by Jordan Blum

Norwegian progressive metal troupe Leprous’ fourth studio LP, 2015’s The Congregation, was a gamechanger in several ways. Sure, they’d been gaining momentum ever since the release of their debut, 2009’s Tall Poppy Syndrome, The Congregation brought about not only a strong sonic evolution, but also a huge expansion in terms of fanbase, touring opportunities, and industry cred. It’s no surprise, then, that its follow-up, Malina, maintains what made its predecessor work so well while implementing some subtle but cumulatively impactful new techniques, too. By blending original methods with the rhythmic bite of King Crimson and Meshuggah, the emotive vocals of Tool and TesseracT, and the bleak elegance of countrymen Gazpacho and Ulver, the band continues to craft a highly distinctive identity, making Malina as commanding, wide-ranging, and riveting as anything else they’ve done.

According to vocalist/keyboardist Einar Solberg, the record is meant to “sound more alive . . . and more dynamic” than The Congregation, adding, “we’ve managed to achieve a natural sounding organic album with great songs that still sounds modern. . . . While we still very much sound like Leprous, I believe that with this album, we more accurately define as a rock band than a metal band.” (Part of that process included using David Castillo and Jens Bogren—both of whom have worked with Opeth and Katatonia, among others—to produce and mix the LP, respectively.) As for the cover art (their first with color since 2011’s Bilateral), it was designed by a new artist, Corey Meyers, who delivered “the perfect cover on the first attempt. It represents the album perfectly and looks pretty amazing!” Although Malina isn’t as drastically different from their previous work as the band may imply, it still does a fantastic job of sounding equally renewed and relevant in the context of Leprous’ catalog.

Opener “Bonneville” begins gently: jazzy percussion guides sparse bass and guitar note counterpoints, all of which soon serve as a delicate foundation on which Solberg coats his falsetto laments and serene layers. It’s a gorgeously heartbreaking composition that explodes into an alluring djent frenzy halfway through; Solberg’s singing soars over a hellish basis like a lost soul watching the apocalypse, resulting in a masterful fusion of light and dark penchants that perfectly demonstrates what makes Leprous so striving and multifaceted. Afterward, both “Stuck” and “From the Flame” are packed with enticing hooks and dynamic shifts (including some lovely string arrangements in the former and densely defiant harmonies in the latter), yielding two of the band’s catchiest tracks to date.

Another highlight comes with the electronically tinged “Illuminate,” whose perpetual juxtaposition of in-your-face fury and eloquent fragility is pristine and captivating. It also strikes a similar retro heaviness as Haken achieved on Affinity (which, oddly enough, Solberg sang on). It’s followed by the melancholic and initially soft “Leashes,” another temperamental gem that uses multiple guitar techniques (like muted plucking, spacey lines, and sharp chords) in conjunction with sorrowful orchestration and poised drumming. In contrast, there’s an overarching rebelliousness to “Mirage” that’s made more appealing—and less generic—with the addition of wavering programmed tones and a celebratory funkiness. The title track comes next and provides a wonderfully atmospheric, dreary, and poignant experience that matches Soldberg’s angelic harmonies with creative uses of classical timbres and guitar effects. It’s concurrently nightmarish and dreamy, and it’s easily among the most idiosyncratic pieces on Malina.

The album concludes nicely as well. For instance, “Coma” uses downright violent syncopation to usher a generally manic structure, whereas the penultimate “The Weight of Disaster” follows a less startling path yet still offers much in the way of mixing tranquility and thunderous trauma (especially with some of the best riffs on the record). The appropriately titled “The Last Milestone” is a momentous way to finish, too, as its hodgepodge of vocal croons and mournful strings modulates ingeniously to generate a ceaselessly powerful, succulent, and haunting dirge. In fact, it’s simultaneously the least eventful and most arresting track here, which is truly a testament to Leprous’ brilliance.

While Malina is a bit less aggressive and more gracefully moody than The Congregation, it still feels very much like a direct continuation of it (so, again, it’s not the substantial leap forward that group may’ve aimed for). That said, what it does do—retain everything that’s crucial to the Leprous formula while containing a few noticeable specialties—is precisely what it should so that fans are satisfied yet also surprised here and there. In any case, Malina further solidifies Leprous as one of the most emotionally rich and musically resonant acts in modern progressive metal, and no admirer of the band—or the genre in general—should miss it.

Released on September 15th, 2017 on InsideOutMusic
Key Tracks: Stuck, From The Flame, Illuminate, The Last Milestone

Tracklisting:
1. Bonneville
2. Stuck
3. From The Flame
4. Captive
5. Illuminate
6. Leashes
7. Mirage
8. Malina
9. Coma
10. The Weight Of Disaster
11. The Last Milestone

Einar Solberg – lead vocals, keyboards (2001–present)
Tor Oddmund Suhrke – guitar, backing vocals (2001–present)
Baard Kolstad – drums (2014–present)
Simen Børven – bass (2015–present)
Robin Ognedal – guitar (2017–present)