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Leprous’s Congregation Isn’t Particularly Uniting

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Leprous have always had a black soul. Maybe it’s not always explicitly manifest in their music, but it’s definitely there in the band’s affect; in the dark, composed authenticity that the Norwegians have been conjuring up since 2001. Maybe it’s due to their Scandinavian roots, or to the fact that they spent four years performing as Ihsahn’s backing band, but no matter what, the band’s blackened edge has helped separate Leprous from the hordes of other prog acts. Even in its tenuous form, this blackness of character has helped Leprous define themselves, and it’s played a large role in illuminating and accenting the band’s expertise with the avant-garde. But with 2015’s The Congregation, that experimental tendency has begun to fade pretty far into the background, and with it, so has a lot of the band’s intrigue.

The Congregation picks up where 2013’s Coal left off, driving in a direction that sounds like someone dropped Pain of Salvation into a gene pool filled with the DNA of Muse and Haken. If you were hoping that “The Price” was the analog to “The Cloak” from Coal, you may be disappointed here: The Congregation is cleaner, lighter, and safer across the board. Track lengths are significantly slimmed down, vocalist Einar Solberg has taken near-total control over both the songwriting and the band’s vocal presence, and repetition abounds. Riffs that might have once been written in dense clusters of individual notes are now simplified and written with major-inclined chords, and while there’s certainly plenty of technicality going on in the rhythmic end of things (new drummer Baard Kolstad’s tricks with metric modulation are especially noteworthy), the guitars and bass are decidedly shifted to the background. There’s not much experimentation going on here either – sure, horns pop up from time to time, and synths regularly swoop in to pad the riffs, but if you let The Congregation pass you by, it will; unlike previous Leprous releases, there’s little that will reach out and grab your attention for you if you’re not already listening.

The Congregation also lacks continuity – its eleven tracks all feel starkly separated from those following and preceding them – and that’s a vibe that doesn’t lend itself particularly well to the band. When I listen to Leprous, I’m looking for the unpredictable roller coaster ride of Bilateral, not the watered-down syrup of “Triumphant” or “Within My Fence.” Leprous have stressed that their new release is supposed to be a dark, evocative album, but like on Coal, all this really means is that The Congregation doesn’t jump around from mood to mood haphazardly like on Bilateral. The mood is consistent throughout, but what the album gains in cohesiveness, it loses in dynamics – the band’s musical palette is smaller than ever on The Congregation, and that makes the album feel samey and diluted.

Despite these criticisms, Leprous still do a lot right here. It doesn’t matter how poppy that djenty groove in “Red” is; “Moon” is convincing in its emotion rather than caricaturesque. A hint of that former blackness still persists, cropping up in the cinematic groove towards the end of “Rewind.” And the music is still well-composed; it’s just a little boring. Were the band’s earlier releases not so strong, it might be a different story, but considering the strength of their last two efforts, it’s hard to justify wanting to listen to The Congregation. There’s still plenty here to dig into, but given its overall dilution (not to mention the excessive 66-minute-long runtime), The Congregation is a hard pill to swallow. Though Leprous’s revised direction might ultimately gain the band a new kind of fanbase, it’s also liable to alienate those who first appreciated the band for their more cerebral works.

Leprous’ The Congregation comes out May 25 on InsideOut. You can listen to the track “Rewind” here and preorder it here.

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