If the light at the end of the tunnel could be converted into sound, you can bet it would sound exactly like Leprous. Over the last two decades, the Norwegian mavericks have produced some of the deepest and most rewarding music imaginable, steadily evolving from their beginnings as exuberant prog metal explorers, to their current status as one of the most unique and fascinating bands in modern heavy music.
Opening their creative account with kaleidoscopic debut Tall Poppy Syndrome in 2009, Leprous have always exhibited a profound desire to make music that sounds like nothing else on Earth. Maturing via the critically acclaimed likes of The Congregation (2015) and Malina (2017), frontman Einar Solberg’s extraordinary songwriting talents have taken his band to new heights with each successive release. Similarly revered as a jaw-dropping and heart-stopping live band, Leprous have been enthusiastically embraced by a wide variety of music lovers, from diehard metalheads to old school prog fans and, in truth, anyone that demands a little bit more passion, power and elegance from their music. In 2019, Leprous released Pitfalls; their sixth studio album and the most personal batch of songs that Solberg had ever written. Detailing the multi-instrumentalist’s battles with depression and anxiety, it was universally hailed as a career peak. With extensive touring plans spoiled by an unexpected global pandemic, the Norwegians were unable to conclude their plans for Pitfalls, but the good news is that time has not been wasted during the last year’s lockdown. Pieced together in three different studios, Leprous’ seventh full-length album Aphelion is yet another monumental artistic achievement, and the most startling and dynamic record they have ever made. “We didn’t really plan to do an album right now,” says Solberg. “Like many bands, we were planning to do an EP but then we thought, ‘What’s the point?’ and decided to a full album. The whole point with this album is that it’s relatively intuitive. All of the songs have been written in completely different ways. Some songs have been relatively improvised in the studio, other songs have been written like before, where I sit and write at home and then we meet up to work it all out. Some of the songs, we’ve even included the fans in the writing process, so it’s a very different album. It’s a song-by-song album. I wouldn’t say that Pitfalls was a concept album, for example, but it feels a lot more like one than Aphelion does.” Although unmistakably the work of the same band that made Pitfalls, Aphelion immediately stands out as a radical statement by this endlessly inventive band. Veering from some of the heaviest and most intense material of their career to some of the most delicate and heart-breaking music in the Leprous canon, Aphelion is an album of beautifully crafted and meticulously arranged mini-masterworks. “I feel that this is the most varied album we’ve done in a long time. That’s maybe the best way to describe it,” Solberg suggests. “I feel that every song is its own thing. I’ve struggled to find one overall sound for the album because the songs have all been recorded at different times and in different studios and in completely different ways! So we were kind of excited to see how it would all work when you put it together, because it hasn’t been written as one thing. But it feels quite free compared to Pitfalls, in particular.” An album of scintillating contrasts, Aphelion switches effortlessly from the epic and intricate likes of opener Running Low and the exquisitely succinct Silhouette, to the ingenious and freewheeling balladry of All These Moments and the squalling prog noir grandeur of closer Nighttime Disguise. As ever, Solberg’s songwriting conjures countless moments of emotional fervour, not least because Aphelion once again focuses on the frontman’s mental health struggles. This time, however, the light at the end of the tunnel burns brighter than before. “Aphelion is about mental health, and about anxiety, which is something I’ve been dealing with over the last few years in particular. Pitfalls was more the first stage of that, like ‘Oh fuck, what am I dealing with here?’ Being deep into anxiety and depression felt like a new thing. On this album, I’ve gone much further into how to deal with it and how to gradually get away from it, at least to the point where it’s not dominating your life anymore. Both Pitfalls and Aphelion are very personal albums, and maybe the only really personal albums we’ve ever done. Back in the day we wrote much more from a general position. But with this album, the majority of the lyrics are written from my perspective, so I feel it’ll be much easier for everyone to understand what we’re saying.” Due to the organisational chaos caused by the Covid catastrophe, Aphelion was recorded in three different studios: Ghost Ward Studio in Stockholm, with long-time collaborator David Castillo at the controls, and Norwegian studios Ocean Sound Recordings and Cederberg Studios, the latter with desk-guru Christer Cederberg. And finally, just like with Pitfalls, Aphelion was mixed by Adam Noble (Placebo, Biffy Clyro, Nothing But Thieves, etc.) and then mastered by Robin Schmidt (The 1975, Placebo, The Gaslight Anthem, etc.). But despite its seemingly chaotic creation, Aphelion is arguably the most fluid and cohesive album Leprous have made to date. Rich in sonic subtleties and organic warmth, it’s thrilling proof that a lot can be achieved, even in the most challenging of circumstances. “We worked with a lot of different people this time. We recorded it in three different studios. It’s a bit like some have been recorded in one and some in another, and some in another, and then a couple of songs have been recorded in all three! But for guests, we had again Raphael Weinroth-Browne on cello and Chris Baum on violin, and this time we had a Norwegian brass group called Blåsemafiaen, and they almost won the Norwegian Eurovision contest this year! But they’re extremely good and they play on Running Low and Nighttime Disguise. It’s the first time we’ve had a full brass group on an album.” The perfect title for this intimate and moving piece of work, Aphelion represents the point in the path of an object’s orbit when it is furthest away from the sun. It’s a sublime metaphor for the grand challenges that are thrown at us in life, and the strength and self-belief it often requires to struggle on. For Solberg, it seemed to capture the essence of what these songs are expressing. “First of all we thought it was a very beautiful title,” he says. “Originally we wanted to call the album Adapt, because that’s kind of the theme, but it didn’t sound right. Adapt Tour 2022 doesn’t sound very cool, does it? [Laughs] So the meaning of Aphelion is what we wanted in the first place. It’s about creating something beautiful from a difficult situation. You try to use a hard situation to your own advantage, which I think we’ve done with Leprous to a great degree. We’ve really embraced this lockdown situation as much as we can, with the livestreams. I think we’ve done eight streams and it’s going well for us, and we’ve written a new album too. So it’s not about thinking about what you had and what you miss - it’s about what you actually have and what you can do with it.” Armed with some of the most spellbinding music they’ve ever made, Leprous are keen to be at the front of the queue when live music becomes a fundamental part of our lives once again. In the meantime, Aphelion is a timely reminder that this band can touch hearts and soothe souls like no other. “I guess like every other band we’re planning to play live as soon as we can. I don’t think anyone’s going to wait very long! So we’ve announced a tour for December this year, which is a 20th anniversary run. It’ll be a chronological set from our early demos, right up to today. Luckily we started the band very young when I was 16 and Tore was 15, but I actually felt older three years ago. I’ve made peace with getting older, more than I did back then. I’m really looking forward to whatever comes next!”
If you think you know what to expect from Leprous, then you are about to have your world shaken up. Because 'Pitfalls', the Norwegian band's sixth studio album, is like nothing else they have ever done.
“This is honestly the album nobody expects from us,” says a clearly proud Einar Solberg. The vocalist/keyboard player feels it will make everyone reassess exactly how they perceive the band, who started in 2001 and have taken firm steps in their development on each of their previous five records. “You might think you understand where it's all going as each track plays. But once you reach the end of the album, you will really sit there and wonder what just happened!”
Solberg and the rest of the band – guitarists Tor Oddmund Suhrke and Robin Ognedal, bassist Simen Børven and drummer Baard Kolstad – believe this album, titled 'Pitfalls', is a leap of faith into fresh, exciting and challenging territory.
This is without doubt the biggest departure Leprous have ever musically made. In no sense can it be described as a metal album, but what these musicians have done is come up with their own sound, which sets them apart from anyone else. Now, Leprous have never been a band who cared about genres. It's always been about making the music they wanted, and then leaving it to others to put a tag on it. But with this album, they have taken the process a lot further than ever before.
'Pitfalls' is the most personal album Solberg has ever written, as he's opened up about his battle against depression. “Lyrically, this means so much to me. Because what I am doing is talking about the last year and a half when I have been coping with anxiety and depression. And I am not talking about what I faced in metaphorical terms. I have written in a very straightforward manner, so everyone will understand what I went through.”
The writing process actually began when the vocalist first started to feel the depression taking hold of him, and you can follow the entire sequence of events as they happened through the lyrics here. It was a bold thing to do, as he assiduously wrote at every stage, including when right in the middle of the struggle, and also at the end as he came to terms with the ramifications.
The album was produced by Solberg with David Castillo, who worked on the previous Leprous album, 2017's 'Malina'. “We recorded at Ghostward Studios in Stockholm, and were so determined to take a massive step up on the production side that we were prepared to put in whatever time, effort and expense was required. We were never going to cut corners with this album. I spent 75 days in the studio this year to make sure it all came out the way we wanted.”
Leprous also made a somewhat surprising choice when it came to the person who mixed the album. They went for Englishman Adam Noble, known for his work with bands like Placebo and Deaf Havana, eschewing the obvious choices and offering a very different take on the music.
There is no title track here. Rather Solberg believes the term 'Pitfalls' captures the theme running through the lyrics. “This describes so well what you are up against when dealing with anxiety, how it works in your head and can take you over completely. And I have to say that I am oddly grateful it happened to me, because of what came out of it through the songs on this album.”
The cover artwork is a painting from Indonesian artist Elicia Edijanto. “It's of a boy playing a flute, and for me represents what the album is all about. When you see it, you'll understand”. It wasn't a piece of artwork that was commissioned for the album, but rather something the band came across and subsequently bought the rights. Corey Meyers, who did the artwork for 'Malina', was also involved in the design.
Solberg believes 'Pitfalls' firmly represents the Leprous philosophy and artistry. It is an album without any compromise whatsoever. The band have followed their vision throughout, whatever the cost and wherever it took them. “I can honestly say that 'Pitfalls’ is the album we set out to make, and I am proud of what we have achieved. I hope everyone enjoys it. But what matters most to me is that I love it. That's all any artist can ask, to be happy with what you've created.”
“It would have been very easy for me to have the songs flow chronologically, with the opening track talking about how I felt as things began, and then the last song all about being hopeful as I came to the light at the end of the tunnel. But that's not how life works, and I never wanted this album to come across as some fluffy movie script. So, the final track is one of the least hopeful ones.” Titled 'The Sky Is Red’, this farewell song is, says Solberg, “The longest and weirdest composition here.” This clocks in at more than 11 minutes in length, and allows the band to give full reign to their creativity. They even got in a complete classical choir, who were recorded in Belgrade. They did a vast number of takes with them, which was exactly what the song needed to bring out all the elements. “It's has a very dark mood and one that's also the most oddball here. Now, usually, I don't like progressive songs which are very long, because so often they come across as being better if they were trimmed here and there. But 'The Sky Is Red' goes against that usual logic for me. There's not a second wasted. It benefits from being an epic.”
There are nine songs in all, and for the frontman they are roughly divided into two halves. The first half of the album can be described as representing the poppier side of the band's artistry. The second half is a lot more experimental and progressive. The opening song on 'Pitfalls' is 'Below' (also the first single), and to some extent this fits into fairly familiar territory for Leprous. It's melancholic, slow and has a massive string arrangement, giving it the feel of almost being a James Bond theme song. But the most accessible tune is 'Alleviate'. In fact, this could be the most commercial and uplifting song the band have ever done, and is sure to surprise a few people.
While there's definitely a conceptual theme running through the lyrics, on the musical side every one of the compositions has a distinct flavour and stands on its own.
There are guest appearances from cellist Raphael Weinroth-Browne and violinist Chris Baum on 'Pitfalls'. The former has played with Leprous quite a bit, while the latter is a member of American band Bent Knee. They also helped when it came to the string arrangements, which are a crucial part of the way things sound.