It’s not easy following an album as critically acclaimed as 2019’s Pitfalls. It’s even harder to do so while the world is locked in a painful and anxious viral-induced limbo. Yet, on Aphelion, Leprous do so with poise and ambition, giving us their most vulnerable and contrasted record to date.
In doing so, they continue to shed the metal elements that characterized their early sound, and add more pop, R&B and cinematic music vocabulary to their sound, a shift that has been ongoing since 2017’s Malina. This is not to say this record isn’t heavy, but that it is so in substance rather than in style. It’s a brooding, somber, pensive, and introspective journey, with occasional bouts of grandiose exaltation and crushing anguish.
Thematically, the album digs deeper into frontman Einar Solberg’s emotional turmoil. Having acknowledged the darkness within on Pitfalls, Solberg now seeks to work through it and launch himself back towards sunnier days (Aphelion is the farthest point from the Sun on the Earth’s orbit). A lot of the lyrics read as the inner monologue of someone trying to talk themselves out of panic attack (“Hold On”) or to convince themselves to go back in the ring for another bout against their deepest fears, while other songs tackle the instabilities that led him to this state of disarray.
In contrast to the very focused lyrics, the compositions are highly diverse, fusing so many different genres and sounds that it becomes difficult to isolate the constituents. This was not by design, but rather a consequence of the tumultuous recording process, which involved multiple sessions, spread between three studios and two countries, COVID oblige. One unifying aspect are the inspiring and uplifting moments that emerge out of most songs; the light at the end of the tunnel that we entered (lyrically) on Pitfalls and never really left.
Solberg’s impressive vocal prowess is the centerpiece of this album, as he shifts his voice to accommodate all the musical twists and turns, going from whispered lullabies to rousing exclamations of defiance, to soulful crooning and tortured screams of anguish. His control and expressivity are as impressive as his range (both in terms of pitch and dynamics). The rest of the band are also delivering the top-tier performances we’ve come to expect from Leprous.
Baard Kolstad’s drumming is intricate, controlled, and nuanced. From pounding backbeats to pianissimo brush work, he uses every trick in his arsenal, sometimes in the span of a single song. The way he melds frantic speed and softness on numbers like “Silent Revelation” creates an excellent auditory translation of anxiety; the relentless spinning of thoughts in our heads applied to drums. Guitarists Tor Oddmund Suhrke and Robin Ognedal are a pair of chameleons, playing everything from drop-tuned chugging to funky licks, soaring leads and glassy syncopated counterpoints, and the bass playing of Simen Børven is smooth, groovy, and tasteful.
The cellist and violinist (Raphael Weinroth-Browne and Chris Baum) from Pitfalls are back again on Aphelion, and they are joined by the Blåsemafiaen brass orchestra. Their carefully orchestrated interventions confer the album a cinematic flair, with brooding textures sometimes erupting in a bombastic wall of sound that lifts the exalted melodies and driving rhythms of the band to resounding climaxes of intensity. On top of that, the familiar piano and saturated synth bass layers give this album the most diverse sound palette of any Leprous effort to date. With all these layers, it’s impressive the amount of room there is in the soundscape here; this is the most dynamic range this writer has heard on a metal album produced this side of Y2K.
All in all, Aphelion is a very rewarding listen, and a bold leap forward for a band that was already at the cutting edge of modern progressive music. When that boldness pays off, it does so in spectacular fashion (“On Hold,” “Silent Revelation,” “Running Low”), but it’s diversity and contrasted dynamics end up hurting the pacing quite a bit, especially in the second half, but the moment-to-moment experience is still phenomenal and makes up for those slight hiccups. Leprous might have hit their emotional rock-bottom, but in doing so, they struck gold.
(released August 27, 2021 on InsideOut Music)
Heavy Music HQ Rating:
Watch Leprous – “The Silent Revelation” Video