Considering that Leprous’ phenomenal sixth LP, Pitfalls, came out in October 2019, it might seem like an especially quick turnaround for them to return so soon with Aphelion. Yet, the Norwegian symphonic/art rock quintet have always worked at a brisk and dedicated pace; this was especially true over the last year or so, as the global pandemic afforded them extra time to work on their next studio effort since, you know, they really couldn’t do much else. Fortunately, those challenging yet serendipitous circumstances didn’t hurt the quality of the LP, as Aphelion houses some of their greatest moments, further solidifying them as kings of their craft.
Naturally, the line-up from Pitfalls returns, as do cellist Raphael Weinroth-Browne (Musk Ox, The Visit), violinist Chris Baum (Bent Knee), and both Adam Noble and Robin Schmidt on mixing and mastering, respectively. Aphelion also marks the first time that Leprous has used a brass group: Norway’s Blåsemafiaen. Like its predecessor, the record deals with mental health struggles both personal and universal. On record, frontman Einar Solberg comments: “Pitfalls was more the first stage of that. . . . Being deep into anxiety and depression felt like a new thing. [Here], I’ve gone much further into how to deal with it and how to gradually get away from it, at least to the point where it’s not dominating your life anymore.”
He also stipulates that the sequence flows more like “a song-by-song album” than Pitfalls, and that it was recorded in several studios—and in several configurations—resulting in perhaps the group’s most “varied” and emblematic LP yet. As for the title, it was originally going to be called Adapt, but it “didn’t sound right,” so Aphelion was chosen to provide a punchier way of expressing the notion of “creating something beautiful from a difficult situation.” Of course, that sentiment has always been integral to Leprous’ work, and in light of the hardships that’ve befallen the entire world recently, it’s acutely relevant.
To Solberg’s credit, the collection is markedly erratic and individualized, alternating between heavy and soft compositions at will rather than prioritizing a clear sense of cohesion. Expectedly, though, it kicks off with one of their most magnificently frenetic tracks ever, “Running Low.” A single low piano note and brooding strings surround Solberg’s trademark bellowing angstiest, building exquisite suspense. Honestly, he outdoes himself in terms of range and adaptability during these tense verses, with some truly startling roars—alongside the classily macabre instrumentation—embodying his incensed composure. This formula shines brighter still once it's contrasted by the relatively catchy and welcoming chorus. Thus, “Running Low” is an expertly polarized display of the band’s prized characteristics.
Obviously, the same sort of distraught fervor permeates many other songs, such as the peppy “Silhouette” (whose backing chants and frenzied syncopation and guitarwork make it intimidatingly impassioned). There’s also the empowering dynamism of “The Silent Revelation”—which is particularly operatic and malleable—and the forlorn but hooky outrage of “The Shadow Side.” As for closer “Nighttime Disguise,” it’s beautifully dissonant thanks to its soaring vocals and fusion of djent and classical styles. Like “Running Low,” it sees the whole ensemble pushing themselves further than ever in terms of their fluid temperamentality and meticulous craftsmanship.
Although virtually every piece has at least a few instances of aggravated melancholy, some lean extensively on the quintet’s quieter and more patient tendencies. For instance, “Out of Here” is majorly sparse and introspective, using programming percussion and thoughtful guitar lines to complement its angelic melodies and self-effacing lyrics (“Forgetting how to breathe / Haven’t left this chamber for three years / Built my life beneath / Layers of dried-up tears”). Similarly, “All the Moments” relies mostly on faint piano chords, mournful cello strikes, and contemplative rhythms, while both “On Hold” and “Castaway Angels” are constructed around luscious vocal harmonies and atmospheres. (The latter even adds some acoustic guitar strums, which is a nice touch.).
How Aphelion would’ve turned out if things had gone to plan will never be known, but it’s hard to imagine it being any better than it is now. While it’s perhaps a bit more consistent and exhilarating than Pitfalls—yet a bit less timelessly outstanding than Malina—it more or less matches them both as a gracefully volatile glimpse into trauma and triumph. It proves once again that very few of Leprous’ peers can come close to matching their marvelously poised heartache, and none do it any better.