When Leprous were founded in 2001, they were clearly a progressive metal band. By the time that I go to their sixth studio album, Pitfalls, for review a couple of years ago, they'd shifted down into progressive rock and continued beyond it, that album almost pop music, with rock hovering at its dark edges, to take an almost reluctant lead for a few songs. This seventh very much continues in that vein, but there's an element of dark folk that leads the way from the outset and never truly vanishes. This is surprisingly close to Hexvessel, though it's simultaneously more progressive and more poppy.
On the opener, Running Low, and into Out of Here, it's dark folk and indie pop. There's Bowie here for sure but maybe some Cure too. It's never really goth, but it has an flavour of that to darken all the folk and pop sounds. And then, nine minutes into the album and two and half into Out of Here, it leaps into rock music. Leprous are happy not only to trawl multiple genres into their sound but to do it in a single track. And, with the electronica that kicks off Silhouette, we have no idea where this is going to take us, but we're up for the ride.
As with my review of Pitfalls, I should emphasise that this isn't a bad thing. Sure, I'm a metalhead and I like big chunky riffs and soaring operatic vocals, but I'm also a fan of music and I love to hear things that I haven't heard before. My early favourite is All the Moments, a magnificent ride that really works the dynamics. For all that it starts out with teasing rock guitar, this is a pop song for a long while, mostly a fascinating interplay between Einar Solberg's haunting falsetto vocal and the drums of Baard Kolstad. Way back in the mix are guitar, bass and, occasionally piano, but they are more of a hint than a set of participants. Eventually, it builds to give them, and the soaring cello, something to do, but it's still mostly voice and drums early and voice and piano late.
What was that track? Prog pop? Sure, why not. It's almost seven minutes long; they wouldn't allow that on a seven inch single back in the eighties. It's not an airplay sort of song. John Peel may have played it back then, but that's about it. And he'd be more likely to have leapt at Have You Ever?, a quirky dark pop song that moves in some of the same circles but with an electronica beat and wild keyboards. It's lively and quirky and engaging. The final track, Nighttime Disguise, is the closest it gets to old school metal Leprous, with harsh vocals that are all the more harsh because we've no option but to compare them to the clean falsetto Solberg uses for much of the album. There's life here for sure.
However, the more I listen to this album, the more I believe what I like the most is the exceedingly stripped down Leprous, the one that throws away the layers and the textures and goes minimalist to sear our soul. It's the dark folk Leprous and, if my favourite is still All the Moments, then I have to say Castaway Angels comes close to surpassing it. Maybe it will with enough listens. These songs play bleak and northern and fit with the album cover. I can almost feel the chill in that air, and I'm in Phoenix, Arizona, where it's a gazillion degrees already in February. Solberg may tell us "Never look back again", but I'm looking inward. I'm breathing slower, I'm finding peace and my focus is a palpable thing.
Like All the Moments, that song grows, of course, because there are dynamics everywhere on this album, but that just makes the fall away at the end even more acute. On Castaway Angels, that's a brief moment of calm indeed and it makes the song feel like we've searched every inch of our soul during it and we're ready to leap off the cliff. It's a good thing that it isn't the last track, with the closer perhaps the most busy song on the album, unless the alt rock of The Silent Revelation tops it with its perky, jagged guitars.
As with any Leprous album, there's a lot here. This is music for the adventurous. It never quite lets its roots in rock go, but it's often a pop album with the focus on vocal melody you might expect. It refuses to go all the way to pop, the vicious power chords on what I believe is the bass midway into Nighttime Disguise underlining that. These Norwegians continue to broaden their palette and I'll always look forward to another Leprous album. And I'll struggle with my rating, because it's never going to be anything but it's own thing and trying to rank it alongside anything else will fail. I'm of the mind right now that it's better than Pitfalls and I gave that a 7/10, so I feel an 8/10 is safe.