I did not know what to expect when I started listening to Riverside‘s new album Wasteland. In a way, I was surprised that it was written and released. After Piotr Grudziński’s sudden and untimely death in 2016 the band was effusive in their love for him and open about what a deeply personal loss they had suffered. The three remaining members elected to release a compilation of instrumental material featuring Piotr’s work and songwriting in 2016 entitled Eye of the Soundscape. This was followed by a live album called Lost ‘n’ Found on Bandcamp independently which featured Piotr in a show on the 18th of October, 2015 in the Netherlands. And then, apparently, Riverside began writing new music.
Wasteland is simultaneously familiar and new. Riverside has been threatening to turn into a band of post-Floyd proggers à la Porcupine Tree since SoNGS, and with Mariusz Duda in the driver’s seat they have inched even closer. The songs were shaped in Duda’s “aggressively melancholy” mold, but feature a more cinematic feel than previous records because it’s an ensemble work. Guest musicians add violin (Michał Jelonek), guitar work (Maciej Meller and Mateusz Owczarek), while Duda recorded the guitars, adds banjo and uses his piccolo bass. Michał Łapaj’s keys—made up of synths, rhodes piano, Hammonds and even a theremin on “Wasteland”—fills out and structures songs, treading close to a Gazpacho feel with the help of violin or banjo (see: “Lament” or “Wasteland”). The rhythm section is made up of Duda’s bass and drummer Piotr Kozieradzki, whose presence is subtle but who shines when he’s let loose (“The Struggle for Survival”). When songs do crescendo into heavier territory, Wasteland sounds a lot more like hard rock (“Acid Rain,” and especially “Vale of Tears”) or even noodly prog (“The Struggle for Survival”) than the modern metal tone and feel of ADHD or Second Life Syndrome.
The real strength of Wasteland, though, is in its mournful, fragile melodies. The gossamer gloom of Wasteland is largely carried by Duda’s accented bari/tenor vocal delivery. His voice floats above the other instruments, bearing heart-wrenching melodies. This starts immediately from the a cappella opener “The Day After,”1 and follows in songs like “Guardian Angel” and “Lament.” “The Night Before,” which fits into this mold, features a lone piano and a bed of vocal harmonies that bring tears to my eyes. One of Wasteland‘s highlights is the slow build and introduction of the title track “Wasteland” are of particular note, reminding me of Camel‘s The Snow Goose. Even the the heavier material features surprisingly poignant chorus melodies that brilliantly offset otherwise straightforward verses.
In addition to the songwriting being beautiful and sneakily hooky, the album sounds pretty good, too. Happily, Wasteland doesn’t suffer from production choices like its predecessor did. Riverside chose a less dense master and eased up some on after-effects, rather than featuring production so wet that the heaviest material loses its punch. Still, my biggest complaint about the album is some of the band’s choices in this regard: acoustic electrics with Piezo pickups and a chorus pedal are a sound that dates the album to 1992 and that has not aged particularly well.2 The drum sound is also unsatisfying. The best example of this is in the second part of “The Struggle for Survival” where the bass and the snare ride a syncopated rhythm together. It becomes clear that the overlap between the two essentially high-passes the snare,3 which robs it of its presence. This happens far too frequently throughout Wasteland. Similarly, the cymbals disappear into the top end of reverbed guitars or vocals. These things do not sully an otherwise well-written record, but they undermine the band’s vision.
Wasteland is deftly written, fragile and evocative. Minor complaints aside, it is a slow burn which demonstrates growth and sees the band writing some of its best songs since ADHD. Wasteland offers a snapshot of one of progressive rock’s heavy hitters figuring out how to pick up the pieces and keep going in the face of hardship. Great art, as the cliche goes, often arises from hardship and maybe Wasteland is an example of that. Maybe when you get stranded in a wasteland the only way out is through. No matter the source, though, Wasteland is an album that Riverside fans will love and prog fans should laud.
- “What if it’s not / If it’s not meant to be? / What if someone has made a mistake? / What we’ve become / There’s no turning back / Maybe it’s time to say that out loud” ↩
- It also doesn’t help that the chorus to “Guardian Angel” is a dead ringer for Pearl Jam‘s “Black” from Ten. ↩
- This is not an endorsement of this guy, just a video about what high-passing looks/sounds like. ↩