Summary: A disappointing effort from the best prog rock act in Poland.
Given that we recently elected a couple of neo-Nazis to the European parliament, I should probably go easy on the immigrant jokes, but never mind; Riverside are the best thing to come from Poland since corner shops that sell imported Cheetos. Even in a genre and scene where there's not really a shortage of good bands, they stand out a mile for their talent and ambition, and you can only respect the fact that they already have three great albums under their belt. Four, if you include the singer's solo album last year, under the name Lunatic Soul.
And yet, there's been a slight hint of regression about the band's career to this point. Having started in prog rock territory, the band moved toward metal on their third record (2007's Rapid Eye Movement), and over the course of the transition, lost a few things - complexity, uniqueness, subtlety, even confidence. These are all things you'd expect a band to gain as they get older, but they'd taken a small step backwards. Still, Rapid Eye Movement was a very good album all the same, and the fans seemed willing to write off the flaws as growing pains.
Sadly, Anno Domini High Definition suffers from the same problems on a much deeper level, and worse still, it brings one major, unexpected new problem to the table. Somehow, on their fourth album, their grasp of the English language has got worse.
This defies all logic. Riverside have been recording music in their second language for 8 years now, and have never had any problems with writing interesting, intelligible lyrics before. Why would they suddenly start to have problems now? Lord knows, but that's what's happened. As "Hyperactive" bursts into life following a short piano intro, the vocals appear in stop-time, leaving you nothing to focus on but the awful, awful lyricism. The high res next gen wonderland? I hope my sell-by date didn’t expire yesterday? Sung in that falsetto? Yikes. Perhaps it's simply the case that the band are trying too hard, but either way, it clangs like you wouldn't believe - I felt myself visibly cringe listening to it. Luckily, the lyrics do improve later on, but that opening track does throw one fact into sharp relief - each Riverside album before this had better lyrics.
It's thus left to the music to carry the album, which for the most part, it does - but again, the signs of regression appear. Like Rapid Eye Movement, this represents a step down from the album before it in terms of maturity, something that the new sounds they introduce don't help. In fact, some of those new sounds are likely to alienate their fanbase - one particular section in the middle of "Egoist Hedonist" is likely to send some people running for the hills, screaming meaningless phrases like 'sell-out' and 'nu-metal'. There's Draiman-esque vocal spits and scratches, a brass section that could have been lifted from Streetlight Manifesto, and a nimble, funky guitar riff underneath it - for all the world, this section could have been lifted from Fungus Amongus.
Keyboards also find their prominence on Anno Domini High Definition, much more so than on any other Riverside album. Album standout "Left Out" displays this throughout its instrumental second half, as does "Egoist Hedonist", by occasionally sounding like Faithless when it's not sounding like Incubus. It's tempting to criticize the band for using the presets on Reason (which they do at least twice), but the keys, and the way the band blend them with their always-excellent lead guitar playing, is the most interesting thing about this album, and the only area where the band have kicked on and progressed. Some of the organ sounds move the band into Deep Purple territory, which is a prospect much more likely to appeal than Disturbed.
Anno Domini is far from a bad album, and their fans can take encouragement from the fact that the flaws on this record are easy ones to fix. It's similarly encouraging that with their new-found affection for keyboards, the band seems to have found a new sound to exploit in future. Riverside probably need one more great album to move beyond the comparisons to Pink Floyd and Porcupine Tree that have dogged them throughout their career, and there's no reason to think that their next outing won't be the one that cements them as their own band. This, however, is a slight disappointment from a band who, at one point, seemed destined to become one of the best in the world. They still might, but they'll need to put songs like "Hyperactive" behind them, and soon.