SKULL654

LEPROUS, Coal (2013, Inside Out)

The skull:
As kids, we all learn that diamonds are compressed coal, although as it turns out, that’s not true at all, at least in the case of most diamonds. Probably a long time ago, the lesson was simply that diamonds are made of the same stuff as coal (they’re just carbon, after all), but over time, overeager and undercurious elementary school teachers probably confused the relationship. This cover is an attempt to extrapolate the degeneration of this misinformation into the far future, when kids the world over will learn that diamonds are made when a crystal skull chews up coal and vomits out gems. Children who ask how the skull is animated can expect one of two answers. The smarter dumb teachers will explain that the skull is only a metaphor for metamorphic processes. The dumber dumb teachers will say “Jesus.”

The music:
Leprous’s 2011 full-length, Bilateral is one of the greatest prog metal albums of all time, and a shot in the arm of a moribund scene that has primarily calcified into third generation Dream Theater knockoffs in a race to sound the most like a power metal band. Through clearly indebted to the eclecticism of early Pain of Salvation, Bilateral is its own beast, a frantic, technical, sometimes bewildering brew of everything great in prog metal. It’s an album so good that to attempt to top it on its own terms would be a folly, and it seems that Leprous realized as much, because Coal strikes off in entirely new directions while still sounding somehow of a piece with the band’s earlier work. Mostly abandoning the frenetic riffery of Bilateral (and to a lesser extent, Tall Poppy Syndrome), Coal instead ventures to progress vocally, and indeed the entire album, more or less, rests on the shoulders of keyboardist and singer Einer Solberg, whose voice started off pretty great and has evolved into something close to a wonder of the metal world. There are long acapella sections, intricate counterpunctual melodies, and deep explorations of vocal ideas. Obviously heavy metal has a long traditional of athletic vocal performances, but I can’t offhand think of another prog metal band who have invested so much energy in the cultivation of a unique approach to vocals. From the very first track, it’s clear that Leprous are working at something new. Not every fan of the band was pleased by this. Many complained that there are too many “oohs” and “aahs” and other weird vocalizations, and indeed there are many, so many that I think the band must have had provocation in mind when they went down this path. But I for one find the subtle and intricate permutations of Solberg’s melodic choices to be almost trance-inducing. At the very least, I find the vocals sufficiently engaging that I don’t miss the crazy guitarwork of albums past in the least, and in fact the deep, Tool-inspired grooves and novel textures conjured by guitarists Tor Oddmund Suhrke and Øystein Landsverk are exactly the right bed for Solberg’s singing. The album’s single track, “The Cloak,” for instance, is more or less a four minute expansion of a single vocal hook, but it’s a hook so powerful that it could easily support another four minutes, no solos of wanking needed. Coal is not for everyone, nor even for a large part of the historical audience for prog metal, whose taste and spirit of adventure have largely withered along with the ambitions of most of the scene’s onetime frontrunners. It’s time to ditch Dream Theater for good and follow bands like Leprous to hear the future of prog metal.
— Friar Johnsen

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