Since their inception in 2001, Riverside has firmly established themselves as standard bearers for progressive rock, and with their fifth studio album, Shrine of the New Generation Slaves, they entrenched themselves even further, producing an album both musically brilliant and thematically daunting to say the least. Hailing from Warsaw, Poland, Riverside consists of Mariusz Duda on vocals and bass, Piotr Grudzinski on guitar, Michal Lapaj on keyboards, and Piotr Kozieradzki on drums. After four solid studio albums, these gentlemen didn’t rest on their laurels, nor did they settle for a safe product, they produced an album that takes an in depth look at some of the more subtle yet disturbing issues facing modern society.
The album opens with the title track, and instantly takes some of the humanity out of the world with some cleverly distorted vocals and the opening line, “Into this world I came, filled with fear, crying all the time.” Thunderous chords announce the entry into the shrine, a song by song journey through the many ways in which modern society has us enslaved, keeping us prisoners from the potential selves lying within us all, “the truth is, I am a free man, but I can’t enjoy my life.” The stage is set in the opening minutes for a series of songs that are nothing short of a masterpiece. Throughout the album, there are no wasted notes, no filler or fluff; everything is precisely layered to enhance the maximum impact of the underlying images and emotions. It’s hard, brilliant, and damn near scary at times. This album owned me from the very first listen, and dug in deeper with each ensuing one.
The album moves through a myriad styles and sounds to convey the different layers in which we imprison ourselves in the open. The Depth of Self Delusion is a wispy and sorrowful sounding piece of exquisite beauty, with some brilliant guitar work throughout. Celebrity Touch is a hard edged poppy sounding number, relentless and forceful. The mechanical and dark pairing of bass and keys that keep the pace in Feels Like Falling are so effective in driving home the surrounding notes, they perfectly match the endless inadequacy and fear that keeps us from ourselves. This is vividly clear when they stop in the middle, and the listener literally stops falling, but for only a moment. Riverside never really lets one forget the bonds that tie us down.
Two songs portray this imagery so strongly though. The first one, We Got Used to Us, is a haunting view of what happens to relationships as we get tied up in the world around us. The opening lines, “When I scroll back through our recent days, I try to understand how we could forget, we made a promise to one another that nothing would break what we had” have been spoken in millions of relationships everywhere, and so many of them have seen the demise portrayed in the rest of the song. The world swallows the intimacy, the closeness necessary to nurture a relationship. In becoming slaves to what is around us, we lose the freedom to be open and transparent with those closest to us. This song, I feel, digs at the heart of what this album is portraying, the loss of base humanity that denies us the freedom to be the humans we were meant to be.
The epic of the album, Escalator Shrine, sums up all that comes before it. It describes a crowd of nameless, faceless individuals heading to and fro without any semblance of freedom. The humanity has been devalued completely, it is literally a herd of cattle at this point, just pay attention to the general scene at a busy transit terminal and you will see what the song is about, the milling masses going through the daily grind, many with spirits broken to totality. Musically, this one begins sultry and teasing, yet with a very dark edge, then runs into a searing yet structured instrumental, one that portrays the internal struggle to break free of the bonds. It is a song with no happy ending, it beats the listener into submission, so much that when the last song, Coda, comes on, and a reprise of the quiet section from Feels Like Falling is portrayed, we are ready for the rest, the comfort, and the peace of mind at being free just by being close to another.
I am in awe of what Riverside was able to accomplish here. Shrine of New Generation Slaves is an album that makes me look at my own life, to see where I am bonded, to see what holds me back. I see this album holding a very solid spot in my rotation for a long time while I dig deeper and deeper into the many layers of music and themes that it holds, getting intimate with how it changes as the music changes me. I always felt that music that grows as I do is the pinnacle of the artform. If this is how 2013 starts, we are in for one hell of a year of music.