Prior to the release of Norwegian quintet Leprous’ latest LP, Pitfalls, vocalist Einar Solberg called it “the biggest production and musical departure we've done,” and he’s not wrong. Whereas past releases—including 2017’s Malina—upheld their characteristic progressive metal core with increasingly prevalent dashes of ambient textures, this sixth outing greatly abandons those rougher edges. Undoubtedly, this will deter some longtime fans, which is a shame considering how emotionally raw and tonally gorgeous the record is from start to finish. Truthfully, the album sees Leprous at their most atmospheric, gentle, and confessional, making it a must-hear not only for followers but also for anyone struggling with their own inner demons.
The group has explored personal circumstances and universal struggles before, but not to this extent. Specifically, the sequence finds Solberg exploring his battle with anxiety and depression over the last year-and-a-half. He adds, “I am not talking about what I faced in metaphorical terms. I have written in a very straightforward manner, so everyone will understand what I went through.” The title Pitfalls, then, is aptly chosen to represent those seemingly bottomless cognitive hardships. Although he touches upon each phase of his journey, he chose not to examine it chronologically because “that's not how life works.” Produced by David Castillo and featuring contributions from cellist Raphael Weinroth-Brown and Bent Knee violinist Chris Baum, Pitfalls is arguably Leprous’ most moving and sleekly sounding statement to date.
Solberg sees Pitfalls as having two distinct halves—the “poppier side” and the more “experimental and progressive side”—and he’s got a point. Opener and lead single “Below” is eerily quiet yet catchy from the start, with bizarre timbres backing his beautifully intersecting falsetto laments about burying internal ordeals. Admittedly, the chorus is heavier, but not in the customary Leprous way since it’s more about strings and vibe than it is crushing percussion and guitar chords. It’s still plenty dense and devastating, though, with Solberg revealing his strengths as a singer and victim of trauma as he belts out a highly relatable sentiment: “And I will lie, lie / Keep it all together.” Here, he immediately preserves his place as one of the best vocalists around while also letting listeners know that they’re not alone in what they’re going through.
The less abrasive and moodier memorability continues with “I Lose Hope,” a chillingly symphonic reflection on, well, hopelessness that kind of has a disco beat, too. Afterward, “Observe the Train” is almost dreamy and warm—like a lullaby—before “By My Throne” presents a panicked cascade of captivating interlocking vocals. In contrast, “Alleviate” is a bit more tribal and explosive, but it’s also more soothing and accessible than you might expect. Thus, the initial few tracks are indeed more radio-friendly and approachable despite still harnessing some trademark Leprous heft and dread.
The aforementioned complexities come back with “At the Bottom,” a somewhat electronic explosion with plenty of dynamic rhythmic swings and shifting layers. Interestingly, “Distant Bells” begins almost like a surreal piano ballad prior to transforming into a harrowing beast highlighted by hectic percussion and wavering tones. Arguably the most “traditional” tune is “Foreigner” due to its aggressive statements of purpose (“It’s a fight to stay alive / It’s a fight against myself”) and volatile arrangement. Of course, closer “The Sky is Red”—which Solberg sees as the “farewell song” and the “longest and weirdest composition” here—ends Pitfalls in magnificently ambitious fashion. Oscillating between dissonant soundscapes and rebellious beats (both of which evoke Tool, actually), as well as faint choral ethers, it’s among the most striving and unpredictable pieces they've written.
Pitfalls is a brilliant entry into Leprous’ catalog. Its familiar elements are done as well as ever, and the changes in direction feel earned and perfected, too. Honestly, there’s certainly enough here to please most longtime followers, and the group should be commended for taking some risks along the way. Above all else, Solberg deserves just as much praise for his inimitable performance as he does for sharing his most private struggles and triumphs with anyone who'll listen. In that way, Pitfalls extends beyond most music to educate, empathize, and entertain in equal measure.