Pitfalls is the perfect next step for Leprous. Playing to their strengths in emotional resonance and dark, forceful grooves, the band leave behind most other tropes associated with prog metal. It’s a natural progression from 2017’s Malina, but clearly a progression. Taken as a whole, the album is a tight conceptual piece expressing experiences of depression and anxiety; it’s not ‘about’ these as abstracts, nor the ‘story’ of a character who experiences them, but a series of soliloquies to oneself. These are songs from the inside, a discovery of hope in understanding one’s own hopelessness.
The floweriest of poetic artifice could not attain the emotional force of the lyrical directness here. “I will lie/Keep it all together.” “I lose hope.” “It’s a fight to stay alive/It’s a fight against myself.” Sidestepping the morbid self-pity of nü metal or grunge, eschewing the triumphalism of contemporary pop, Leprous simply describe the experience of anxiety and depression. You know how they say it helps just to talk about it? Maybe it helps just to sing about it, too. Anything to externalize the labyrinthine reality of the internal.
Album opener “Below” establishes these themes as well as the general tone to be explored: sombre emotions needn’t be tied down in subdued arrangements. Grooves, guitars, and dynamic vocals thread textured hard rock through the eye of desperation. “Distant Bells” inverts the template, building a case from ‘it’s the notes you don’t play’ to a catharsis that remains precisely controlled though explosive. In between, Leprous explore almost-danceable pop (“I Lose Hope”), quiet meditation (“Observe The Train”), and, yes, heavy music for heavy moods. “Foreigner” is notable as a track that maintains maximum intensity from second one.
While the looming thematic elements obviously foreground Einar Solberg’s emotive vocals and lyrics, the musical innovation of Pitfalls rides on its rhythmic qualities. Synths play a prominent role in this, appearing less as washes of colour and more as the mechanical caterpillar treads of a bulldozer. Add in some almost-swinging jazzy attitudes from bass and guitars and there’s a lot of room opened up for Baard Kolstaad to play everything but the expected for a prog metal drummer. In a musical climate that worships blast beats, crash cymbals, and dummyfied computer-generated ‘grooves,’ it’s more than a little exciting to hear breathable air and a sense of exploration around the drum kit.
Pitfalls is all hooks and heart, no gimmicks or schtick. The depth of musicality, as opposed to mere technicality, captivates. Indeed, no other album this year (excepting Devin Townsend’s Empath) has so consistently and confidently asserted itself as this reviewer’s pick for album of the year. Leprous have achieved a rare concentricity wherein each song encapsulates the album as a whole, yet each song develops further in relation to all the others. Pitfalls isn’t just the perfect next step for this band; it represents the perfect next step for a progressive metal genre learning to enshrine substance over style, and songcraft above all.