Riverside – Wasteland – Album Review

Riverside_-_Wasteland_2018_Cover

Artist: Riverside

Album Title: Wasteland

Label: InsideOut Music

Date of Release: 28 September 2018

I realised something blatantly obvious regarding myself and my relationship with Riverside. I realised that I don’t care about how heavy the material is – it can be soft, deft and minimalist, or it can be heavy, dark and explosive. It can be either of these or a blend of the two and I will love it. On one condition: the melodies have to be present and correct and I have to be moved by the music. If Riverside pull back on their melodic side, I have less interest in the output and I don’t find that I Iike it as much.

The example: I adore the debut disc, because as heavy and confrontational as it gets at times, it is still a very melodic and often poignant record, full of strong atmosphere. In my opinion (those words are important), I didn’t like ‘Anno Domini High Definition’ (‘ADHD’) as much. Granted, there are some great moments on it but overall, there was a lack of memorable, engaging melody, melodies that spoke me and stuck with me. And then, as my review attests, I loved their previous release, ‘Love, Fear And The Time Machine’, because there are some killer melodies to be heard, plenty of emotion and excellent song writing in general, especially in some of the lyrics.

So, with that in mind, I was not even slightly phased by the fact that early comments about ‘Wasteland’ had referred to it being heavier and darker. It is hardly surprising given the trauma that the band has suffered in recent years when out of nowhere, the prog world was rocked in 2016 by news that Piotr Grudziński (Grudzień) had passed away from a sudden heart attack at the far-too-young age of 40.

For a while, no-one knew whether Riverside would stay alive or die with Piotr. The fact that the remaining trio of Mariusz Duda (bass, vocals, guitars), Piotr Kozieradzki (drums) and Michał Łapaj (keyboards, Hammond organ) decided to continue is cause for some celebration. But it is celebration tinged with huge sadness, a pain that becomes even more real when listening to the first studio release without Piotr, ‘Wasteland’.

According to the press release, ‘Wasteland’ is a concept disc that tackles the themes of trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world whilst at the same time reflecting on their situation and their attempts to find their way in the world following such tragedy.

Riverside_-_2018_press_photo_7

Now onto the real nitty gritty – what I think of ‘Wasteland’ itself. It would be all too easy to get caught up in the emotion of it all and declare this record to either be the best of their career or the worst of their career. Given the background, there are bound to be those who sit in either of these camps. But the truth, at least from my perspective, is that ‘Wasteland’ sits somewhere in the middle, albeit closer to their best. It is a very good record with some excellent material on it and, if you can get past the fact that it sounds different in some respects because of the line-up changes, it becomes apparent that ‘Wasteland’ is very much a Riverside album and to most of us who love this band, it should be instantly recognisable as such.

Whilst it is true that Riverside are now a trio, they did call in guitarists Maciej Meller and Mateusz Owczarek to provide solos throughout the album, something that naturally adds a slightly different flavour. Additionally, Michał Jelonek was invited to play the violin on this record, another first for the Poles.

The very best thing about ‘Wasteland’ however, is the palpable sense of emotion. It’s hardly surprising, but this record is full of raw feeling, of anger, frustration, despair, hope and a great deal of sombre melancholy. It is for this very reason that I like ‘Wasteland’ as much as I do. You can tell that the emotions are real and it gives the compositions an added layer of honesty and realism. It sounds very much like this was a difficult venture for the three remaining musicians, but equally a cathartic process, one which I hope will help the healing process and provide strength for future endeavours. This band is too good to fold and I’m so glad they didn’t.

The album opens with a short a capella piece that features the stripped back voice of Duda alone which echoes ever so slightly, giving the impression that he is quite literally all alone. However, he is joined late in the piece by increasingly uncomfortable and ominous dystopian cinematic sounds to suggest that all is not what it seems. It’s a brave opening that’s over in a flash, paving the way for ‘Acid Rain’, a song of two halves in many ways.

The track begins with more atmospheric keys that weave in and out of a churning, cyclical-sounding riff, insistent and quite urgent. ‘Where are you now? What have we done?’ are the striking lyrics that jump out of the song’s chorus before delving back into the claustrophobic swirling riff. Then, at almost exactly the half-way mark, ‘Acid Rain’ sets off on a different path, where the pulsing, bass of Duda dominates, ably complimented by Łapaj’s organ and synths to create a deep, engaging atmosphere. The layered choral-style vocals are a lovely touch, as is the delicately strummed acoustic guitar as well as the soulful, bluesy lead guitar notes that cut through the material with style and panache, not dissimilar to Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits on occasion.

‘Vale of Tears’ is the first single from ‘Wasteland’, so it’ll be familiar to most readers, with most of you having a strong opinion already. Personally, I still think it is one of the weaker tracks on the record, certainly one of my least favourites. I do like the stripped-back honesty of it and it does grow with time and effort, but it’s not until the later moments where we are treated to one of Riverside’s heaviest riffs of their career that I fully commit to the song.

Up next is ‘Guardian Angel’ and this composition is absolutely exquisite. Mainly acoustic, it features a gorgeous central guitar melody that is eloquent, emotive and hugely poignant. The hushed, almost whispered spoken-word vocal delivery of Duda adds another layer of fragility and honesty to the track, as does the rich piano and organ notes that envelop the song in a warm embrace at points within it. And when the precise, melodic lead guitar notes emerge, it is an effort not to succumb to the emotion and allow my eyes to moisten.

Riverside_-_2018_press_photo_3

I really enjoy songs that experiment with strong contrasts and that’s exactly what we get with ‘Lament’. Beginning with a soft and delicate guitar melody, joined by some powerful lyrics, the song suddenly explodes out of nowhere. The guitars are huge, creating a near wall of sound with the drums and synths for company. Cleverly, the heaviness remains melodic, meaning that it is truly memorable. For added contrast, the ensuing verse then introduces the sound of a gently plucked banjo before launching once more into another muscular chorus that gives way to something minimalist and vaguely lullaby-like. After more heaviness, the song is brought to a close via an extended cinematic soundscape, Celtic in feel thanks to the violins. There is something quirky about this song but equally, there is something utterly compelling about it too – as such, it is a firm favourite which helps to create a strong middle-section to the record.

The somewhat aptly-named ‘The Struggle For Survival’ was indeed a little bit of a struggle for me at the outset. A nine-and-a-half-minute instrumental, it is a full-on prog rock workout that initially lacked enough of a hook to keep me fully engaged. However, in true prog rock style, it eventually burrowed its way under my skin and I enjoy it a lot more than I did. It still isn’t a favourite because it lacks a little of the emotion and immediacy melody-wise for me. But that’s just down to personal choice as the musicianship throughout is unquestionably of a very high quality and the various peaks and troughs, and twists and turns are sure to delight many a prog fan.

Another favourite is ‘River Down Below’. The acoustic guitar melodies are truly beautiful and the lyrics are delicate, honest and thought-provoking. The way that it builds from extremely humble beginnings is a joy to listen to, culminating in a modest and restrained explosion of distorted guitars and then an amazing lead solo that packs a real emotional punch.

The title track is another lengthy number but it doesn’t outstay its welcome in the slightest. More acoustic guitars, more delicate piano notes and more hushed lead vocals kick things off. As the song gently builds, and some more commanding riffs enter the fray, I cannot help but be reminded of Iron Maiden in their execution, if not the overriding delivery. The atmospheres are vibrant within this song, adding that certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ that is part of the Riverside magic. Indeed, as the track develops, there are increased numbers of strange synth sounds as Łapaj is clearly in experimental mood, adding to the overall intrigue.

As with ‘Love Fear And The Time Machine’, the very best however, is saved until last in the form of ‘The Night Before’. On their own the poignant piano melodies are enough to bring a grown man to tears but then, when Duda enters, singing ‘Close your eyes, don’t be afraid, I’m with you, this place is safe’ in his soft, almost whispered manner, I’m gone. As a father of two young girls, I picture them asleep in my arms as I listen and I well up, tears stream down my cheeks and I long to return upstairs to give them another cuddle. It is rare that a piano and vocal track will have such a profound impact upon me, but this song is special, magical and imbued with a very real longing and suffering of a trio, all grieving the loss of their friend. The delicate layered vocals that emerge later in the piece only increase the emotional strength of the song and more often than not, I’m in pieces as it ends. Stunning.

And with that, album number seven, possibly the most challenging of Riverside’s career, comes to an end. You knew it would be raw and you knew it would be emotional. But you hoped more than anything that it would also be good enough to stand proudly within the high-quality Riverside back catalogue. After all, it could have gone so horribly wrong. Well, I’m here to tell you that it most certainly didn’t go wrong. Riverside are just too good to release anything under-par and they demonstrate that here beautifully, delivering an album full of strong compositions, heartbreaking emotions and evocative melodies. Thanks for not giving up gentlemen – the world is most certainly a better place with you and your art in it.

The Score of Much Metal: 9.25

If you’ve enjoyed this review, you can check out my others from 2018 and from previous years right here:

2017 reviews
2016 reviews
2015 reviews

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