Released September 28, 2018
- Mariusz Duda: vocals, electric and acoustic guitars, bass, piccolo bass, banjo, guitar solo on “Lament” and “Wasteland”
- Piotr Kozieradzki: drums
- Michał Łapaj: keyboards and synthesizers, rhodes piano and hammond organ, theremin on “Wasteland”
- Maciej Meller: guitar solo on “Acid Rain – Part 2: Dancing Ghosts”, “Guardian Angel”, “The Struggle for Survival Part II – Battle Royale’” and “River Down Below”
- Michał Jelonek – violin on “The Day After”, “Lament” and “Wasteland”
- Mateusz Owczarek – guitar solo on “Vale of Tears”
- The Day After
- Acid Rain: Part I – Where are we now?; Part II – Dancing Ghosts
- Vale of Tears
- Guardian Angel
- Struggle for Survival: Part I – Dystopia; Part II – Battle Royale
- River Down Below
- The Night Before
If you have been reading reviews for Wasteland, you already know how they tend to start, so I will not repeat all that. In summary: Wasteland is probably the most fraught album in Riverside’s career, awaited with enormous anticipation, apprehension, trepidation…and so on. As fans, we all know why.
The big question is: Did the decision to continue as a trio, with no permanent replacement for the beloved Piotr Grudziński, actually work? Did they pull it off? The responses have ranged from enthusiastic “absolutely!”s to carefully worded versions of “nope”, and everything in between. The only thing we knew for sure about Wasteland was that it wasn’t going to be the same as the previous albums, but Mariusz Duda always says that. I did have a hint of the sound to come, hearing something early in the spring albeit in an unfinished form, and I liked it very much; but auditory memory being what it is (bad), I wasn’t willing to bet the farm on that few minutes of a demo heard once.
Three singles were released in the weeks before the album hit. Promotion, marketing – it is an understandable practice, but it is fair to say that for the most part, these songs caused more consternation than relief among the fanbase. I was certainly among those consternated. The first, “Vale of Tears”, despite some interesting moments, came across as a rather cliché poppy mashup of … well, everything. What on earth was that all about? There was a gradual improvement with the next two such that by the time “Lament” appeared, folks had gotten their hopes up again…but still, doubt had been sown.
Then Wasteland arrived. And all my doubts were vaporized. Well, after about the third listen…but gone.
I do not usually review track-by-track because I find those reviews the least interesting, and I don’t want to write the kind of review I wouldn’t want to read. However, in this case there is an even more compelling reason to avoid it, and that is the nature of the album itself.
Wasteland is a concept album, set in a post-apocalyptic world, a theme driven by the novel The Road and one that Duda has been interested in tackling for several years now. But Wasteland is more than a collection of songs with a common lyric theme. It is an organic unity, a miracle of musical cohesiveness such that it cannot be taken apart into its components and retain the same impact. The way the individual tracks meld and twine together, sliding ineluctably one to the next – you can literally forget there are track breaks. The songs are varied in their styles and approaches, but the arrangement of them is sheer genius: the contrasts of light and dark, oozing and sinuous heaviness with pure acoustic and vocal delicacy — by the end of the album the overwhelming sense is of having heard a huge emotional set-piece, a single mighty epic. This is the key — what counts, for me, is the resonance an album leaves behind when it is done. And with Wasteland, I know I have heard something extraordinary.
There are bits and pieces that on their own don’t hit me (such as “Guardian Angel”), but in the context of the album, I forget that. Each of the singles takes on a new life and strength. “Vale of Tears”, which does not work on its own, gains enormous salience: it becomes a microcosm, a fractal reflection of the whole album. “River Down Below” is now more than just a nice ballad, and “Lament” becomes almost too emotionally powerful to bear. Bookended by the beautiful and disquieting a cappella of “The Day After” and the heartbreaking piano/vocal theme of “The Night Before”, Wasteland is a single unbroken journey, that should be followed from the first note to the last, an odyssey fraught with hope and terror, despair and love, an emotional tour-de-force, a truly masterful achievement.
Mariusz Duda promised a return to heavy, and indeed he was true to his word. Wasteland is heavy in an almost literal sense: passages of monstrous mass and weight, a huge density of sound, thick and layered, overwhelming and inexorable. This weight is interleaved with sections of delicacy and shocking beauty, gloriously melodious keyboards, acoustic guitar of enormous presence. Electric guitar is certainly here, but it is handled quite differently than ever before — minimized into the background until the solos appear. And because three different stylists provide them — Meller’s jagged, raw style, Owczarek’s smoother sound, and Duda’s melodic soaring lines in “Lament” — they add a surprisingly rich texture to the album. The piccolo bass gives an unsettlingly caustic, buzzy take on the normal electric guitar sound, enhancing the album’s sense of anxiety and foreboding. The desolation is made complete by the eerie, wailing voice of Michał Jelonek’s violin.
At least one reviewer (Polish) mentioned how strong the Slavic/traditional folk influences are, which (as a non-eastern-European) are not specifically obvious to my ears. However, I am an old folk-rock fan from way back, and traditional folk from almost anywhere has a certain plangency that is clearly evident in these songs; and of course there is the adroit and witty hat-tip to the great Ennio Morricone. This album also resonates with the essence of classic prog (especially in “Struggle for Survival”). I can hear echoes of King Crimson, Camel, Tull, but this is the genius of Riverside, their signature sound: the effortless, instinctive evocation of what prog meant when it was new, and fresh, and forward-looking, before it became so self-indulgent, so deliberate — what prog was before we called it “prog”.
I do have a nit-pick: Duda keeps calling the album (and Riverside’s sound in general) “melancholic”. I guess we are using different meanings for that word because to my ears Wasteland is anything but melancholic. It is no fount of cheer to be sure, but it does not evoke sadness or gloom or despondency, all notions wound up in the idea of melancholy. This is an album of great life and passion, grim at times but still full of vitality, a fierce determination to endure, driven not by despair but by love and optimism. This is not melancholy.
It is difficult to predict who is going to take to this album and who is not. The reviews have been rather mixed: accolades on the one hand, and careful dissension on the other — reviewers seem reluctant to actually pan the album, given the circumstances, but one gets the impression that some of them would like to. I suppose it depends on one’s personal limits to “different”. Love Fear and the Time Machine being different from Shrine of New Generation Slaves is one thing, but a complete shift in the underlying gestalt in order to accommodate their new triptych reality is something else again. And this is what we have: a new band, a new reality — and a new sound. There are those who honestly seem to want a return to something reminiscent of the Reality Dream period, or a continuation of the last album, but they are not going to find it here.
At the end of the day, all the reviewing, analysis, and dissection aside, it comes down to this: how do I respond to this album when I play it? Ultimately, that is all that matters. And with Wasteland…what happens is something that has not happened for a long, long time. This is an album that I lose myself in, completely and unreservedly. I am transported, helpless to it, every single time I play it. So far I have been unable to talk myself out of the idea that Wasteland is the best Riverside album to date. And while it is a couple years too early for me to declare it a member of my All Time Best list, it certainly feels like it belongs there. Wasteland owns me. It grabs me and finds that magic spot in my soul in a way that very very few albums ever do. I honestly do not know how the guys can top this one, and I am almost afraid of what might happen to me if they do. But I sure look forward to them trying.