Album Title: Pitfalls
Label: InsideOut Music
Date of Release: 25 October 2019
Where on Earth does one start with a review of an album like this? The album in question is ‘Pitfalls’ by Norway’s Leprous, arguably one of the most original bands to emerge from the metal scene in the last decade or so. There are so many things that I want to say and which need to be said that I have struggled to know where to begin. To reflect my indecision, I have decided to throw out a random bunch of words that spring to mind as I listen to this record:
Challenging, heartbreaking, honest, deliberate, unique, individual, pure, anguish, mesmeric, enveloping, odd, unexpected, wonderful.
In many ways, I could leave the review there and move on. This collection of words could be argued to sum up my thoughts on this intriguing band’s sixth release. They might also help some to determine whether they are interested in reading further. However, I can’t leave it there; I feel compelled to offer further explanation and (I hope) insight into this most interesting of records.
I’m not one to hide my reality from readers; I have battled mental health issues for over a decade, ever since the tragic passing of my brother in 2008. Over that time, I have noticed a gradual change in attitude towards mental health. There are still far too many who view it as a sign of weakness and something to either deride or fear. For the most part though, there has been an opening of minds and a gradual movement towards understanding and acceptance. And ‘Pitfalls’ is the latest, very powerful example, somewhat fittingly released exactly eleven years, to the day, that my brother left us.
To hear Einar Solberg, lead vocalist, keyboardist and central creative force within Leprous remove the veil on his own struggles with depression and anxiety and lace the songs on this album with some deeply honest and heartbreaking lyrical content is, frankly, indescribable. It also makes for a difficult listen as some of the words and sentiment hit a nerve with me and I find it hard to keep things together as I listen. That’s not to say that ‘Pitfalls’ alienates everyone else; in fact, speaking to others who have heard the album, they tell me that they too found it an equally emotionally draining but scintillating listen.
I don’t wish to dwell on any specific lines or words on ‘Pitfalls’ because every single one of the nine tracks reveals something worthy of comment and serious reflection, with painful soundbites aplenty. But context is everything on a record like this, so instead of placing the spotlight on specific lines, I’ll leave it to each listener to investigate the exact wording and decipher their own meanings.
So, I must turn to the music that accompanies the lyrics. And it is here that things become even more fascinating if that’s even possible. Based on the comments heard whilst attending ProgPower Europe recently, I know the following to be true: ‘Pitfalls’ is going to split fans right down the middle.
But, you see, Leprous are a progressive band and this is progressive music. Stagnation and repetition are not an issue. Ever since their inception and release of debut album, ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ in 2009, it has been clear that Leprous do not follow the crowd. They are innovators or, at the very least, they seek to follow their own path, allowing their creativity and abilities to take them wherever they feel is right. As such, every single album has been different from the last, testing ideas, trying out new things. So why, with the release of their sixth album, should they cease to do this and write more of the same? It doesn’t make sense. And for that reason alone, whilst there is inevitably an initial raising of an eyebrow when ‘Pitfalls’ is played for the first time, the material here and the direction that Leprous have taken should surprise no-one. That inherent ability to surprise, challenge and delight us is half the reason why we listen to Leprous in the first place. Isn’t it?
With that firmly in mind, I shall declare that ‘Pitfalls’ is not a metal album. There are metal traits, accents, and there are a couple of songs that remain within the broad ‘metal’ framework. But ‘Pitfalls’ is, to my mind…different, especially if you were to compare this to their debut in isolation for example. There is a greater use of electronic beats and of interesting synth sounds which will inevitably lead people to think ‘mainstream’. There are definitely moments, such as within ‘I Lose Hope’ or the opening to ‘At The Bottom’ where I could imagine the material being heard on a commercial radio station. However, in spite of this, and because of the brutality of the lyrics, that reality is unlikely. In addition, there’s a quieter, more nuanced and introspective feel to the music that is surprisingly claustrophobic and occasionally uncomfortable, as if you are impinging on Solberg’s private inner turmoil. So it’s not ‘heavy’ in the traditional sense, but it’s a heavy listen, nonetheless.
And crucially, ‘Pitfalls’ does not come across as an exercise in cynically trying to appeal to a wider or different audience demographic. This is an album written by a band, with the outcome being exactly what they wanted to produce, for themselves. No-one else. It’s that integrity that stands out above almost everything here.
Having listened to ‘Pitfalls’ religiously for a while now, I definitely think that the album works best when digested as a whole. For my tastes, some of the songs are stronger and more enjoyable than others, but they all start to make more sense within the context of the overall journey that this record represents. And actually, in true ‘slow burn’ style, some of those tracks that I didn’t immediately gel with, have found greater favour with me. It might be several weeks or months of further concerted listening to fully get to grips with everything on ‘Pitfalls’ but everything is moving slowly and deliberately in the right direction, to suggest to me that what I’m listening to is something rather special.
I’ve always enjoyed the more melodic side of Leprous and so I can immediately appreciate and lap up the likes of opener, ‘Below’. This was the lead single released and it got my attention straight away. Lyrically bleak and raw, it is a song that builds from subtle beginnings to erupt with anguish and a torrent of human emotion in the chorus, supplemented by more abrasive ‘metallic’ instrumentation. Alongside a hugely effective simple melody, a rich string arrangement and Solberg’s absorbing, heartfelt singing, it is devastatingly powerful. At this juncture, I’d be comfortable to use the adjective ‘anthemic’ to describe this amazing opener.
Another favourite of mine is ‘Alleviate’ and, to a greater or lesser extent is similar to ‘Below’ in that it starts off softly with the synths and vocals up front and centre. It lasts for less than four minutes but its impact is greater than its slight lifespan. It builds, with each instrument entering the fray very deliberately alongside more lush string arrangements. You can sense the dam wants to break and it certainly does, with another agonised outpouring of grief and anguish from Solberg, backed up by his bandmates beautifully.
The stylistic shift between these and the second track, ‘I Lose Hope’ is stark and pronounced. The slightly funky electronic beat and melodies that emerge lend themselves very much to the mainstream but in a way that still sounds thoroughly Leprous and, the more you listen, the more infectious and strangely addictive it becomes. If anything, it provides the vaguest semblance of upbeat material on the entire record, at least musically. The lyrics again are anything but.
To underline my previous comments about ‘Pitfalls’ being a grower, other songs that are initially dismissed or cast aside become beguiling, oddly addictive at times and you find yourself listening intently, rapt and immersed. ‘Distant Bells’ is the classic example, as it has turned into a favourite of late too; in a familiar pattern to this record, the song starts off quietly with just a haunting tinkling of keys. But over its seven-minute length, it gradually builds and ultimately delivers in spades, with a wonderfully forceful and captivating crescendo complete with some catchy vocals, layers of rich instrumentation and a gorgeous underlying melody.
Elsewhere, ‘Observe The Train’ is a minimalist composition with a lullaby feel, where the focus is on the vocals, conveying with it a sense of desolation. ‘By My Throne’ features a throbbing bass and some unique and arresting vocals from Solberg which catch the ear and find greater favour with repeated listens. It’s another song where the electronics loom large and there’s a gradual build from quiet beginnings to a more pronounced finale, albeit more restrained than elsewhere.
I could go on for hours more about this record and individually mention every song. But I think I have covered pretty much all the things I wanted to say about it. As I sit here in the dark with headphones on, on the day of release, after an emotional day myself, I can only reiterate the impact ‘Pitfalls’ has on me. I can’t admit to liking every single thing about it, not yet at least. There are parts that I prefer over others and it is no easy listen as I said before.
However, there is something very special about it. I find it somewhat hypnotic and magnetic; I want to keep listening to it, even the parts that I’m less keen on. I’m drawn like a moth to a flame to this music; to Einar’s brutally honest subject matter and the way he conveys it in his unique manner; to the way the rest of the band are talented enough to know when to be restrained and when to unleash more flamboyance or raw power, so that the songs just work. I am certain that I will look back on ‘Pitfalls’ at a time of greater clarity and judge it to be a classic, a masterpiece.
At the moment, all I can say is that it is hugely impressive, moving and very special indeed.
The Score of Much Metal: 95%
If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others from 2019:
Myrath – Shehili
Prehistoric Animals – Consider It A Work Of Art
Voyager – Colours In The Sun
Odd Logic – Last Watch Of The Nightingale
Avandra – Descender
Darkwater – Human
ZW Band / Zonder Wehrkamp – If It’s Real
Teramaze – Are We Soldiers
Rendezvous Point – Universal Chaos
Our Destiny – Awakening
Evergrey – The Atlantic
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: