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2009 saw the Norwegian band Leprous enjoyed some underground success with 'Tall Poppy Syndrome', an album that impressed me somewhat, but rose to the tops of many prog metalheads' year-end lists. Suffice to say, I was not able to fully jump on the hype bandwagon for Leprous back then, seeing their music as maybe a little cheesy and being proggy for prog's sake. Nonetheless, I was made very aware of the band's immense potential from that album, and I figured that it would only be a matter of time before these Norwegians released something that would blow me away. Sure enough, come 2011 they finally have made an album that places them among the frontrunners of the new wave of progressive metal.
'Bilateral' may be something of a tough pill to swallow for those that most enjoyed 'Tall Poppy Syndrome', but for me, Leprous seems to have addressed all of the problems I had with them before, while retaining their good qualities. The most evident development for them has been largely in terms of ambition; what they are willing to do with their sound. There have been some steps taken toward a more sporadic style. The songwriting is more packed with ideas, some of them quite experimental and unexpected, although the memorable melodic component of Leprous is not toned down at all. 'Bilateral' is quite a bit to take in all at once, and I am finding that it is very much a 'grower' album; the constant flow of ideas can make it a little disorienting at first, and while the flow between these ideas can sometimes be a tad off-putting, the sheer excellence of the melodies and newfound weirdness makes Leprous all the more interesting of a listen.
As one might judge even by the surreal album cover (whose artist is also known for composing some of The Mars Volta's artwork), Leprous is not afraid to try new things. The title track contrasts remarkably layered vocal hooks with a mellow section of deep electronics. 'Painful Detour' is a slower, powerful song that gives the 'epic' impression of Muse as it hits its climax. 'Thorn' even shows the band's friend Ihsahn (from classic black metal act Emperor) doing a quick vocal cameo before letting a trumpet solo pop up for a moment. All of these things come as a huge surprise at first. While I would say at this point that Leprous has found their own sound with this album, they do remind me of a younger Pain of Salvation here, in the sense that they are a prog metal band that is focusing more on emotional impact and surprises rather than the sort of power-metal derivative that many newer prog metal bands go for. The Pain of Salvation comparison hits its peak with the vocal technique of Einar Solberg, whose diverse vocal register and complex ad-libbing accents his performance in a way that really reminds me of Dan Gildenlow.
'Bilateral' shows that even if the melodic side of prog metal has withered in recent years, there are still ways of making it sound progressive without falling into all of the prog pitfalls. Leprous still isn't completely fargone from the genre, but they have taken some adventurous steps here that really see my respect for them as a band skyrocket. 'Bilateral' is one of the few masterpieces of progressive metal that I have thus heard in 2011, and being very much of a 'grower' album, I can only see it holding its ground as the year grinds on.