Leprous is a band from Norway who meld elements of art rock and progressive metal with a healthy amount of operatic vocals and pop tonality. This is their fifth album in this fairly consistent area of genre; if I'm honest, I didn't expect to have words about this one after their previous album The Congregation. That album was essentially a bunch of guitar demos with drums shedding over them – to me, it was an extrapolation of every mistake they avoided in their third album Coal which is simply a platonic ideal of art rock composition. Judging by the one single I heard from Malina, I was ready for more of the same complacent riffing. Yet, this album surprised me with some ambitious compositional choices that reminded me of Coal in a good way, so... here I am!
First, let me establish why I consider Coal so highly. A lot of this is well-expressed in Metal for Music Majors's review. Leprous cultivate a unique timbre from the first moments and develop it throughout the album, with an excellently ordered and paced tracklist. It's almost an hour, but it's only eight songs, which I think is a good thing: the scope of a work is really more important than one might think, and even a lesser piece from that album like "Salt" really can't be cut because it's an important pacing step in the work's overall flow. They get a lot of variety both inside and between each song, too, so the runtime doesn't drag on.
The arrangement of each piece is worth expanding on. There's a lot on Coal that is pop-influenced, as in, the common practice of pop songwriting that defines most Western music: big, memorable, hooky choruses that repeat with supporting material around them. However, most of the pieces on that album are structurally non-standard: they do not follow verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus. Nearly all of them do follow a similar structure within themselves, though; introduce some supporting ideas, expose the chorus, develop the first ideas a little bit, then develop a long B-section and return to the chorus in a new context with elements from the B-section added. This allows them to bridge pop and non-pop songwriting really effectively as they really go hard on the catchy choruses but sidestep the predictability of a common pop structure.
So, on Malina, I think the pacing has suffered like it did on The Congregation. Both are eleven tracks, and while they are shorter on the whole than Coal's, they're both longer and every track being unconnected simply manifests as too many ideas for one cohesive work. However, Malina simply has more defined songs for the most part, so it listens better than the many bizarrely similar songs on Congregation that are placed right next to each other. I say "for the most part" because you have this sequence on Malina of the songs "From the Flame", "Captive", "Illuminate", and "Leashes" which all just kind of go nowhere with their chorus ideas. Every time I listen to this album I get through the first half and just think, "why do I like this album again?", and then "Mirage" kicks in and I get back into it. Still, "Illuminate" and "Leashes" particularly strike me as underdeveloped and really add nothing to the album.
The new elements in orchestration, however, are quite welcome. I've always thought djent guitars' 'special effects' (such as pitch bends) have been underappreciated as compositional tools, and Leprous have explored some of that with the secondary guitars and synths on "Bonneville" and "Mirage" most notably. They've done this previously with Coal's title track and "Slave" from Congregation, but "Mirage" strikes me as one of the most interesting uses I've heard of the technique, and overall these touches seem more present on Malina.
Another element, this one fairly unprecedented, is the plentiful use of string quartet throughout. This turns out to be an excellent match for Leprous's harmonies as they tend towards complex and dense guitar chords, but the electric guitar as an instrument isn't very effective at exposing all the voices in those chords (and for whatever reason, they very rarely use synths & keyboards to do that). The strings here, then, really serve to further orchestrate the harmonies at play. Strings are underused in this kind of music, and Leprous's previous experimentation with them (see the postlude of "Contaminate Me" from Coal) has been excellent and evocative, so I'm glad to see more of them here. I do wish they were explored more, though; strings have such a rich history of different playing techniques and unique sounds, and nearly every use of them on Malina is the same kind of pulsing, whole note chorale. It's strange to see this pretty standard use of the instruments when "Contaminate Me" from Coal employed a string soloist feature with plentiful extended technique use.
However, while the strings' consistent use is at least new within this album, some hackneyed elements that were ever-so-present on Congregation are still in play here. One obvious one is the technical, complex djent riffs all over the album, most present in "Captive", "Illuminate", and "Coma". In those pieces, these riffs repeat quite a lot with little harmonic development – now, that's not inherently bad, even Meshuggah do that fairly often, but Meshuggah's odd motives are laid on top of 4/4 and much of the long-form interest comes from hearing the motif phase and wrap across the bar. In contrast, Leprous' riffs here are shorter and in common time, so I don't understand why they're so repetitious – at least on "The Third Law" from Congregation, the djent riff was 4 measures long so it was more interesting as a phrase than the 2- and 1-bar ones here.
The sections that focus on these kinds of riffs also lack enough depth in their repetition to access the minimalist Reich side of this kind of thing that was well-done on Coal. This is not a Leprous-exclusive problem, though; god knows the reason I never wrote up Periphery III as an album was because so much was just one line being doubled or tripled on guitar and bass with no contrary motives to flesh out a section. Leprous aren't quite that bad, though, and they've done it well before; let's look at the bridge from "Echo" as an example of how repetitious grooves can be executed well. First, they finish up the first exposition of the chorus and drop out the guitars and vocals, and have the bass and synth play a repeating 3/4 motif with a chord change in the middle, while the drums imply 4/4 underneath. There's also some background ambience throughout this bridge that's building a bit. After this has been established, they add vocals to complement the synths and a syncopated 4/4 guitar line, and the ambience continues building. This goes on for quite a while uninterrupted, but it sounds good and is precisely listenable because there are several different places your ear can flit between and the additive texture of it all is quite complex.
Now, looking at a piece like "Illuminate", you have just one 2-bar 12/8 rhythm that repeats the whole song with no objections from any idea, with vocals on top. The same complaint applies to "Coma" and "Captive" and just... a lot of this album. An exception to this is "Stuck" (which funnily enough is a pretty un-metal song as far as Leprous goes; half of it could just be a U2 song). In the first verse, you have this pretty simple repeating guitar note accent pattern, but they soon add in a slightly contrasting rhythm on the other guitar and keyboard, and then later after the main section ends they vamp on that motif for a while and build a different section with it. It's just basic multi-part writing, but it's kind of hilarious sad that that's the thing that metal composers seem to forget all the time. Yet not every song on Malina has this basic density, and coupled with the general lack of direction of the pieces, a lot of the songs on this album just feel incomplete and shallow.
The final thing I want to mention is Einar Solberg's vocals. I like his timbre, and he's gotten really consistently good at his technical approaches to parts. However, his approaches have become increasingly obvious because he does them nearly every time. So many of the flourishes, phrasing, and 'choral' parts on Malina are drawn from the same bag of ideas, and Solberg stays in a very comfortable register the whole time... he's been doing the same things since Bilateral and it's really beginning to wear on me. Coal, of course, circumvented this with harsh vocals from Solberg and guest vocals from Ihsahn which brought much-needed variety to the milieu. The closest thing to variety on this album are the close harmonies on "Illuminate", and that homogeneity makes this album lacking in even more impact; this means that the dramatic heartstring-tugging on the closing "The Last Milestone" falls far flatter than they want because the episodes preceding it didn't give us the sense that they were building to such an ending.
Overall, I feel Leprous have not really taken a step forward or back with this work. They seem prepared to move forward with more experimental strings and return to the full-featured composition of Coal, yet everything new on this album is more or less attached to the same structures and tropes they've been utilizing for years now. The well-executed tonal pieces ("Bonneville", "Mirage", and "Malina") and the rockers that turned out well ("Stuck", "From the Flame") are considerably counterweighted by the remaining bog-standard Leprous-isms, and while Malina at least shows some ambition unlike The Congregation, I'll unfortunately still be skipping half the songs when I listen to either album.