Change can come to a band in a variety of ways. It could be a change in sound, producer, label, or a number of outside factors. And of course it can come from the departure of a band member. In the best circumstances the leaving is peaceful on all sides. In the worst and most tragic it comes from the death of a band member, and that is where Poland’s Riverside has found themselves after the unexpected death of founding member and guitarist Piotr Grudziński in 2016. Since his death the band released the atmospheric ‘Eye of the Soundscape,’ which was comprised of remaining instrumental material that Piotr had worked on. Now, two years later, the band is set to release their first album as a trio, and without their friend. ‘Wasteland’ is set for release in late September.
The band has acknowledged that for many fans the death of Piotr also marked the death of the band, but they do not share this sentiment and have continued working, including touring with a live guitarist. They have opted, though, not to find a new guitarist to join the band itself, rather bassist/vocalist/primary composer Mariusz Duda has recorded the guitar for the album, leaving breathing space for a live player to work in his own ideas.
‘Wasteland’ is a concept album, dealing with living in the early days of a post apocalyptic world, but at the same time the subject clearly lends itself to dealing with the band’s personal losses and dealing with grief. This gives the album another dimension and, I think, a deeper and more meaningful and certainly more emotional album over all. It is also the darkest and heaviest work the band has done since their earliest albums, although it is not a retread, but looks forward while nodding to their past as well.
The album opens with “The Day After” and the lone a cappella voice of Duda. As the title suggests it is a reflection on recent tragedy that has fallen upon the survivors of war, and also serves as an accurate reflection on the feeling of early grief. ‘What if this is not what’s meant to be/what if someone has made a mistake’ is repeated throughout the short intro still in solo voice before a slight low electric rumbling is heard and the band comes in and the heavy distorted pounding of “Acid Rain” begins.
“Acid Rain” is a crunchy, heavy piece of music that only builds in aggression as it goes. It’s a feeling and sound of the prog metal the band made their name with in their early days and is exhilarating to listen to. The interplay between Duda’s bass work and the drumming of Piotr Kozieradzki is intricate and very tight. Duda also shows that he is a perfectly good guitarist as well. While the leads are few, the guitar on this and the rest of the album is highly melodic and fits perfectly into the mood and atmosphere of the album. And atmosphere such as the album is full of cannot exist without the key work of Michal Lapaj who has a perfect subtleness in everything he does.
The album is an excellent mix of heavy and very soft melancholic moments, and few songs are all one or the other, but each serve to create the feeling of a surviving family trying to make their way in their destroyed world. The first released single, “Vale of Tears,” is a prime example. It starts as a heavy, musically jaunty song with very forward intense vocals, before the song becomes calm and the vocals take on a more melodic subdued nature. This mix continues through the remainder of the song, the mood is heightened by the visual nature of the lyrics and the repeated musical and lyrical themes. The end of the song then goes into full on prog metal mode with heavy keyboards and deep thundering bass. The song is a snapshot of the album and everything it does so well.
On the more calm side is “Guardian Angel,” a predominantly acoustic track which shows some nice lighter guitar touches by Duda. But the song delves deeper into the isolation and fear of survivors and the apocalyptic world they are left in. It is very introspective, the music and vocals especially emotional, and is a quite beautiful work. “Lament” is similar in some ways, starting very quietly, but this song builds in heaviness and power and is a dialogue of sorts between a father and son, with mentions of an abandoned and scared mother. And while a clear movement for the story, nonetheless brings a clear feeling of real life loss and tragedy.
For me being a lover of beefy instrumental songs, my favorite track musically is “The Struggle For Survival” which is pure, atmospheric prog metal bliss. The guitar takes on a more prominent role here, and the heaviness and aggression pick up to a much greater extent. And though the bass is still very prevalent, Duda shows that when he wants to he can rip some very memorable and exciting guitar solos. The music, while complex, doesn’t hit you over the head with it, and while driving and dark in nature is still very open and expansive. Future live guitarists will find plenty of room to play in whenever this song is performed live in the future.
The album closes with the beautiful, piano driven “The Night Before.” The title, clearly meant as a bookend, is in many ways indicative of the circulative nature of the concept and themes explored. The loss and pain and struggle for a survivor, be it the destruction of our civilization, or the painful loss of a loved one, is never ending. Each day the struggle begins anew, and though as days progress you get further from the source of your pain, like an elastic we will always be attached to it and come snapping back to the event, be it death or atom bombs. The song takes the form of a father singing a lullaby to their child, both in a soothing manner, but also with the grim reality of their situation, ‘don’t mind the noise they’re just the bombs/part of music for this song” it’s a heart breaking line, and sung with simple, yet sincere emotion, the perfect closing for a deeply layered work.
‘Wasteland’ is a deeply effective, powerful, and beautiful piece of music created by a band that had every reason to fold up and not continue, or at the very least create an album that was underwhelming and maudlin. Riverside have avoided that, instead they have told a story that on one part tells of the fall of the world, and another their personal journey, and throughout made it emotional and easy for any listener to relate and enter into. In what could arguably be the most important album of their career since their debut, they have crafted an album that will likely define them for years to come. One may argue that some earlier albums are greater, but none carry the weight and ability to touch the listener like this one has. Highly recommended.