Malina is pristine. It’s gorgeous. Its beauty radiates from carefully crafted guitar and electronic effects, blossoms from Einar Solberg’s buttery tenor, ripples out of the bowed string work that buttresses some of these tunes. Malina is a masterful nexus of composition, performance and mix manipulation that takes artistic intent and manifests it whole and pure in sonic form. Malina is dynamic and mysterious and bold and destined to be analyzed by studious musicians.
But for all that, Malina is ultimately cold and strangely flat. Yes, the songs’ structures are rarely straightforward and never simple, but they are so ostentatiously progtastic that they come across as wholly calculated, as delicate lattices of superego aspiration without any of the id-riddled emotional mandate that humanizes the best rock-based music. First single and third album track “From the Flame” comes closest to that urgent, messy immediacy, and its deft interweaving with the bands more acrobatic tendencies makes it a true standout cut. The choruses of “Leashes” and “Stuck” and “Mirage” are similarly thrilling, though those songs are not quite as balanced when you venture outside those islands of catchiness. Much of the album plays to Leprous fans’ expectations, highlighting Solberg’s soaring vocal athleticism and the band’s rhythmic flamboyance. None of it even remotely approaches low quality, yet most of it slides self-consciously across the skin of rock music’s potency without disturbing the blood or muscle underneath.
At this point, I find myself calling bullshit on my own opinions. I readily admit my love of music by Devin Townsend, Soen and Junius, and I can get pretty excited by Ihsahn’s current pursuits, so I’m pretty clearly a raging hypocrite. Even the enigmatic indie pop of Shearwater’s Rook (which includes a comparable vocal approach) holds my interest. Am I simply biased against Leprous and their brand of meticulously considered bombast? Some time spend grappling with that question leads me to think that no, that’s not it. Townsend, for all his theatrics and restlessness, has tried to write and perform with vulnerability, a word I would rarely use to describe Leprous on this record. Their focus seems to be impressing their audience with their musical chops and audacity. Of course, this assertion might be unfair: Leprous might instead be happy to impress themselves alone, perhaps a more noble pursuit, but hardly resulting in music with any greater gut impact. Soen consistently lash their thoughtful compositions to a meaty low end, which Leprous have mostly stripped from Malina, robbing this album of a valuable anchor. Junius invest their brilliant pop tendencies with post-metal density, forcing the melodies to flex against a massive wall of sound; just as a hatchling’s survival depends on a successful struggle against its own shell, such melodies grow stronger through the battle for space in the sound wave. Leprous don’t often force Solberg’s velvet vocal lines to contend with anything denser than a layer or two of rhythm or tonal accompaniment. What acted as welcome leavening on Ihsahn’s ambitious work becomes somewhat bland with overuse on an hour-long record.
The album’s title track and closer “The Last Milestone” are ethereal hymns, stark and stunning in their execution. Set amid more potent fare, they could have been ecstatic foils, but their punctuation is blunted somewhat against Malina’s preening self-aggrandizement. The jagged syncopation “Captive” and “Illuminate” makes them feel like Liturgy outtakes, if Hunter Hunt-Hendrix had diluted his vision with pretty crooning. The gummy bent bass lines in “Mirage” could have been ripped from a Meshuggah song, but while Meshuggah’s machines have been possessed by extradimensional energies that feed on human sanity, Leprous have only borrowed a lurching mimicry and cocooned it in shimmering electronics and waves of post-rock.
Malina is music-nerd magnificent. Leprous fans are unlikely to be disappointed. Leprous novices may have better luck seeking excitement elsewhere.