The Polish Progressive Rock band Riverside have been making music since 2001, refining and evolving their sound with each new release. The band returns September 28th with a somewhat different sound on their seventh studio album entitled Wasteland, recorded for the first time as a trio: Mariusz Duda – vocals, guitars and basses, Piotr Kozieradzki – drums, Michał Łapaj – keyboards and Hammond organ.
Wasteland acts as Riverside’s “And Then There Were Three”, but not for the same reasons that have caused bands like Genesis to revise their lineups. In Riverside’s case, unfortunately, the change was forced by much more tragic circumstances. In February 2016 co-founder and lead guitarist, Piotr Grudziński, died suddenly just before his 41st birthday. There is none more emotional event for a band than the death of one of its members and Grudziński’s death no doubt wrecked the band. They were forced to cancel all concerts that year, and for the first time in 15 years, it caused them to reconsider their future as a band.
Mariusz Duda, the band’s vocalist, bassist, and key songwriter remembers when it was officially announced that they would continue as a trio: “We were doing a photoshoot at the Polish seaside. I said to the guys, ‘Let’s remember that this is just the beginning. Many of our fans can’t imagine an album without Grudzień and for some of them the band ceased to exist when he died. We have to prove that we are able to survive not only by playing concerts but, most of all, by recording a new album.'”
Their return to the studio came in the form of 2016’s Eye of the Soundscape, a compilation album of experimental, instrumental songs collected from previous albums and sessions. They dedicated the album to their late friend Grudziński who was responsible for much of the album’s orchestration. So, while Wasteland isn’t technically their first album without him, spiritually and thematically, it certainly feels like it. Riverside also returned to the stage as a trio February 2017 in their hometown of Warsaw, Poland, along with guest guitarist Maciej Meller. While Meller contributes the guitar solos on Wasteland, the band opted to not make him an official fourth member of the band. Duda explains their decision by saying: “It’s not so simple. To catch up with 15 years takes time. I love Maciej but everything has to have its place and time. For now we are a quartet only live.”
The band, hollowed out and wrecked by the loss of their lead guitarist and friend, find themselves at a point of desolation and starting over. In fitting artistic symmetry, Wasteland is a concept album set in a post-apocalyptic world – a place of ruin and grief. The instrumentation is spartan, as if Duda intentionally limited his sonic options, stripping away the electronics and instead focusing on the acoustic guitar and piccolo bass. On songs like “Guardian Angel”, “Wasteland,” and “The Night Before”, Duda’s vocals channel The National, Roger Waters, Johnny Cash, and Nick Cave. Duda has done lower vocals before, like on the song “OK” from their first album “Out Of Myself”, but it’s certainly more present on this album. He claims he rediscovered his lower register during singing lessons, but was also inspired by Polish TV stars and slavic folk songs. The vocal style fits perfectly with the narrative of a post-apocalyptic loner – a manly, cowboy type – or what I imagine Mad Max, Rick Deckard, the Man with No Name, or the Lone Wanderer might sound like if they were to sing. Moody, minimalistic, pensive, and melancholy – a bit darker than the band’s previous albums, but still every bit Riverside.
The album opens with the a cappella and eerie “The Day After”, which, at the risk of sounding macabre, works as a sort of funeral dirge for Grudziński. Duda’s vocal is layered with cathedralesque reverb that becomes more and more distant as a low rumble builds underneath. It evokes the image of a Viking funeral, wherein the listener finds himself laid in a boat alongside the departed as they float downstream together. The song dissolves into a haunting, solo violin – the same instrument that reprises a little later on during the fifth track “Lament.”
“Acid Rain” picks up right where “The Day After” leaves off, and it is the strongest moment on the album – a song that will be no doubt be featured in sets for years to come. It is a two-part composition, with the first part “Where Are We Now?” sounding like quintessential Riverside. The second part “Dancing Ghosts” is like something off “A Momentary Lapse of Reason” mixed with an arena rock anthem.
The lead single “Vale Of Tears” is another standout track that encapsulates the dynamic highs and lows of the album in less than five minutes. The 80’s-style gated snare sound here gives it a massive sound and welcome throwback quality to the drums.
“Lament” provides one of the more emotionally satisfying moments on the album, slowly building from a folk-style verse into a powerful and hypnotic chorus and outro. Riverside are masters of musical space – rarely filling up or leaving empty more than is necessary. This dynamic deftness is never more evident than on the 9-minute instrumental “The Struggle for Survival.” It’s a captivating song full of twists and turns. Even still, I can’t help but wonder what might have been with the added input and genius of Grudziński.
“River Down Below” is another tightly written, acoustic number that reminds me of Porcupine Tree and Anathema. It is a very approachable and melodic song that ends with a beautiful guitar solo. The song “Wasteland” is a nod to the music of famed Western film composer Ennio Morricone and the movies of Sergio Leone with a little Jethro Tull thrown in for good measure, tying in very naturally to the post-apocalyptic storyline.
The album ends with “The Night Before”, and in keeping with the less-is-more gameplan, the song features vocals and piano only, a first for the band. The music was written by Łapaj, and serves as a suitable bookend to the opener “The Day After.” In fact, as the song titles might suggest, “The Night Before” segues quite well into the “The Day After”, setting up a sort of loop for the album itself.
Riverside is a great entry point to today’s Progressive Rock, because unlike most modern Prog bands, they are not primarily focused on advancing the technical aspects of the music. Much like Pink Floyd, Marillion, and Queensryche, Riverside are concerned with the songs themselves – the soundscapes, textures, and emotions of it all. Their commitment to songwriting really shines on Wasteland. While this isn’t a perfect album, especially when compared to their more expansive works like 2015’s Love, Fear and the Time Machine or 2005’s Second Life Syndrome, Wasteland is an important and necessary step in the band’s journey. It may be viewed as a sort of transitional album 10 years down the road, and it will resonate with some listeners more than others, but Wasteland undoubtedly delivers on its promise. It is a dark and grounded effort that weaves a tale of loss and rebirth; a concept that emotionally connects on a deep level; an album that is worth your time and one that improves with each listen.