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A Minimalist's H(e)aven - 100%

curtis1567, August 29th, 2015
Written based on this version: 2015, CD, InsideOut Music (Mediabook)

I have very high expectations for Leprous, as do many others. All their previous albums had been stellar efforts, and to this day both "Bilateral" and "Tall Poppy Syndrome" remain in my library, listened to almost daily. Imagine my shock when I first heard "The Congregation". I found it bland and boring. I thought it was a less-than-mediocre practice in writing technical but vapid music. I was so disappointed. Was this really what the band thought was the next logical step from "Coal"?

But Leprous is a band that one does not simply give up on. So I listened to the album, over and over, hoping for a song other than "The Price" to be its saving grace. But only "Rewind" stood out; the rest of the album still seemed boring. I set the album aside, trying to forget that it ever existed.

But masterpieces don't let themselves go unforgotten! A few days later, a bunch of catchy-as-hell riffs and buzzing sounds (the band utilises these buzzing undertones throughout the album to add a moody feel) popped up in my head. I instantly knew where they came from. Upon this next listen, I was exhilarated. The lesson here is simple: Keep listening and once you "get" it, you'll live the next few weeks of your life in sheer bliss.

The album itself is truly an extension of "Coal" - a moody and mature album which explodes with the band's earlier spontaneous sound once in a while. It is a fine balance of technicality, atmosphere and catchy ideas that perfectly showcase a progressive band coming of age. While Leprous' sound has changed radically since "Bilateral", a few things still remain the same: for one, their knack for writing clearly-defined and catchy choruses while still sounding fresh and exciting. They encapsulate prog and avant-garde in a way no other band really can.

While the album initially seemed like a bunch of rather samey songs to me, I eventually caught on to a few perceived ideas: on one hand there are the punchy, technical and groovy songs like "The Price", "Third Law", "Red" or "Down" and on the other there are the moody atmospheric ones with the buzzing undertones like "Rewind", "The Flood", "Moon" or "Slave". And yet the album manages to maintain what feels minimalistic; the bare-bones songwriting is highly reminiscent of Todtgelichter's "Apnoe" in terms of atmosphere and instrumentation. Regardless of the idea of the song, all of them combine these aspects to varying degrees, to superb effect.

Lyric-wise, any other band would have rendered them cheesy, but somehow Einar Solberg manages to remove the inherent awkwardness with his powerful vocal work, which are at their best form on this album. He instead manages to manipulate the lyrics into strong and moving behemoths that complement the moody tone of the album completely. And boy, does this album flow. The harsh vocals are noticeably reduced on this album, being present on only "Rewind" and "Slave", but this does nothing but bear testament to the fact that harsh vocals are merely one of the many tools Leprous have at their disposal to craft stunning songs. The rest of the band are similarly on form, and with Baard Kolstad's insane drumming and standard, there is almost no hint that the band's previous drummer had left.

While I eagerly await the new Amorphis album, I am convinced that "The Congregation" is the best album that 2015 has to offer thus far. The slick mix, the classy and technical instrumentation and the brooding atmosphere all serve as well-controlled and focused spotlights shone on the highlight: the wonderful and varied vocal work of Einar Solberg. And while the vocals might be the star most of the time, there is plenty of space for the occasional technical show for the other instruments. The band breaks all supposed conventions of prog: they have very short songs, clear-cut choruses and a grooviness unheard of in typical prog music, yet somehow they stand victorious as the kings of modern progressive music by not defining what the genre had defined for so long and hence moving forward while the rest of their peers remained stale. All this while maintaining minimalistic moodiness! Suffice to say no other band will be able to pull off what Leprous have done had they lost two long-time members prior just as Leprous had. An experiential and enchanting listen from start to end with a delicate but accurate balance of breathing space and exciting moments.

This album, like the previous few Leprous albums, will be stuck in my library for a very long time.

Solid effort from the band, fantastic vocals - 80%

Crono101, June 27th, 2015

Depending on how much you pay attention to certain things, Leprous might be familiar to you. They’ve been around for quite some time, The Congregation being their fifth album. They received a bit of buzz a few years back due to the fact that they were basically Ihsahn’s live band. That’s actually how I heard of them, so there you go.

As a band, Leprous has been quite consistent with their sound, going for a style of prog metal that is neither wankery nor bursting with extra instruments. Instead, they write what I guess you could call a “quirky” style. They’ll throw in jaunty bass lines, intros and outros often feature funky synth, and the vocalist is very dynamic in his range, although he normally is singing in an impressive falsetto. If you’re looking for a similar artist to get an idea of their sound, I would say they are like a Haken without the wankery (Haken is awesomely wankery).

What I was surprised with when I first turned on The Congregation is the twitchy guitar riffs they employ in the first few songs. That stuttering, start-stop style of riffing has never been my favourite, and I was almost ready to write this album off after the second song. But then Rewind played, one of the strongest songs on the album, and I realized that not only is this album very long, it is also very diverse. There seems to be something for everyone here; if you like those shorter, harder hitting pieces with strong guitar leads, they have them. If you, like me, prefer the more epic pieces that build their way up to a climax, they have that too. Not only that, but the pacing of the album is very well thought-out. They never stick to one style of songwriting, and I never felt the length of this album.

The guitars on this album seem to be driving the songs, but not always as the main instrument. I notice that instead they will use the synths to bring the lead melody, and the guitar is simply meant to be a backing instrument. I think some of the synth passages on this album are great, bringing a lot of emotion to the songs. And then there are the vocals!

I know that some people find Einar Solberg’s voice to be off-putting or annoying (show me a prog band that doesn’t have a handful of vocalist detractors), but I cannot praise his performance enough. On previous albums, he was good, but on The Congregation, he is amazing. Some of the songs, they’ve layered the vocals to bring a really epic feel. On other songs, the vocals are straightforward and punchy, and even other songs, the vocals are soulful and gorgeous. There are just so many great performances on this album that you have to credit Einar.

While this isn’t my favourite prog metal album ever, I think Leprous has hit a really high note here. The progression from the previous album, Coal, to this one is noticeable. The band continues to refine their song writing skills and I can’t wait to hear more music from them.


Originally written for fetiddead.wordpress.com.

Continuing to live up to their amazing potential. - 90%

ConorFynes, May 31st, 2015

Let it be kept no secret: I firmly believe Leprous are the most evocative band operating within progressive metal today. While I had been impressed with their breakthrough release Tall Poppy Syndrome, their 2011 monument Bilateral took me by storm, and still stands as one of the most inventive, breathtaking observations in metal this side of the new millennium. Each new Leprous album is an instant classic in my eyes, and even if time will inevitably be kinder to some of their records over others, I rest assured in the near-certainty that I'll still be listening to them a decade-- even two decades from now. It should suffice to say there are few other contemporary artists I could say the same in truth about.

Much like their considerably more uplifting British counterparts in Haken, Leprous have paired their startling quality with a prolific work ethic. Every two years, the band have taken their sound a step further. Now, with The Congregation, 2015 brokers no exception to the pattern. Given how much love I've had for their past masterpieces, I need not specify how eagerly I awaited hearing Leprous' fifth offering. Whether or not it was going to be fantastic wasn't even a question in my mind; rather, I was more intrigued by how they might change their sound. If Bilateral was defined by its sporadic urgency, and its follow-up Coal responded in turn with greater focus and minimalism, then The Congregation may be seen both as an advance on this trajectory, as well as an acknowledgement concerning things Coal didn't do as well as its predecessor. Namely, the new album brings a revitalized emotional immediacy to Leprous' music, and in this respect I am more affected than I have been by an album in many a while.

This is a masterpiece of a sort, to be sure, and though it bears strong resemblance with Coal, the vocal few who rightly declaimed the band's last album as a weaker offering than Bilateral might find themselves pleasantly surprised here. No, The Congregation doesn't strike me with the same impetuous spontaneity as Bilateral, nor does it keep my left-brain quite as much on the edge. However, I also think that repeating that same formula would have proved fruitless, both on this and Coal; being sporadic and jumpy is a trait of youth, and Leprous have long since matured as a group.

This matured Leprous-- occasionally better likened to an avant-garde, theatrical Anathema than the metal of their heyday- was proudly introduced on Coal, but it's only on The Congregation that the emotional resonance has built up to match their obvious technical abilities. So many of the ways I would describe the last album could again apply to this one: heavy, but not for the blunt force of the parts so much as the way they are used. Vivid and occasionally dissonant instrumentation, like an unchained King Crimson. Secretly more groove-oriented than any prog rock band has any right of being, and, not least of all, indelibly fuelled by the voice of frontman Einar Solberg. All of these might go on to describe The Congregation even moreso than its predecessor, but the amplification of Coal's best elements has resulted in a much different tone and experience. The Congregation may be the most emotionally hard-hitting album of Leprous career thus far-- and I'm including my personal favourite in that count as well.

Where some of my favourite progressive albums take a few listens to 'get' them, The Congregation had me hooked from the first listen. Although Leprous are one of the best musical units around (you'd have to be to play alongside Ihsahn) I've always thought vocalist Einar Solberg to be the band's shining light. Even when the band are immersed in a polyrhythmic groove or focused build-up, he uses his considerable range and presence to convey depth currently unsurpassed in the genre. Though this thought is by no means exclusive to The Congregation, I do think Solberg's voice is a large part of what makes Leprous one of my favourite modern acts. His soaring delivery is comparable to Muse's Matt Bellamy, albeit without the adolescent whine attached to it. Although it may be a further stretch to describe them as a prog metal The Mars Volta, high-register vocal acrobatics are at least one thing he shares with Cedric Bixler-Zavala. Suffice to say, the band has become increasingly vocal-oriented with every album; the veer towards minimalism and gradually building grooves over the past two albums have offered Solberg much greater opportunity to test his voice, an his vocals have become proportionately sharper to compensate.

Valid arguments may be fostered to the contrary, but I do think this is the most musically complex work Leprous have produced. There aren't any abrupt shifts in pace, but the ingredients are often mind-bending, potentially even moreso given that they work so smoothly together. The addictive groove on "The Price" (easily the most compelling single I've heard in 2015, by the way!) would probably look like academic jabberwocky on paper, but the way Leprous pull it off, it feels accessible. The syncopated guitar noise of "The Third Law" sounds far-flung enough to befit math rock than anything of a stately, progressive angle. I could give many more examples; my point is that Leprous have mastered the use of technique and complexity to such an extent that they can effectively mask it.

Orchestrating complex music is difficult enough a task on its own; to draw those orchestrations full-circle to the point of becoming accessible is an entirely different game. As much as my life and listening have been altered by progressive music (for the better-- I hope!) it is a rare thing to hear an artist back away from their wizard hats and mellotron collection to make complex art with a grasp on the heart. I don't mean that flimsy Floydian 'feeling' every progger with a knack for pentatonic scales tries to shill out-- I mean an addictive, balls-hitting, cutting-edge passion. The Cardiacs had that game nailed. Anathema does it. Haken does it. At this point however, I don't think anyone has Leprous beat.

Given The Congregation's subtly mind-bending complexity, it's all the more of an accomplishment that the album manages to hit so close to home emotionally. Upon my first spin of the album, I remember "Slave" coming on and coming close to welling up. Although the lyrics aren't particularly poignant, Solberg's delivery tells a story of its own. Though Coal was forged from many of the same elements as this, the music there was tense; even angry-- at least as far as the term can apply to prog rock With The Congregation, that anger has subsided to an introspective melancholy.

I've seen it written more than once that Leprous reviews tend to fall short of describing the music with precision. This challenge should be testament to the band's originality as an act, especially considering they manage to get this impression across without using truly outlandish shortcuts. Be that as it may, I'll give my best attempt here. As far as The Congregation goes; think what Gojira (circa The Way of All Flesh) would sound like if they were using the amps and production of Queens of the Stone Age. Or maybeWeather Systems-era Anathema, fuelled with the energy of a progressive metal The Mars Volta. All of this, fronted with one of the strongest voices I've heard in years. The Congregation isn't quite as much of an evolution in style as the last two records were. Indeed, there are a couple of issues that have been apparent from the first listen onward; the lyrics are a little too laconic to say anything on their own, and the album has little in the way of complimentary flow between songs; I do wonder if the album may have been made better by changing the sequence of tracks up a bit. Nonetheless; this is a great step forward for Leprous, and a masterful one at that. The introduction of drummer Baard Kolstad to the fold has been of the most propitious lineup changes I've seen in a band in modern years. With The Congregation, Leprous have once again proven that my recognition of them once as the most promising band in progressive music has been well-founded. Time and again, they've delivered on that promise, and I cannot wait until their next presumably unfolds in 2017.

Originally written for Heathen Harvest Periodical