The Return of the Instrumental (and Poland Rising)
This was not one of my better years for musical discoveries. However, the past few years have been so good that I suppose the odds were against another, and it did not arrive. I only managed to come up with maybe 25 albums I wanted to listen to more than once, and some of those didn’t make it to a third play.
So: this year I have 15 albums in the list, like in other years, but I’ve decided to rank only the first five. The rest are in alphabetical order. Each of the final ten has its strong points, each its weaknesses, and any order I put them in would be largely arbitrary. Of the top five: I have to say only the first 2 albums are truly stellar, the third is definitely better than the rest, and 4 and 5 are strong enough to rank. You will find My Best Albums of the Year below the fold.
I would be remiss if I did not point out the fact that the three best albums (to my ears) for 2018 are all from Polish outfits. I’m pretty sure this is the first country sweep I’ve had. See more below….
As noted in the Introduction (which I hope you read first, link here), I have not actually ranked these albums, they are listed in alphabetical order. They do not differ from each other enough for a ranking to even make sense. They are albums that I play reasonably often, and/or have qualities that make them interesting, enough that others might find them worth pursuing (in fact some already have — some of these albums rank pretty high in other people’s lists). And fully seven of the ten here are instrumental.
Dead Letter Circus: Dead Letter Circus
This Aussie post-punk/indie bunch burst onto the scene in 2010 with a powerful first album, which contained some thoughtful, heavy tracks and a lot of promise. Alas, they never really seemed to be able to live up to that promise. Their second album, The Catalyst Fire, quite frankly was a mess, while the third, Aethesis, was about halfway listenable.
This, their fourth, finds them converging towards shorter pieces that are focused on their strengths: intense melodic rock, nicely-constructed, very consistent, even if the tracks begin to sound a bit the same towards the end. If they continue in this direction they may finally come up with the album they are capable of making.
I’ll start with the odds and ends of 2018. A few EPs were released that deserve mention but aren’t really long enough to be included in the album list. As well, some of the albums that didn’t make the list in the end did provide a great track or two, even if the rest of the album wasn’t up to snuff. And as always, I find stuff during the year that was released the year before, I just wasn’t paying attention at the time.
Gary Numan: The Fallen
An addendum to the spectacular Savage album from 2017, the ep provides 3 additional tracks.
I might not have had much luck finding interesting stuff this year, but that doesn’t mean other people had the same problem.
“Hm,” said one friend in a review. “I keep coming back to this album. Except I don’t like the singer much.”
Okay, thought I, let me check it out.
I keep coming back to the album again and again as well. And again. And I like the singer just fine.
I had been vaguely aware of the name “Osada Vida” for some time, but I had no idea who or what the entity was, or where they hailed from, let alone what they sounded like. Just one of the many references to musicians that pass through my newsfeed on a daily basis, too many to really be able to pursue. As it turns out Osada Vida is a Polish outfit who have been around for over 20 years, with a handful of albums and various changes of personnel; the current lineup includes a new singer/lyricist, Marcel Lisiak. I will confess to not yet having checked out the back catalogue, so I don’t know how he compares to the last guy — or how Variomatic compares to anything else they’ve done.
What I can say is this: whoever they are, they bring a ton of songwriting and musicianship chops to the table. The album is essentially keyboard-and guitar-heavy prog, but it also showcases a variety of other influences: a bit of folk, a bit of jazz-rock, a bit of classical — all intertwined with consummate skill. A showcase track for this is “The Line”, which over its 6 minutes moves from heavy to a smooth instrumental break, ramps it up again, and finally finishes with a little funky fusion. This is a marvellous piece, and essentially is a microcosm of the whole album. Lots of ideas swirl around but they are assembled and presented with confidence and care; melody is honoured. Lisiak’s light, accentless tenor (he sings in English) does fit well with the songs. I don’t know how it would come across live, but it works in the studio.
Variomatic is an album of immense sophistication and nuance, impeccably executed, as smooth as the smoothest single-malt, accomplished and as smart as hell, and a joy to listen to every time I put it on. It just makes me feel good to hear it. That being said, I suspect this album will not get anywhere near the attention it deserves. It is an outstanding offering, and is likely to see a lot of future play from me. If I am going to listen to prog, this is what I want to hear: something that sounds fresh and new and doesn’t rehash the well-worn tropes that so many modern prog bands seem to think is necessary. I hope I can convince some other folks to give this album a try.
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
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.