Shrine of New Generation Slaves (SoNGS)

Released January 2013 Europe; Feb. 2013 RoW

Tracklist:

  1. New Generation Slave
  2. The Depth of Self-Delusion
  3. Celebrity Touch
  4. We Got Used to Us
  5. Feel Like Falling
  6. Deprived (Irretrievably Lost Imagination)
  7. Escalator Shrine
  8. Coda

Bonus Disc:

  1. Night Session Part 1
  2. Night Session Part II

Confession time…and some context. I will say right off the bat: I struggled mightily to review this album when it first came out.  I made a few attempts, and even posted some, but frankly none of them ended up worth the time it took to launch Word.  It pains me to say that they were pretty much the sort of hagiographic piles of adulatory crap I deplore reading from others, and deep down, even at the time I wrote them, I knew it.  But I chose to ignore my gut.

What I think happened was this: Shrine of New Generation Slaves was the first album that Riverside released after I discovered them and became a fan, and I had just spent most of the preceding year immersed in the band’s (and Lunatic Soul’s) discography, listening to almost nothing else, stunned and exhilarated by the discovery of music I had been waiting for all my life.  Naturally I had a huge emotional stake in the new material.

When the special blue vinyl pre-order arrived (the first of the several versions to hit my doorstep) and the playing began…well, things started to go south from there.  My immediate reaction was: This is not the album I have been waiting for.  But because at some level it had to be that album, and the accolades began pouring in from all directions…I suppressed my instincts and spent the next year trying to talk myself into loving it. Even the video accompanying the first single, “Celebrity Touch”, didn’t dismay me as much as it should have.

…But now a couple of years have passed, and I hope I am far enough distanced to deal with SoNGS fairly. The truth is, I don’t love the album, and that is tough to admit.  So let’s get this party started.

Shrine of New Generation Slaves, a.k.a SoNGS, is Riverside’s fifth album, the second in a slightly less formal trilogy that began with Anno Domini High Definition, and an album that took four long years to arrive.  Fifth album, five-word title (and clever acronym), just a bit longer than 50 minutes – you get the idea.  Lyrically, SoNGS deals with the disconnection and lack of control often felt between the trajectory of one’s life and the longing for something more meaningful; musically, once again, the band shifts directions.  It is fair to say that one of the key themes that links the last three albums together in addition to the lyric arc (see the upcoming review for Love, Fear and the Time Machine) is the wide swings from one musical direction to another.  The stylistic differences among the albums after REM are stark.

At any rate, the influences the band cited for SoNGS included a look back to more 1970s – based classic rock, moving away from the prog metal grittiness that characterized much of their earlier sound, and to an extent this is true.  There is no continuation of the relentless metal of ADHD, and a passing nod to the great sweeps of melodious progressive rock of the first three albums.  SoNGS is rather dark in feel, often thick with distortion and effects, with great emphasis on Michał Łapaj’s keyboards and Hammond organ, and with very heavy moments to be sure — but it also sees the return of much more acoustic guitar than had been featured on most of the albums since the Voices in My Head EP, which adds a new spaciousness to the sound.

However…

Before this album arrived I had observed elsewhere that the Riverside discography was one of the most remarkably consistent collections of songs by one band I had ever encountered.  I could happily play every single track … but Shrine of New Generation Slaves has forced a revision of opinion. Not only are there now a couple of songs I am indifferent to and would indeed skip over, they both appear on the same album.  And that, my friends, is a damned shame.

SoNGS I think is the first album that included tracks that are essentially straight-up rockers.  “Celebrity Touch” and “Feel Like Falling” take the Riverside formula with its emphasis on melody and the tendency to shift gears within a song and apply in a very straightforward way…but here’s the thing.  Maybe the reason we see so few songs of this sort from these guys is that – well, at least in the case of this album — they just don’t work.  These two songs are conventional, uninspired, and verge dangerously close to mediocrity.  And slotted where they are, between the very strongest songs on the album, they only succeed in breaking flow and concentration.  Which is a damned shame.

But on to the good, and there is plenty of it in this album.  Indeed, the strength of the album is in the tracks of medium length, where the real maturity and subtlety of song writing and playing get to shine through.  “The Depth of Self-Delusion” has become one of my favourite songs ever; with its powerful opening bass-line and Piotr Grudziński’s soaring melodic guitar, this track is a case study of the huge skill and inspiration the guys are capable of at their best.  “We Got Used to Us” is a delicately poignant ballad, beautifully rendered, if lyrically it revisits “Embryonic” from REM; and of course there is the epic “Escalator Shrine”, the signature Riverside three-part long track, the sort of thing these guys really excel at: see also “Second Life Syndrome” and “Left Out”.  I have to say that Riverside are almost unparalleled in their ability to pull off these great complex tracks.  And finally what is arguably the best track on the album, the underrated “Deprived (Irretrievably Lost Imagination)”: deceptively simple, nuanced and understated but meaty as all hell should one care to dig in, this song is a master class in how to write and perform truly progressive music, moving seamlessly from section to section in just a few minutes.  It is almost subversively epic.

Something worth mentioning:  the evolution of Mariusz Duda’s musical skills continues apace.  His bass was always more a lead than a rhythm instrument, and we find it front and centre on SoNGS.  Which means it has become rather more obvious that he is one hell of a player.  SoNGS may be the album where people began to sit up and take notice of how good he really is.

But even more than the bass — Duda has seriously ramped up his vocal game.  It is hard to deny that one of the most important aspects of Riverside’s sound is Mariusz Duda’s silkily distinctive voice. He was always willing to stretch out and experiment with it, but on SoNGS we are treated to what would turn out to be the start of a huge leap in just pure singing chops that has spanned not just his work for Riverside but Lunatic Soul as well.

As with REM, so with SoNGS

The deluxe version of the album includes a second disc of additional material. Two extra tracks called the “Night Sessions” were included to make up enough material for a double cd release, but this time the guys resisted the standard route of remixes and alternative versions of existing tracks.  Three of them (Piotr Kozieradzki did not take part) went into the studio and came up with two new experimental instrumental pieces that pay glorious tribute to Tangerine Dream and related electronica … I have always said that Riverside are one of the best overlooked instrumental bands around, and they have done themselves proud on these two tracks.  As with REM, the “Night Sessions” bonus material goes a long way towards redeeming the album as a whole.  It also suggests that there might well be a place for a music project completely distinct from both Riverside and Lunatic Soul. One can only hope.

When all is said and done, after much soul-searching, and despite the quality of some of the music, I am forced to conclude that Shrine of New Generation Slaves is not a particularly successful album in the Riverside canon.  I do not mean commercial success of course, because – yes, I know that a lot of people love this album.  It garnered them a lot of new fans, it was their best-selling release to date, and I will admit that at least one of my most beloved songs comes from here.  But it is also an album with an unaccountably wide range of variability between the best and lesser tracks, where inspiration soars and then simply drops lifeless from the sky. I cannot muster up a lot of affection for SoNGS: coming from a band whose impact on my life cannot be adequately expressed in words, it seems to sit askew on the emotional shelf.  And that really is a shame.