Leprous is one of those bands I should be more familiar with than I am. Their last album, “Bilateral”, won massive acclaim from all around the metal world, but for reasons I'm not sure of, I never got around to listening to it. There was something about the blend of technical progressive metal with more modern influences that didn't sink in with me when I heard a clip or two, at least not in the way a band like Seventh Wonder is able to, so I come into “Coal” with a clean slate and an open mind.
After decades of progressive metal bands moving in all directions, there isn't a lot of new territory to be mined. Leprous takes one of the less traveled tracks, but does so in a way that brings in the danger of staying too close to their inspiration. “Foe” opens the record with an odd meter, stop-start riff, loaded with synths percolating under the pulsing guitars. When Tor Oddmund Suhrke's vocals start, comparisons to the one of a kind work of Devin Townsend can't be avoided. Both in tone and structure, “Foe” sounds like a Townsend song with only a few layers of production stripped off.
That commonality continues on “Chronic”, which mixes ham-fisted dramatic passages, blasts of extreme metal, and a chorus that tries its best to rise over the rest of the song like Mothra invading Tokyo. And like an old Godzilla movie, everything feels just fake enough that it can't be taken seriously. That's not meant to minimize the musical skill Leprous shows, which is impressive, but rarely does an approach like the one they utilize here sound authentic. Hearing the passion in cold, technical music is difficult, and it doesn't come through this time.
A song like the title track has all the requisite technical riffs to drool over, but the compositions never make the most of the drama they so obviously strive for. Rather than fully embracing the complexity of composition, or using technicality to set off soaring choruses, Leprous never fully commits to a direction. As a result, the music alternates between dense bursts of guitars and passages of simple calm, while the vocals can't find a foothold to steady themselves.
The last minute of “The Cloak” is a great moment, but it comes after the song stumbles through the first three-quarters of its length. Most of the songs share a similar fate, burying moments of greatness inside songs that aren't constructed to make them shine. While it might be intellectually consistent with a progressive approach to songwriting, it doesn't do much for the listener who has to experience the music from the outside.
“The Valley” has so much drawn out melodrama that by the time the chorus rolls around the second time, it's easy to have forgotten enjoying it the first time. By the time the nearly twenty minute ending couplet begins, the album has already started to drag. The mixture of Townsend-esque modern metal and 80's synth pop never congealing into a unique take on either form. “Echo” may be expansive, but there aren't enough ideas in the song to make me understand why it needs to be nine minutes long.
From everything I knew of Leprous, I pushed play on “Coal” expecting to hear something great. Instead, I'm not sure I understand the direction modern metal is headed. “Coal” is filled with rhythms and synths, but never finds strong melody, never makes an emotional connection to the audience. We want our music to captivate us, to take hold of our spirit, but “Coal” is more like Robocop; it does its job, but is impossible to love.