The dreamy sounds and vast keyboard harmonies standing next to odd time signatures, heavy riffs and Mariusz Duda’s introverted, yet charismatic vocals provide for a sound that make Riverside unmistakable among modern progressive rock bands.
The formation from Poland have appeared into the world of music with a bold move, in form of their big conceptual piece „Reality Dream Trilogy“, consisting of their first three albums. As if this wasn’t enough, bass player, singer and creative mind Duda made sure the band would never stand still, but develop their sound and try something new on each album. Riverside is one of Europe’s finest exports for intensive, melancholic progressive rock.
I remember the first time hearing the romantic piano chords of „Hyperactive“ turning into something dark and, well, hyperactive, and being completely amazed by the seemingly natural succession of different styles and atmospheres. Still, while they have drawn their influences from many great artists, and are admired by many great artists themselves, I have never really given Riverside the attention their music needs to be appreciated. „Anno Domini High Definition“ would remain my only contact with the band – until their performance at this year’s Night Of The Prog Festival, which left me deeply impressed.
After the rather unusual album „Eye Of The Soundscape“, „Wasteland“ is Riverside’s first album completely consisting of new material since the death of their guitarist and founding member Piotr Grudziński. The band decided not to find another guitarist. Instead, Duda replaced Grudziński’s part on upcoming studio albums, while Maciej Meller took on guitar duties on stage. „Wasteland“ is Riverside’s „And Then There Were Three“. While Duda is doing a good job on the guitar, Grudziński’s absence is noticeable. There are no flashy, epic guitar moments, nor are there heavy metal riffs. But then again, the whole album comes across as somewhat of an understatement and is completely free of huge or orchestral passages. At times though, the production of the album is a little too slim and a richer sound could have helped a few riffs to come across better. But that is not always a disadvantage. Instead, „Wasteland“ pursues an organic, retro-like hardrock sound, reminiscent of Opeth’s or Beardfish’s later efforts. The mood is melancholic and introverted, which is perfectly supported by Duda’s clean vocals.
Those vocals open up the album. „The Day Before“ is an almost-acapella track full of unanswerable questions that sets the mood perfectly for the album. It’s mellow, a little marching, and the repetitive character gives off a vibe of recurring thoughts in a man’s head he can’t stop thinking about. Mariusz Duda sings a melody I instantly recognised from the band’s performance at the Night Of The Prog Festival. That of course reflects the quality of the motif, since I had heard it one single time weeks ago and instantly remembered it when hearing it again. While the performed version at the festival was expanded into a full song, the album version is merely two minutes long and functions as an intro. This track would have had the potential for more, but it works perfectly as what it is and segues very well into the following song.
„Acid Rain“ is a classic rocker that stands at the beginning of a prog album. A dark but catchy riff opens up this two-parter, before Duda’s inconspicuous vocals kick in. The song has a great hymnic chorus that sounds a little like Muse. This is not the only time this comparison comes to mind. The synth arpeggios and hammond organ make for a slightly apocalyptic character and stand in perfect contrast with the calm way in which Mariusz Duda sings his lines. This hook is so good that I will dare to say „Acid Rain“ is my favourite track on the album. After around three minutes, the song evolves into a sing-along choral with another hook impossible to get out of your head, but still with a slightly mellow vibe. The combination of the keyboard sounds, the acoustic and electric guitars build up a very Floyd-esque atmosphere. The song doesn’t come back to the original chorus, nor does it end with a huge bang or orchestral reprise. Another evidence for the understatement this album is making.
„Vale Of Tears“ once again reminds me of Muse. It’s a straight rocker with some cool riffs, imaginative rhythmic irregularities and a quiet chorus. But during this song, the production issue becomes most evident. The guitar could have used a little more distortion, the snare could sound a little less like its wires and more like Dom Howard during „Panic Station“, the bass could be louder. This becomes very obvious during the instrumental middle section. The hymnic march and the dark, rocking riff are supposed to build up suspense and Mariusz Duda is providing a great guitar solo. A little more wall of sound would have helped that. But maybe that’s just me. The composition is still very good, and I’m sure that this song will work fantastically on stage.
The fourth song, „Guardian Angel“, is a beautiful little ballad, only instrumented with guitar and piano. The main motif is so catchy that it could actually work as a pop tune, but Duda just performs his vocals an octave deeper than expected, which almost results in a whisper and, in connection with some spacey electric guitar lines, builds up a very intimate atmosphere. „Guardian Angel“ is not a huge masterpiece, but it’s a touching tune with a personal vibe to it.
The slow „Lament“ is a little weak point on the album. It picks up some themes from the opener „The Day Before“ and is carried by the fragile voice of Mariusz Duda. The verses and bridges work very well, but they are followed by a chorus that is not strong enough for a floating song like this. By far the best parts of the track are the quiet middle section and the dreamy coda, which are both made perfect by a „lamenting“ violin.
But the listener is quickly reimbursed by the longest song of the album, a ten minute instrumental called „The Struggle For Survival“. The opening guitar once again lacks an appropriate guitar sound, but the arrangement constructed around the lick compensates for that. The two and a half minute long intro does a very good job building up suspense, before some slightly heavier riffs kick in and give the album a much needed push. Still, this song could also have used some richer sounding drums and a distorted guitar. But the composition and Duda’s bass lines are indisputable. Some wordless vocals close the song with a melancholic vibe and form a good transition into the second of three ballads on the album, „River Down Below“. This song begins with an Opeth-like intro by an acoustic guitar and once again great vocals. This song features a touching chorus and a very well crafted arrangement. The verses and choruses are instrumented with a beautifully played acoustic guitar, a fragile mellotron and a hammond organ that goes perfectly with the vocal harmonies. „Take me to the river down below“ – truly beautiful. The song finds its climax in a Gilmour-esque guitar solo accompanied by a distorted organ (not unlike the one in Steven Wilson’s „The Holy Drinker“), which stands in contrast to the floating, peaceful character the song had before. „River Down Below“ had me at first listen, and I still consider it to be one of the best songs of the album.
The following title track begins – similar to „The Struggle For Survival“ – with several acoustic guitars and a carefully built arrangement of piano and electric guitars. The intro features the only lyrics of the song and some wordless harmonised choral passages. „Wasteland“ takes almost three minutes until it bursts out into an instrumental breakdown. The following melody is reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s epic compositions for just about any Spaghetti Western you can think of and it’s built up for over two and a half minutes. This beautiful homage is even made complete with a tremolo guitar and a soprano voice supporting the motif. At the end of the song, almost every theme is reprised in a majestic, yet not too bombastic finale, which makes this composition seem like a circle. „Wasteland“ is the final big statement of the album and my personal favourite next to „Acid Rain“.
The album closes with the third ballad named „The Night Before“, contrasting the opening track’s title „The Day After“. This final song is a lullaby cleverly playing with 5/8 and 6/8 time signatures and featuring a beautifully played piano by Michał Łapaj. It’s a quiet way to close this album, and it functions perfectly as somewhat of a coda to the title track’s more opulent finale.
„Wasteland“ is a good statement for the introverted, melancholic side of Riverside. The lack of heavier guitars and a bigger sound was certainly intended, but they could have helped a lot of passages to come across better. At other times, the retro-hard rock sound suits the music very well. However, the compositions and arrangements are out of the question. The album is packed with sensitive, soulful passages, moderately heavy riffs, instrumental breakdowns and great vocals, as well as some fantastic songs. This will be my album for the upcoming autumn.
10/15 (11 with a richer production) Favourites: Acid Rain, Wasteland
1. The Day After (01:48)
2. Acid Rain (06:03)
Part I. Where Are We Now?
Part II. Dancing Ghosts
3. Vale Of Tears (04:49)
4. Guardian Angel (04:24)
5. Lament (06:09)
6. The Struggle For Survival (09:32)
Part I. Dystopia
Part II. Battle Royale
7. River Down Below (05:41)
8. Wasteland (08:25)
9. The Night Before (03:59)
Mariusz Duda – vocals, electric and acoustic guitars, bass, piccolo bass, banjo, guitar solo on ‘Lament’ and ‘Wasteland’
Michał Łapaj – keyboards and synthesizers, rhodes piano and Hammond organ, theremin on ‘Wasteland’
Piotr Kozieradzki – drums