Prog has always been a movement calling for the idea of innovation. The unrequited want for change, ironic then that some Prog fans seem to be steadfast in their traditional ways. Wanting technicality over experimentation, giving what some might deem a different definition of Prog. Set to release their brand new album the absolutely phenomenal Malina, Leprous are fast becoming one of the most talked about bands on the Prog circuit. Coming off the back of their critically acclaimed The Congregation, it seems that the bands journey has only really just begun. Ironically some of the most complicated guitar work that you might imagine, sounds in effect incredibly simple. Could these Norwegians bring the oxymoron of intricate simplicity to the world of Prog?Flourishing into a different entity altogether, could Malina be the invigoration that Prog fans could very well be in need of?
Known for their leaps in between albums, no two Leprous records are ever the same. 2014’s The Congregation is a far cry from the band’s beginnings with the almost Opethian , Tall Poppy Syndrome. Nevertheless despite their creative strides, there remains a sense of continuation within the band and their sound, giving the listener a form of thread if you will. Never one to compromise, Leprous consistently strive for new ways to improve upon their sonic landscape. Using the blueprints laid before them on The Congregation, originally their newest output would follow in a similar vein. As the creative processes wore on, it was clear that just as their previous records, no two albums would remain the same.
“On the last two albums both on The Congregation and on Malina, we had the same approach to the songwriting process. In a very defined period of time said to ourselves, lets make two sketches a day until we have thirty complete song ideas with a chorus and a verse and a hook line maybe. We started this in the beginning of 2016 and when we had made all thirty sketches we sat down and discussed and voted over which ones should we continue pursuing. We ended up with fifteen of them, to answer your question, we didn’t really think too much about how The Congregation was. We had already been playing The Congregation for so long and then to finally be able to make something new was very nice. When you do it like this with the time pressure, you’re not waiting to be inspired before you make anything. You just sit down and think, “Ok now I have the time, lets see what I can find.” Sometimes that doesn’t work at all and sometimes it works really, really well! You can feel really, really inspired and thinking I have very good ideas and then you end up with nothing good at all.”
Whilst forging fearlessly forward, Leprous do have a tendency to of course take up residence in their previous work to an extent. Using the older material as a foundation for their exploratory limits enables the band to remain identifiable yet all the while continuously searching for something different. Wanting to improve their sound not through technique but through song writing, Leprous aren’t ones to shy away from experimentation. Previously bringing the likes of extra strings into what is a primarily staccato mix to create a fantastic contrast between the weighty eight string, in parison to the lighter, thinner strings. One such element the band have toyed with in the past is the inclusion of strings, pursuing yet another avenue of creativity, this inclusion of strings enables the band to challenge their sonic boundaries once more.
“From one album to another we’ve always been evolving our sound. Always trying to try new things, as you said some of the songs like “Mirage” were like the dark bending guitars. Then you have “The Last Milestone” which is a complete string based song. Thats a completely new way of how Leprous sounds. When we’re making music, we’re not necessarily thinking, just for the sake of it to try and make something as far from the last thing that we did.Its usually a couple of years between making new songs. You change a little bit in two years. I think thats the kind of evolution that you can hear! Also the fact that when we recorded Malina, we were very interested in trying out what we felt was lacking the last time. Things that we hadn’t tried before and wanted to see how they worked. For example to use more organic instruments and playing things more live in the studio. To maybe turn down the distortion on the guitars to make it sound a bit more open and not that compressed. Both the song writing and the recording process has been different from the last time.”
Like everything in the Leprous make up, this decision to include strings came as something natural. Whilst on tour in Canada the quintet headed down to make sure support wouldn’t overrun when they spotted an unusual talent that had them transfixed. Performing entirely on a cello solo, sensing an opportunity, the band turned to the man and asked if he would take the reins in adding stringed arrangements to their new record.
“We’ve had the trumpet at one point on our older songs and we’ve had the violin on “Contaminate Me” on Coal. We weren’t total strangers to having other instruments and having other people layering but I think that we had plans when we were making a lot of these songs that we wanted to have someone play the strings live. Not having any synthesiser doing it, like a mellotron. We hadn’t really decided who to ask yet. The thing is that in October we were on a North American tour, when we played in Ottowa, in Canada, the support act there, was a solo project of this guy just playing the cello. We went down and then we got so caught up in that show. It was just this one guy playing his cello and it was so emotional. It sounded so big even though it was only that guy. At that point we realised that we had to ask him to play the strings on this album. So we flew him over and had him record all the strings on the album. Because we were so satisfied with how it sounded, we actually ended up adding strings to some other songs which we didn’t necessarily intend to.”
Having previously followed a seemingly regimented song writing structure, instead with Malina, Leprous wanted to try a more organic approach. Perfection can often be somewhat of a double edged sword however, giving the music an inanimate quality at times. It can pay dividends to understand the want of a perfectionist, however something a simple as a mistake can give a sense of feel, of heart, something that is far harder to replicate. The likes of David Gilmour for example, in order to emanate his inimitable style, there needs to be imperfection to highlight the perfection giving life to his classic feel.
“We’re very into the details. In some of our older albums, I guess we have been pretty perfectionist on them. Me the things I do, I spend a lot of time perfecting things that really don’t need to be perfected! Writing an email, I want it to look like it to be how I want to. I’m kind of a perfectionist in many ways. I’ve realised that in making music, its not necessarily to the benefit of the song to have it perfect in the sense of being almost played as it would be on the MIDI track that we made. On Malina, we were a bit more aware to not perfect things. Recording the live album that we did last year, after listening to a lot of those songs, you realise that first of all they are very difficult songs to play. You can hear that its live but you can’t hear that it sounds anything worse than the studio recording. It just sounds different and in my opinion I think it sounds better. We realised that the vibe that you get from playing things more live in the studio is actually something that we should try to embrace a bit more. When you hear those sounds you can tell that it is an instrument, not a perfect machine that is playing it. It sounds a bit more sincere and more organic.”
Ironic then that a band who are so compositionally pedantic, should choose to throw their own rulebook out of the window. Wanting to create a more organic sound, contrary to the sterile sounds bands of current are pumping out. It seems, much like many of the musical ideas, that the cyclical return of imperfection is something that bands once again now strive for. Embracing imperfection has been the key to creating a unique sound once again, further propelling the bands sound.
“Some music is too perfectionist. There is a lot electronic music that is really, really nice. Of course Electronic music can often be very perfect. I think its nice to hear using a synthetic sound. We used a real Hammond organ and a real Rhodes. The things that we didn’t use that on we used a lot of analog effects and re-amping it to get the most natural sound. Most of it was played in the studio and not programmed. Thats also something that we had done more on this album than on previous albums, we played more live. I guess we will do even more of that in the future.”
Notable for their staccato guitar sound, Leprous are a band who thrive in the unorthodox. Noticing that song writing although disguised by veil of simplicity are actually incredibly intricate. Requiring an incredible amount of skill in order to even play the music. Perhaps this comes from Einar, the band’s main principle song writer. In just one of the unique methods the band employ, rather than thinking of the music in a band dynamic, often, the singer will write sections for instruments as though they were vocal melodies. Making guitarist Tor’s life incredibly interesting when having to transpose this into what he would deem something guitar worthy. Therein, I believe, lies their genius.
“It could well be! One of the unorthodox approaches is that many of our guitar riffs are made by a guy that doesn’t have a clue how to play guitar! The main composer in Leprous these days is Einar. He plays Keyboards and is a fantastic vocalist but he is a very good composer. He makes music either on keyboards or just on his laptop, programming. When he makes things, he just makes things about the mood and maybe the rhythms. This is just the kind of general sound, the things that he programs are rarely possible to play on the guitar. Then its us, the guitarists job to take this and make it into something that is actually playable on the guitar. I’ve been thinking sometimes, the thing that I am playing now, is so difficult to play. I don’t think any guitar player, EVER would make this riff! No one in his right mind would do that to themselves. I’m kind of stuck with the ideas that he has already made and try to make the best guitar version out of the idea he has! I think thats probably an unorthodox way of doing it and I think it gives it a kind of distinct guitar sound.”
Creating a perfect balance between syncopated rhythms and arid melodies, Leprous have mastered the art of making the intricate look effortless. Coming together as a band to ensure that the song speaks for itself, rather than being a musical obstacle course for the listener to navigate that so often lies in the bedrock of Prog. Ironically, despite the common misconception, these can be the hardest songs to create.
“A good example on the first single we released “From The Flame”. When we released that so many people were like “This is not progressive at all! Its like Pop music.” Some of our existing fans think that everything should be by the book progressive. Which is something, that for me, is not a very progressive thing to say! Why should you say that things should be like this because it used to be like this, thats not being progressive in my mind. They really want it to be odd time signatures, if its staccato and very difficult to groove along with then you have to know music to understand what is happening. Its actually really, really technical but you can really hear it that much.
So going back to “From The Flame” then I’m thinking to myself that the verse is actually in 13/8. Which is really difficult! Its a really, really difficult guitar riff to play but its played in a way that doesn’t sound that difficult. It sounds really easy! For me I take it as a compliment if people don’t hear that it is a really technical thing and that it sounds easy. Its a way to bring the Prog elements to the masses without not trying to be Progressive. I feel like a lot of other Prog fans, really want all other Prog bands to sound like Dream Theater. You do that and you get a big thumbs up saying, you’re awesome! It sounds so difficult and you’re such a brilliant guitar player. Thats not the only way of playing Progressive music, I think! I think its just one subgenre.”
Yet another element of Prog that can sometimes fall victim to the perfectionist approach is technicality. Of course you’re able to play a thousand notes per second and for some this will be their musical calling card. However the true mastery comes in the form of songwriting. Despite their lucidity think back to the days of The Beatles. None of their tracks are particularly difficult to perform but to emulate, are nigh on impossible again nailing this sense of feeling is paramount. Comparing the likes of shredding to what an athlete would be put through, Tor couldn’t have come up with a better metaphor.
“The thing is when you play something really, really technical all it takes is to practice. I feel its more like a sport than it is, than art if you get what I mean. As you say, playing a really, really simple song and making it sound good, thats something that is so subtle. Everyone has heard cover songs from simple sounding songs. You play it without actually thinking about all of the underlying details of how the original song was recorded or played. You lose something and it sounds flat and boring. It might be a very easy song to play if you just have a guitar and are singing along but then it takes a lot more to get the same feel as many famous songs. They sound so distinct and easy but has such a different feel. If you boost up the distortion on your guitar and shred away its more like just being as fast as possible. I’m very impressed by people doing that, I don’t have that technical ability. I have never really been into that kind of music. Super fast shredding guitar players, I completely get why people are into it but I can get a bit bored by it listening to it too much. I think it could be a really cool element if it suddenly pops up into something else but if its only that then I think it can get a bit boring.”
As the band had progressed so did their line up. Having two members change the guard, now the band have a soldified line up. Guitarist Øystein throwing in the towel, now the band have welcomed …. new axeman, coupled with the addition of a brand new bassist Simen, a position that has had somewhat of a “curse” in the band. Owing to a rotational line up, after releasing their Live DVD Live At Rockefeller, could the Norwegians finally have a solidified line up once more?
“Bass player Simen, was also a part of The Congregation. The thing is that he stepped in right before we were recording. It didn’t really work out with the bass player we had so we were suddenly in this situation where we had to find a bass player that can play this. Right between Christmas Eve and New Year. Someone knew Simon and he said he would do it. He did it without really preparing at all. Then when we finished we didn’t have a bass player so we just agreed with him and said lets see how this works out. You don’t have to feel obligated to always play bass with us. We ended up using him for more or less everything since then. He was also the bass player on the live recording we did last year. We’ve had a history of Bass players coming and going so we wanted to see if he really was up for staying before we dedicated ourselves. He was a part of the writing process of Malina. He didn’t contribute with any compositions of his own but his opinion was there in the songs to go forward with. He also had a lot of ideas when it came to Bass playing when recorded.”
“Guitars is a bit more complex. We’ve had our guitar player Øystein since 2005. He’s been a part of Leprous for eleven years but the later years he was less and less available to be a part of it when we were touring. For us it was working because we had some other guitar players that were just stepping in, we were fine with that to some extent. I think at some point it was the last five tours, we’ve had five different guitar players. Its so much extra work. We have to rehearse all the same songs with new people.
We realised by talking about it that he really wasn’t ready to put down his other career. Then we realised its better for all of us to say either you’re in or you’re not. It was a really sad decision but we all agreed on it. Our new guitarist Robin, we had already used him as a fill guitarist for the North American tour we did. It was obvious that we wanted to ask him. He works really well both socially and musically. Last minute, before we started to record the album, he needed to learn this. He wasn’t a part of the band when we were writing the music but he was a part of the band when we were planning the recording. I had played most of the guitars on the album simply because I knew most of the parts that he didn’t really have time to learn. The things that he has made, its really obvious that he has his own sound. He’s been a part of colouring the final product I think.”
Not only a musical maestro but a lyrical swordsmith, Tor is the backbone for Leprous’ lyrical content. Ensuring that whenever inspiration might strike he would be able to grasp its lyrical content. Ranging from life events to more philosophical wonderings, the lyrical content is something that has been under his beady eye once again on Malina.
“I wrote most of the lyrics as it goes. On the previous albums I wrote almost all of the lyrics bar The Congregation where Einar started to make some. Malina I made most of them but Einar made some too. We have a bigger collaboration when we wrote them. We had this shared folder where we put up our ideas and then gave our opinions. Einar is doing the vocals so he needs to adapt the lyrics I write to the vocal lines. I make the lyrics separate from the music and then he says “This theme of this lyric goes well with the theme of this song” then we try to adapt the lines to the song.
On The Congregation the lyrics had more of a common theme to it. The lyrics on Malina are a bit more diverse, they’re made more isolated from each other. There isn’t really a theme. We’re not well known form making very happy songs haha! I get an idea for a song if I’m driving my car to work and then suddenly I’m like “Oh this is something I feel strongly about.” I might encounter something in my life and that triggers it. I might just hear a word and I like the word. I always have a list on my phone where I write down ideas that just pop into my head. I think its important that its not just empty words and that it has to have a meaning.”
Once again, Leprous have evolved from the pupae that crystallised them after The Congregation. Beginning a brand new chapter in their life cycle, Malina promises to be yet another shining example of Norwegians’ seemingly limitless creativity. Compiling elements that Leprous have been slowly fine tuning throughout their career, the record is more than a statement to the Progressive world. Solidifying their new line up, the undercurrent of ingenuity that lies throughout the essence of Leprous is something that band have harvested beautifully. A study in simplicity, a defining moment and one that will be remembered throughout the community as one of Leprous’ finest achievements.
“I’m really excited. I think the sound of it is really taking the band in a really interesting direction. Still we’re the same band and you can hear that we are Leprous but you can also definitely hear a new direction in the sound. After doing this album, I can already imagine some ideas for what we want to do the next recording for example. What did we like with recording this and how do we want to go forward. I’m also really looking forward to hearing the opinions of people. I know, since its a bit different I know that people will question it. I think thats completely valid that people have their hopes of us going back to Bilateral. We would never intentionally aim to go back to something specific. We just make what we feel is a natural. Most of our listeners are expecting us to do something different. Most of our listeners also like the fact that we’re doing something different and are looking forward to saying “Oh I wonder what they have done this time.”