Over their last four albums Leprous have firmly established themselves as one of the finest prog metal acts around. Their moody, melodic, restlessly inventive yet accessible music has been instrumental in dragging the genre away from retrograde 70’s worship and into the present day. Their new album The Congregation took the band’s music to new heights of creativity, technicality and emotional resonance, and given the widespread acclaim its received, it seems the musical world is waking up to how significant this band really is.
I’ve been a HUGE (understatement) fan of the band for a while now so I was thrilled to be able to see them perform at Manchester’s Ruby Lounge, alongside fellow Norwegian metal acts Rendezvous Point and Sphere, and to catch up with guitarist Tor Oddmund Suhrke and get his thoughts on the tour, the new album, zombies and the secret to a good pizza.
So how’s the tour going so far?
Very well actually. We’re in the middle of the tour. It’s been really good actually, compared to the previous tours there’s been a big increase in the number of people. Before there had always been a steady increase but for this one it’s been exponential.
I saw that you’re going on a tour of Australia with Voyager next year. You must be super excited for that?
Really really excited for that. I’ve never been to Australia, but it’s always been one of the countries I’d most like to go to. We just started to talk about it slightly and then just a short while after we’re announcing that we’re going. It happened really fast. And it’s cool to play with Voyager since they’re from there and have played there before. I know we have a fanbase there even though we’ve never played, and I think it’s a good match with the bands.
What’s it like playing the new songs from The Congregation? Are people responding well to them?
I think they work very well. We did a lot of rehearsing to play it as well as we want. The first time when we met up in the rehearsal room after coming up with the ideas for the different songs… in ten years that can be a special outtake release because it really sounded horrible! It can be a collector’s item. It sounded really, really bad because it was so hard to play. When we recorded the album we spent a lot time learning to play the songs. A lot of the guitar parts are written by Einar (vocals and keyboards) on his computer so I had to make his ideas into guitar riffs, and he doesn’t think like a guitarist at all when he writes parts. So it was really difficult, using some weird tunings with the 8 string guitars, so it was definitely an exercise for your hands to play.
After we recorded the album and started preparations for the tour we had maybe 50 or 60 rehearsals to make sure we were ready, before we were satisfied. And I think it works out well. And people are responding well- it’s nice to hear people shouting for the new songs, not just the old ones. It’s the new ones that get the best reception. I’m very happy- it’d be horrible to stand on stage and feel that you couldn’t play it. I think that’s all musicians worst nightmare- literally nightmare, I often dream about being onstage playing songs I don’t know and it’s the worst feeling I can imagine. So it’s really nice to know we’re well prepared, even though we play some mistakes, it’s never perfect but I think people don’t notice so long as you play convincingly!
Who came up with the album title, and what does it refer to?
Actually we went though many possible album titles. The main theme of the album is about the different aspects of society today where people do things because its normal and it’s what you’re supposed to do.
Following the crowd?
Exactly, and that’s what we mean by The Congregation, just a big mass of people following one thing they’ve heard. Not necessarily in regards to religion but that’s one of the things where you do things just because you’re told to without really reflecting on it. If you don’t think something is right but you still do it because of your conviction or something then that will lead to something not good. So it’s about thinking about what you’re doing. The congregation is mentioned in the song ‘Down’ and we were looking through the lyrics and though that could work. But we had about 20 ideas.
And how does the album cover fit in with that?
The funny thing with the cover is that no one understands what it is! I know because I knew the photographer that took it. We just found the picture that he had taken and thought “that’s really disturbing, that could be cool” because it’s a disturbing image of a natural thing that’s happened. It’s actually a foetus of a baby cow. Einar though for a month or so that it was a chicken, I was like “no”, he said “no, it’s got a beak!” It’s like something you find in a museum of anatomy. It’s like a disturbing image. We have some song lyrics about the meat industry and how industrialisation can lead to bad animal rights and things like that. I’m not saying that the foetus is a consequence of that but with things like steroids and antibiotics that you pour into the industrialised meat industry, many strange things can happen. So that’s how we thought it could fit into some of the lyrics, and it’s also like the disturbing descent of society, so it all fits together.
Which of your songs are about the meat industry?
‘Slave’ would be one.
People often say how TC is the most technical album you’ve done, do you think having written most of it on computers makes it easier to write really complex, technical parts?
Yeah well I think more that’s a consequence of it being written on computers. That’s why it’s technical. It wasn’t our intention to make it very technical, but making things on the computer gives you ultimate freedom to make things that just sound right, and you just have to try and play it as well as possible to the original idea. Sometimes that’s really difficult and technical, but we can make some compromises to adapt the ideas to the instruments and makes it more organic and natural. And even though it’s technical it doesn’t sound that technical. You can sometimes hear progressive bands that try to do things that are as difficult as possible so the listener is like “what’s happening now? What’s happening now?” I think The Congregation is kind of like easy listening, we were trying to create a mood that you would feel when you’re listening to it. The technical thing is just the way that it ended up.
I think it’s technical but not showy.
Yeah, it might appear not as difficult to play as it actually is. It was not our intention to seem like we’re extremely technical. Especially with the chords, they’re really strange chords because they’re written on computer, in combination with all the rhythms. There’s a lot of polyrhythmics. There’s not that many strange time signatures but it can sound really complicated. But we tried to make it sound easy.
I also think the songs are really catchy, especially the choruses. Was that something you were deliberately trying to do- balancing the technical stuff with big, catchy choruses?
We feel like that’s part of the “pop” recipe to have these hooks to make people remember the songs. Those are always the parts people are singing after the shows- then you know you’ve done something right because it’s gotten stuck in people’s heads! It’s good to have, not necessarily pop choruses but it’s important to have something catchy to remember. Not necessarily making happy tunes; it can be really melancholic. We’re trying to create this mood and we don’t want to ruin the mood you’re in during the verses and other parts when the chorus comes, but it’s supposed to give you a feeling and to take it up a notch.
What are your favourite songs from The Congregation to play live?
That’s a bit difficult- one song that gets the best reception is ‘The Price’. That’s the hardest song to play, especially the intro. We spent a lot of time making it sound good because it really didn’t sound good the first time we played it. Both with the rhythms and the chords, and just the timing in the band, because it’s really staccato so it’s not that easy to have a groove. You need to know how the drummer thinks to time it exactly. If you’re not exactly on time then it’s really easy to hear because all the small details need to fit together. But I like to pay it because as I said we rehearsed it a lot and now I feel pretty confident on it and people give it a good reception.
How about your favourite old song to play?
I like to play ‘The Valley’. It’s also got a really catchy chorus and it’s the most usual song that people are singing after the show. I like the rhythms in it and I like the feel and the sounds, especially when you have the subs under the stage and you can really feel the bass. It’s really, really low, with a lot of subs in the sounds. So I like to play that, and it’s not that difficult because we’ve played it so many times. Also since I sing backing vocals it’s nice because I get to sing a bit more.
If you had to name your next album after a Pizza, what would it be?
I think I would call it a Margherita. First of all because it’s vegetarian! And also because I like when there are few ingredients but they’re really good. That’s how we try to make songs on The Congregation. We’ve actually used that pizza reference when making songs because sometimes you can get a pizza with all these things on it that might be good on their own, but not necessarily good on a pizza because it becomes too much. Too much up and down, pouring out of your mouth and suddenly you get warm tomato sauce in your face! Especially when you get vegetarian Pizza you often get a lot of shit on them. Pizza is best when you have a good base, a good sauce and a good cheese, and usually when you make a Margherita people pay more attention to each ingredient because there are fewer. So that’s why I’d say Margherita. Just 3 ingredients. And some spices.
If while you’re up on stage you see that hordes of zombies are invading the venue, what would you do?
I would think that finally the audience are into the music! People are running around, I’d think it was just a mosh pit. Funny that you say that because when we went on the UK tour last year, I think at every one of the shows people were celebrating haloween. So I would think “Oh that’s right, we’re in Britain so people are celebrating haloween two weeks in advance.” We always have to pack up when people are in costumes and everything so that would be my first guess. If I understood that it was real zombies I think I would just blast my guitar up to eleven and try to scare them away.
Smart. Or you could film it and turn it into a music video.
Yeah that would be really cool. People getting eaten. Good stuff.
I was chatting to Tor for most of opening band Rendezvous Point’s set, but the two and a half songs of heavy, atmospheric goodness I did hear were enough to convince me to buy their album, so definitely check ‘em out. Second band Sphere’s ferocious, ultra-tight djent was best described as very loud, very intense and featuring some nice interplay between clean and screamed vocals. My neck was aching from too much headbanging before the main act even came onstage, which is always a good sign.
When it came to their turn Leprous wasted no time in showing that they meant business, taking to the stage in dramatic style to moody lighting and the deep pulsating heartbeat of Congregation track ‘The Flood’. The ensuing set, drawing almost entirely from the new album and 2013’s Coal, showed just how well all that rehearsal time has paid off- the band displayed total mastery of even their most demanding songs, whilst delivering the intense, mesmerising live presence they are known for. Almost all of The Congregation was accounted for, with the choppy guitar riffs and swaggering verse of ‘Third Law’ and the breakneck gallop of ‘Rewind’ sounding particularly vital in the live setting. Softer moments were few and far between, but the verses of ‘Moon’ and Coal highlight ‘The Cloak’ sounded just as beautiful as on the recordings, while the removal of the extended repetitious sections of some of the Coal tracks helped keep the setlist lean and muscular.
The biggest surprise was the total reworking of sole Bilateral track ‘Acquired Taste’ with an intricate, winding guitar and bass line on the verse and a totally new bridge featuring Einar Solberg’s distinctive vocal cries and an overall vibe much closer to the band’s more recent output. It’s great to see them tweaking their older material but a bit frustrating that some other old favourites like ‘Restless’, ‘Passing’ or ‘Forced Entry’ didn’t get the same treatment. Still it’s hard to complain when the music they did play was so spectacular, and the encore which included Congregation highlights ‘The Price’ and ‘Down’ ensured no one left disappointed. By the end of epic closer and fan favourite ‘The Valley’ it was clear that while Leprous’ music continues to evolve and refine, their ability to sell the hell out of it live hasn’t changed at all.