This review is respectfully dedicated to the memory of Piotr Grudzinski, taken from us far too soon.
Sometimes, when you get your hands on a new album, you’re almost scared to listen, you so badly want it to be good, whether because of the anticipation, or sometimes because of the band themselves, you really want it to be something special. So it is with Riverside, who lit up the progressive rock over the last fifteen years, with some of the most atmospheric and absorbing music around until the tragically early death of guitarist Piotr Grudzinski put the whole future of the band in doubt. Since then, we’ve had an album of outtakes, Eye of The Soundscape, and bassist and singer Mariusz Duda has released two albums as Lunatic Soul, but a series of European dates last year with a stand in guitarist saw the band return. Suffice to say the shows were emotional but superb, as we saw at the Leamington Assembly, and went some way to convincing the band that they had a future.
But now we have a new album, and while the band are looking at their own way forward, it’s also clear that they’re looking at the world around them, and they don’t like what they see. Wasteland is almost a concept album, about survival in a bleak, almost post-apocalyptic world, as the album and several of the song titles suggest. Almost the first lines Duda sings are ‘What we’ve become, there’s no turning back’, and from there the lyrics move on to pollution, war and despair, but as the album proceeds, there are shafts of hope and determination filtering through. Opener ‘The Day After’ begins with Duda singing almost acapella, with the rest of the band easing into their familiar combination of atmosphere and melody punctuated by heavier and harder passages. It’s definitely the Riverside we know and love.
‘Acid Rain’, though, is immediately from a heavier and darker place, coloured by Michel Lapaj’s keyboards. There’s a sense of urgency and determination, before the almost defiant ‘Vale of Tears,’ where, interestingly, there’s definitely a hint of Zeppelin in the opening part, before the band find an immense prog metal groove in the instrumental section. A terrific track, which leads to ‘Guardian Angel’, a slower, more reflective song. ‘Lament’ stays in this mood, but also makes the first overt reference to the loss of Piotr, while still continuing the soft and heavy contrast, interrupting the gentler passages with an epic chorus.
It’s a bit of a surprise that the band choose include an instrumental at this point, the nine minute ‘The Struggle for Survival’, although the band had indicated that improvisation might play a bigger part in their music. It’s brilliantly played, and fans of Dream Theater will lap it up, but apart from the title it doesn’t seem to fit in with the theme of the album. On the other hand, ‘River Down Below’ has another acoustic, almost folky, opening, with a melancholy atmosphere, until a big finish with a fine, climactic guitar solo from guest Matiej Meller, leading to the title track, which also starts quietly before giving way to another lengthy instrumental part, with a fabulously complicated riff.
The album closes with ’The Night Before’, which has become one of the most talked about songs on the album. It’s gentle and reflective, and also finally confirms that the whole album is not only about surviving an apocalypse, but also about Riverside getting past the awful loss of Piotr Grudzinski and facing their own future, as Duda sings ‘The former world shall not return, but we’ll survive again’. It’s heartfelt, affecting and beautiful.
The overall impression of Wasteland is that the first half of the album is a touch stronger than the second, with the lengthier instrumental passages breaking up the narrative flow a little, even with such fine songs. A word, too, for Mariusz Duda’s lyrics, which considering he’s not writing in his first language, are clever and multi layered, combining the twin themes of loss and survival superbly, without ever being heavy handed or too obvious. While it would have been completely understandable if the band had decided they could not continue, it’s thrilling that they decided to carry on and that they’ve come back with such a strong record. It feels good to have them back.
Reviewed by Paul Quinton
- The Day After
- Acid Rain
- Vale of Tears
- Guardian Angel
- The Struggle For Survival
- River Down Below
- The Night Before