Norway's LEPROUS is celebrating their twentieth anniversary this year. The group has never been content to remain in a state of musical stasis, evolving from putting together artsy-if-disjointed collages of multiple prog-rock and metallic sounds on their first few albums to more streamlined expressions of progressive-rock grandeur. Vocalist/keyboardist Einar Solberg and guitarist Tor Oddmund Suhrke have remained the sole constants since the band's early beginnings, with other seats in the band turning over until 2017's "Malina". The group's latest record, "Aphelion", is the third from the current LEPROUS lineup, and truly feels like the climax of both the progression of Solberg's and Suhrke's songwriting and the chemistry of this incarnation of the band.
The 2021 version of LEPROUS has mastered the art of residing in the happy medium between the more radio-friendly output of progressive-metal stalwarts such as PORCUPINE TREE and the harder-edged riff-progression of acts such as MESHUGGAH. The overall tone of the group's current musical ambitions on "Aphelion" does ultimately end up within the former, though Surhke and second guitarist Robin Ogdenal's guitar tones — as well as some of drummer Baard Kolstad's rhythms — still reside in the latter. Opening track "Running Low" is a slow burn that is carried by Solberg's emotionally powerful vocals and background orchestration that would have been at home within the proggier-side of the LED ZEPPELIN catalog. Chunkier riffs emerge during "Out of Here"'s second half which show Solberg's understated whispers gradually build to forceful falsettos as the music escalates alongside him.
It's the band's mastery of tasteful escalation that proves key to elevating many of "Aphelion"'s tracks. Solberg and Suhrke manage to keep their composition from feeling like tedious wandering, pretentious over-emoting, or musical chaos for the sake of musical chaos. "All The Moments" is a beautiful marriage of blues-rock guitar and swarming orchestration with Solberg's vocal shifts leading ebbs and flows through a cathartic crescendo. Frenetic guitar work reminiscent of REFUSED's "New Noise" carries the opening half of "The Silent Revelation". The song is the album's most overtly rock track, with Solberg emitting brief vocal passages as whispers, which build to a roaring climax of big riffs and arena-level vocal shouts.
Even as there are plenty of individual performances that shine throughout the record, LEPROUS also remains that rare breed where those stand-out moments remain in the service of a strong song, as opposed to flashy musicianship. Even the record's flashiest guitar solo, during the back half of "The Shadow Side", is still fairly restrained compared to other guitarists who may go a bit more over-the-top in a similar situation. Solberg is also a leader of this practice behind the microphone. His vocals attain an operatic grandeur during more bombastic moments — most notably during "On Hold" — without spilling over into comical pomposity. He also still proves capable of emitting more guttural, throaty screams during the climactic album closer, "Nighttime Disguise".
Plenty of bands over the last decade have attempted to fuse well-worn progressive-metal sounds with a more modern rock touch. LEPROUS is one of the few that seemed to have landed in a space that fully works to pull that off well and continue to assert their mastery on "Aphelion".