I don’t care who you are — start managing people, and prepare for a bag of dicks. They may blossom from you, they may sprout from elsewhere, but trust me… bag of dicks. Probably because no one likes to be told what to do, and despite any pre-existing relationship, things get strained — which is perhaps why Leprous grows adventurous when released from the reign(rein?) of Vegard “Ihshan” Tveitan. This is not to suggest potential dissolution nor unhappy work conditions (after all, I’m not on tour with these folks), but it’s easy to imagine how one might feel a greater personal investment in their own creation.
Actually, maybe I got a bit overzealous with that opening bit. Leprous has made staggering advances since their 2010 recruitment tour with Ihsahn, and the very involvement of Vegard Tveitan (plus his wife Heidi, who is also the sister of keyboard/vocalist Einar Solberg) has helped project this band to greater heights. 2011’s Bilateral was fairly gonzo without being straight goofypants, and considering its dramatic departure from their ambitious 2009 debut Tall Poppy Syndrome, it’s no surprise that the ever-simply-titled Coal is again that much different.
Coal starts with a strangely jarring march, but it’s soon clear the skeleton will be fleshed out, and nearly every unearthed element is welcome — like the multi-part a capella vocal harmonies throughout ‘Foe’ — an indicator that Leprous have clearly expanded their compositional potential. So as not to favor form over fervor, ‘Chronic’ brings the brutal balance back in check; and once the following title track is squeezed hard enough, it too unleashes deadly shredding diamonds. Then ‘The Cloak’ just envelops in gorgeousness as Solberg’s clean throat takes center stage, imploring “Will you cry tomorrow reflecting on yesterday’s action / Cry tomorrow draining your satisfaction” — a curious choice as first video too, as it’s more accessible and less overtly metallic, yet still plumbs the darkness.
In the first of three ‘Side B’ songs to venture into 9-minute territory, ‘The Valley’ interweaves angular, staccato rhythms within a fuzzy whirlpool of feedback and the most memorable vocal melodies on Coal, rounded out by an excellent syncopated performance from bassist Rein Blomquist and drummer Tobias Andersen. Vocals soar to even greater heights approximately three minutes into ‘Salt’, although the song abruptly ends with a few seconds of what seems like in-studio noise. For a band so outwardly concerned with precision, it’s odd that Leprous would tarnish their luster, but it could be there for an as-yet-undetermined function. Everything means something.
The nearly 10-minute sprawl of ‘Echo’ finds a lively midsection to keep things moving, and Ihsahn returns with guest vocals for ‘Contaminate Me’, which also features a gentle layer of classical violin, and a spazzed-out, possibly ad-libbed conclusion. Overall, there’s less additional players on Coal, but what results is a deeper, more introspective version of Leprous — a logical pendulum swing from the meticulous madness of their sophomore set.
All quibbles can become assets when dealing with groups like Leprous. These young Norwegian visionaries display purposeful progression and remain relatable while they persistently evolve. Having consistently set and surmounted daunting bars so early in their career, serious further exploration must still be in store.