payne.) Beautiful use of strings after the second chorus through the fifth and sixth minutes. My favorite song on the album. (14/15)

9. "Castaway Angels" (4:53) delicate acoustic guitar arpeggi with Einar's almost-whispered vocals open this one. Incredible slow build to perfect finish. The best song on the album. (10/10)

10. "Nighttime Disguise (7:04) old-style djenty Leprous returns! (And is welcomed!) I like Einar's subdued vocals in the first section. Interesting dynamic choices (plus, a return of the Einar growl), coupled with a disappointing chorus (why that kind of emotion for the words "nighttime disguise"?) (13/15)

Total Time 56:04

Creative and different, I still think Einar Solberg has one of the five best singing voices in modern prog. The band's use of strings throughout the album--as well as their increasing use of computer-enhanced programmed sounds--is a combination that I think works--and that I hope they will continue to explore. But then, anything behind the singing talents of Mr. Solberg might work. Anything.

B+/4.5 stars; another excellent album release from these prog pioneers--highly recommended for any prog lover to check out for themselves.

Report this review (#2594656)
Posted Wednesday, September 15, 2021 | Review Permalink
4 stars Listening diary 19th September 2021: Leprous - Aphelion (art rock, 2021)

I don't think I'm going to make my feelings on this concrete just yet - Leprous are definitely a band that needs time and context, and given I've been saying "this is their weakest album yet" with every release since 2013's Coal, only to retract that statement twice, I'll hesitate to state it with full confidence here.

But regardless of whether this is as good as their past material, it's certainly another steady evolution, and Leprous should be commended with their consistent and tasteful evolutions, never moving too much at one time but just enough to keep you wondering where they'll head to next. Ever since Raphael Weinroth-Browne first appeared on cello, they've hinted at a more chamber pop oriented sound, and the strings have finally taken the forefront here - although not in the way I anticipated. Instead of being quaint and subdued, they're bombastic and symphonic, in a Hans Zimmer sort of way, and I whether or not you rate that kind of melodrama is probably going to be what makes or breaks this album for you.

Musically, every song here has something to offer in terms of a great riff or melodic idea. There are far fewer genuine standout moments - the far more uneven Pitfalls[ had much greater highs - but there isn't a single weak track or even really a weak section on the entire album, making it a pretty solid listen, without ever blowing you away. But this can cause some of the tracks to blend into each other, and this is probably the most formulaic Leprous record other than The Congregation (not a criticism, by the way, as long as your formula is good). There isn't a single track that goes by without at least one bombastic string line, at least one angular mathy riff, at least one Supertramp-esque pop hook, at least one skipped beat. The formula isn't bad, but it does make some of the songs hard to tell apart.

And despite singing their praises for their continued evolution, there does seem to be a feeling that Leprous are imitating their imitators a bit here - for a lot of this, you could be mistaken for thinking you're listening to an Agent Fresco or Maraton record, and only occasionally do Leprous flex the kinds of songwriting chops that made them influence those artists in the first place. This is still a fine record from a fine band, but it's probably their most nondescript album yet. But perhaps it's time for Leprous to be nondescript for a bit. After all, it doesn't stop them writing good hooks, of which this album has plenty. I'm not sure I ever expect them to reach the creative heights of some of their early work, but as long as they keep moving and developing, I'm not sure I care. We're blessed to have a band this creative in modern metal, I think they can be forgiven for just writing an album of serviceable pop tunes.

7.6 (4th listen)

Part of my listening diary from my facebook music blog -

Report this review (#2595648)
Posted Monday, September 20, 2021 | Review Permalink
siLLy puPPy
PSIKE, JR/F/Canterbury & Eclectic Teams
3 stars LEPROUS still seems to be going strong after 20 years of existence and although the band led by lead singer Einar Solberg has been hailed as one of Norway's greatest modern progressive metal bands, the last few albums starting with "Molina" have seen a massive shedding of much of the metal and taken on more standard progressive rock as its modus operandi. With the band's eighth album to emerge in 2021, LEPROUS seems to de-emphasize the metal even further and adds all kinds of new sounds including but not limited to pop, funk, trip hop, electronica along with the progressive rock shining with a crispy clean production and the spotlight on Solberg's passionate vocal delivery.

There are still metal sounds on board however the moments of djent and guitar heft are primarily limited to power chords and the scant guitar workouts that offer a bit of contrast to the otherwise new LEPROUS sound of crafting highly sophisticated art rock with strong pop hooks. Long gone are the days of unabashed metal freneticism as heard on "Tall Poppy Syndrome" and "Bilateral." APHELION rather delivers an interesting and original hybrid between progressive rock, synthpop and what sounds like chamber rock. In addition the five official members who handle guitars, bass, drums and synthesizer includes a team of five guest musicians who offer the sounds of violin, cello and even a trumpet.

The result is an emotive display of ten tracks that in many ways follows both in "Malina" and "Pitfalls" in the mellowed LEPROUS years and for many a metal band gone this direction would've resulted in a total train wreck and scaring away of the fanbase, but LEPROUS proved long ago that this was no ordinary act and had the uncanny ability to tackle myriad sounds, timbres, textures and tones and fortify substantial composiitons delivered in a unique and oft unorthodox manner all without abandoning the pop sensibilities that have kept their music so addictive upon first experiences. Excluding the three year timespan between the band's true debut "Aeolia" and "Tall Poppy Syndrome," LEPROUS has also delivered like clockwork with a new album ever two years.

The band has released two singles off APHELION which means the point on the orbit of a celestial body that is farthest from the sun. The first was "Running Low" which shows LEPROUS in fine form in its new style with progressive rock hooks married with power chords, emotive synthesized atmospheres accompanied by the string section that delivers an excellent cello solo. With so much energy dedicated to the electronica wizardry and dedication to the perfect atmospheric ambience does tend to ignore the rock aspects much less the metal but with the second single "The Silent Revelation" the band does deliver a bit of rock guitar heft even if it seems like the odd track out on the otherwise sombre and earnest tracks tenderly crafted with the crooning moxie of Mr Solberg.

In many ways LEPROUS has followed some of the nu jazz artists from Norway such as Jaga Jazzist only it has left out the jazz but rather paints synthesized motifs around the borders of where certain jazz parts should fit. By now most older fans of LEPROUS have either adapted to the new style or thrown them out with yesterday's trash. I do personally prefer the older more aggressive LEPROUS sound but i have to admit that these guys have done an excellent job reinventing themselves as a serious art pop rock band this late in the game. While on the mellow and even maudlin side, APHELION does a stellar job of mixing synthesized driven pop hooks with chamber rock mojo. Perhaps what turns me off most about the "new" LEPROUS is that Solberg's vocals are almost set to permanent falsetto sounding something like a Norwegian version of Prince. I can live without the metal aspects but the vocal diversity? Needs more.

3.5 rounded down

Report this review (#2601479)
Posted Sunday, October 10, 2021 | Review Permalink

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