Leprous asserts that Life is a circus of freaks. Just who is a Freak is a matter of perspective (You, not Me), and the appeal of the Freak Show relies on the invisible barrier between the observer and the observed. As lookers-on, we The Congregation revel in the spectacle, pleased with the entertainment our stations afford us, titillated by the weirdness and fake danger and yet at once repulsed and pitying. How fortunate the insulating crowd to hide us, to validate our gawking haughtiness: We are not Them.
…but for the grace of God.
No matter. We look on with vigor via the news and the talk shows and the People of Wal-Mart and every comments section ever, hoping against hope to catch the pitiable masses at their worst and then crying out in horror when it’s revealed unfiltered and what we’re left with is a turned stomach and its attendant melancholy.
Fuck this world.
That’s the feeling Norway’s Einar Solberg and Leprous have translated to sounds on The Congregation. What’s left after peeling the need for approval from one’s sense of purpose. Desiccated, like the poor creature on the album cover. There’s beauty in those lines and folds, inasmuch as a husk can reflect the faded promise of life. Sadness at what could have been but isn’t. The question posed, “What do you see in the dark?” or rather, “What do you look for there?”
And there’s a paradox: The Congregation’s songs are made of melancholy, to be sure, but they yearn for something else. There’s a couple ways it plays out. The first, most obvious, is Solberg’s vocals. He showed remarkable growth as the centerpiece of Coal’s somber turn, honing his considerable talents to allow for a great range of emotion. Here, Solberg refines his skillset further to evoke a natural tension that helps to draw out subtleties from the surrounding music, homage to longtime mentor Ihsahn being but one important example.
The other aspect of the paradox is reflected in the drumming, arguably the most striking single element of the new record. Baard Kolstad is new to the band and what he brings to the table here is fairly complex. Kolstad’s presence is stark, detached, almost orthogonal to the melodic and harmonic flow, but not quite. Instead, the drums push and pull to compel the listener to consider that, though real, sadness isn’t absolute, that there’s something else to be found in the darkness. Nothing is given away but the promise is clear.
Leprous has built themselves a sturdy reputation for quality progressive music, some going so far as to call them the new standard bearers. If songwriting is the indicator, then Leprous has surpassed the mark on The Congregation. These songs are built to seduce, envelop, hook and maintain, and they succeed because each was written to sustain a well-focused idea, against the too-prevalent temptation in prog to incorporate it all.
Because it’s prog, Leprous’ music sometimes begs the question of whether it’s metal, but The Congregation reminds us that it doesn’t matter. Great songs represent the bar, always. And this sure feels like metal even if it sometimes doesn’t sound like it. Mostly because it’s so dark. Everything they do here feels like darkness; a bit of sinister folded into lots of nifty harmony built from weird chords and just off-kilter melodies. To return to the metaphor, it has the subtle feel of carnival music without all the clowniness, and even the quiet moments play background noise against another worldly wtf slinking ‘round from the third ring to engulf you in an apoplectic embrace.
Where Leprous would have gone bonkers painting this picture for Tall Poppy Syndrome or Bilateral, here they’re much more Monet than Dali. Simply presented, deceptively complex, each plain stroke and each around it blended in a thorough and meticulous combination of colors that evoke a mood known and shared by all and yet unique to each of us.
“Somewhere, someone must bow.”
It’s not an entirely new thing that Leprous brings with The Congregation, as it takes long sips from the same cynical pools as Radiohead and Massive Attack, for example, but it is fresh within its domain. More importantly, it’s a full step away from what would have been an acceptable, even expected, continuation along a comfortable path for Solberg and Leprous. And one gets the feeling that this is a band that pushes themselves outside their comforts with the understanding that’s how growth happens and that it will make them better in the end.
So much of what so many love about Metal is that it acknowledges what is so shitty about the world in a way that at the same time reminds us that it can’t always be that bad. We tend to view others as simple pieces of what’s wrong and ourselves as parts of the intricate well-meaning whole and The Congregation is a great representation of that impossible dichotomy. We see and hear things every day that make us sad and confused about people and their fucked up ways – hell, we seek these out – but then we reframe what we’ve seen and commiserate with people we love and trust and we remember that people are also pretty good at being good.
It’s not easy to pack all that weight into a music album free of irony, but Leprous has done it with poise and conviction that can only come from honest self-reflection and that has resulted in what for many will be their album of the year.