Album Review: Are You There by Michał Łapaj

Released: July 2021

 Personnel:

  • Michał Łapaj: keyboards
  • Mick Moss: vocals (tracks 2, 3)
  • Bela Komoszyńska: vocals (tracks 4, 6)
  • Artur Szolc: drums

 Tracklist:

  1. Pieces
  2. Flying Blind
  3. Shattered Memories
  4. Shelter
  5. Where Do We Run
  6. Fleeting Skies
  7. In Limbo
  8. Unspoken
  9. Surfacing
  10. From Within

 A few years ago, Michał Łapaj, the keyboard player for the Polish band Riverside, announced that he was working on a solo album, much to the excitement of the fan base. Then followed an extended silence during which we heard almost nothing about it. Presumably the announcement was somewhat premature given the logistics of actually making an album; but finally, here it is.

 While we waited, Łapaj offered us some teasers: a single, and some “jam sessions”, available on Bandcamp and his Youtube channel, showcasing his love of analogue synths and keys, and demonstrating his mastery of emotion and atmosphere. These are things that fans of Riverside already knew — Łapaj joined the band in time to appear on their second full-length album (Second Life Syndrome), and his presence provided the final element to the “Riverside sound”: the rich keyboard soundscapes and melodies that underpin all the albums. So I think it came as a bit of a surprise when the announcement of the album’s release included the information that there would be guest vocalists, and lyrics, and not just instrumental pieces.

 Are You There features two guest vocalists: Mick Moss, of the UK project Antimatter, and Bela Komoszyńska, of the Polish art-rock band Sorry Boys. Artur Szolc (of the Polish collective Inspired) provides drums and percussion. There are also guitars here and there, but there is no information (that I have seen yet) about who provides them. So big question is: we know Michał Łapaj can compose great sweeping ambient mood pieces, because he has demonstrated this over the years. Can he write more conventional songs?

 The answer is an unqualified Yes! Indeed, he can.

 After a contemplative, instrumental opening track (“Pieces”) comes “Flying Blind”, sung by Mick Moss, and which was the first single. This is a nice minor-key ballad underpinned by sweeping keyboards. “Shattered Memories”, a huge, melancholic masterpiece, follows, again sung by Moss, and this may be the best song on the album. I’ll argue for it, even though there is another I like slightly better. I will confess to not being a particular fan of Moss’s vocal style, but on this track, with the nuanced drums and the absolutely monumental, darkly atmospheric synths, it works. This is a monster of a song, magnificent and compelling.

 The other vocal songs, both featuring the voice of Bela Komoszyńska, are “Shelter”, a fairly straightforward soft rock track, and “Fleeting Skies”, which does not actually have lyrics. Both of these bring a different feel to the album, slightly more upbeat, if not exactly cheerful (which fits the overall theme of the album — more on that later).

 My favourite piece on the album is “Unspoken”, a rather heavy rock song with powerful drumming and keyboards, featuring spoken words  and what sounds like guitar. Lyrically it seems to wind up the ideas expressed in the earlier songs, and it provides the bridge to the final instrumental pieces.

 Thematically the album examines dying love, a relationship wandering off track, and both the music and the lyrics (written by Michał’s wife, Paulina Kimbar-Łapaj) beautifully capture this sense of loneliness and bewilderment. Łapaj does bring a very characteristic sound to the table: sweeping and cinematic, with big meaty keyboards, dense and atmospheric and beautifully melodic, features that all Riverside fans will recognize. His gift is the ability to evoke emotion, and tension, evoke the goose-bumpy frisson, and then bring us back with passages of impossible delicacy. And to his great credit, the album does not immediately evoke Riverside albums (with the possible exception of Eye of the Soundscape).

 Are You There is a gorgeous atmospheric journey of an album, one that Łapaj should rightly be proud of. It may not be easy to find outside of Polish sites (at least, physical copies); it would be nice to see some availability on Łapaj’s Bandcamp site at least. It is an album that needs to be widely heard.

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