Music fans are used to anticipating the release of a new album, waiting to see what fresh course their favorite artists have chosen to chart. For Riverside fans, the stakes are much higher. This is a band who is not just releasing a new studio album, but who are re-introducing themselves to their fans anew. After guitarist PiotrGrudziński’s sudden and tragic death two and a half years ago, the band decided to officially continue without adding a new guitarist. “It would be very obvious if we had hired just another fourth member of the band, you know, and do some rehearsals and do another album. But we didn’t want to do that,” says bassist, vocalist, principal songwriter and now rhythm guitarist Mariusz Duda. While he has hinted that in the future that could possibly change, for now it is clear that part of Riverside’s healing process is to not replace their beloved friend and bandmate. It’s an admirable approach to take, one that honors the legacy that Piotr left. And then there were three.
Still, going from a quartet to a trio will inevitably have an impact on the output of the group as a whole. Even with Duda overdubbing layers of acoustic and electric guitars and piccolo bass, and bringing in a few guest guitarists for select solo spots, the absence of Piotr’s atmospheric lead lines is a gaping hole that the band are not explicitly trying to fill. The danger here is that the band could deliver an album that provides only three-quarters of the satisfaction of previous releases, or even less. The miracle of Wasteland is that this is not the case. In retrospect, from six years further down the road, one may look back and see Wasteland as a transitional album to Riverside’s new destiny. But at this moment in time, it is clear that the band have released an album that stands shoulder to shoulder with the best of their past releases. Bravo, Riverside, bravo.
One of the highlights of this new album is its opening sequence. No stranger to acapella vocal delivery, Duda opens the album stripped down and alone, posing an aching question, “What if it’s not meant to be…?” sung as a forlorn hymn. There is a post-apocalyptic theme that runs throughout the album, mirroring Riverside’s need to deal with their own apocalypse. This emptiness is conveyed with just a lone voice in the opening minute and a half, further accentuated by a haunting violin which intensifies as it segues into the crunch of “Acid Rain”. This is likely the most powerful opening on any Riverside album, causing chills to run down the listener’s spine.
“Acid Rain” will quickly gain the favor of nearly every Riverside fan. It is a wonderful blend of the hard-hitting and more atmospheric sides of the band, all in one song. Starting with an ominous riff and vocal line from Duda, the song kicks in with signature keyboard washes from Michał Łapaj and Piotr Kozieradzki’s powerful drum delivery. With a jaggedly distorted rhythm guitar from Duda and guest lead guitar lines courtesy of Maciej Meller (from the excellent band Quidam), one could be fooled into thinking that Riverside was still the same band as before. Indeed, “Acid Rain” is so emblematic of the band that it is surprising this was not chosen as the lead single for the album. The piece closes with an anthemic wordless vocal line which will likely be chanted by the live audience when played in concert. A remarkable and satisfying start to Riverside’s new chapter.
The first sound most fans will have already heard on the new album is Kozieradzki’s massive drum hits which open “Vale of Tears”, due to it being released two months before the album proper. Following the form of “Acid Rain”, this song sees the band alternating between their heavier and softer sides, offering something for everyone here. Both fresh and familiar at the same time, “Vale of Tears” is a solid piece of music that encapsulates what the album Wasteland is all about, both thematically and sonically.
In early press releases, Duda remarked that he is now experimenting with singing in a lower register. If you were hoping this suggested that he is returning to growls and harsher voicings, you couldn’t be further from the truth. No, Duda is literally singing in a lower register, but doing it softly and even serenely. On “Guardian Angel” and the closing piano/vocal duet “The Night Before” (the latter’s music being written by Łapaj), this gives more of a lullaby sentiment. It takes the band into a new, more vulnerable direction. And it seems very appropriate for this stage in their evolution. The other largely acoustic piece on the album is “River Down Below”, certainly, a highlight in terms of a perfectly crafted melodic song, closing with another well-delivered guitar solo from Maciej Meller. These three acoustic tracks have their touchstone more in previous song-oriented album Love, Fear and the Time Machine and would seem a natural extension of that album.
However, Riverside’s recent history demands that they would never enjoy a natural extension from their previous album. Which brings us to “Lament”. Likely the most emotional point on Wasteland, this song delivers the range in dynamics and expression which can provide genuine catharsis for their audience. Lilting melodic lines are juxtaposed with a wall of sound, crying “Father will you take me away and save me from my fate.” The addition of guest violinist Michał Jelonek further evokes our tears and our release. Truth be told, the album could have been served by even more moments like that which “Lament” offers.
There are two longer songs on the album, one being the largely-instrumental “The Struggle for Survival”. Despite its length at nine and a half minutes, it is an imperfect piece which leaves an impression that something – or someone – is still missing. This is perhaps one of the few moments where the fact that Riverside are now a trio instead of a quartet is most apparent. Although Maciej Meller again guests, the song truly calls out for an additional voice which never fully materializes. In contrast, a minute-long guitar solo early on in the song is glaringly unlike anything on a Riverside album before, and although it may certainly convey a “struggle for survival”, the dissonance in straying from the band’s signature sound is quite jarring. Still, the piece offers a strong foundation of themes and grooves, finally ending with a classic Duda vocal chant.
Title track “Wasteland” again begins with Duda’s lower-register singing, this time to an Ian Anderson-esque guitar strumming pattern. Although he is no longer growling, Duda views his new style of singing as achieving part of the same goal: what it is to be a man. “Being manly doesn’t mean that I have to scream or do some growling,” he says. And he wanted that manly sentiment to be conveyed during what he sees as Riverside’s western-cinematic song, “Wasteland”. “It’s a movie about the lonely rider, about the strong man who needs to survive somewhere.” This is a new exploration for the band which, although still following the blueprint of past song structures, allows for them to explore new landscapes and soundscapes. It’s this kind of freshness which gives hope for Riverside’s future, that they are wanting to see what else they are capable of as their career progresses.
Wasteland demands to be judged on its own terms, having landed at a unique time in the band’s evolution. It touches moments of its past, offers something new, and provides some catharsis for the tribulations endured. Given all of those factors, we can clearly say that they have succeeded. Despite its post-apocalyptic theme, it may achieve the unexpected: it gives the listener hope.