This past year was an excellent year for music, much better than the travesty that was 2020. Right from the beginning with the early releases it promised to be a strong one, and quality-wise it never really let up. The music did come along in fits and starts: a bunch of late winter/spring releases, a bit of a lull through summer into the fall, and then a final surge very late in the year. It was this last bit that proved problematic, because the late releases were so strong they threw off all the calculations I had made up to that point. By mid December I had to completely rethink my top-tier albums.
In terms of genres, what attracted me is largely divided between various forms of instrumental ambient electronica or industrial, and good ol’ rock‘n’roll/metal. A bit of proggish and alternativey stuff is sprinkled throughout, but not too much. There were certainly surprises along the way. I ended up with an even dozen albums that stand out; I think this is the strongest year for music in a while.
Gary Numan released his crowd-funded album early in the year, and Shriekback did the same thing in December. Industrial legend Bill Leeb gave us two offerings: one from Front Line Assembly and another from the long-quiescent Noise Unit. Mariusz Duda, who has an inordinate fondness for trilogies, also released two albums to complete his latest, which was begun in 2020 with Lockdown Spaces. The Tea Party emerged almost out of nowhere to demonstrate that they are still very much alive and a force to be reckoned with. The long-awaited new album from post-metal masters Tacoma Narrows Bridge Disaster finally appeared.
Release date: December 10th, 2021 on Bandcamp; December 17th on all other streaming services, and on cassette.
Mariusz Duda: all instruments and vocals
Shapes in Notebooks
Prisoner by Request
Dream of Calm
How to Overcome Crisis
Interior Drawings is the third album in the Lockdown Trilogy that was begun back in 2020 during the first wave of the pandemic, and added to in the spring of 2021 during some subsequent wave. The first two albums are rather existential in theme, dealing with the emotional response to literal lockdowns and enforced isolation. This one is not.
This time around, Duda has presented us with an exercise in recursiveness: he’s made a fascinating attempt to use music to represent the process of creating music – at least, Mariusz Duda’s mode of creating music. Each song represents a step along the way, from initial inspiration (“Racing Thoughts”) through battling creative roadblocks (“How to Overcome Crisis”) to the final product (“Temporary Happiness”). This makes Interior Drawings a much more literal album than the others. There is isolation here, but it is the kind of self-isolation required in order to complete a project, and not imposed from outside. It’s an intriguing approach, and it will be interesting to see (hear?) if he has succeeded.
Each track tries to evoke the mood and experience suggested in the title. While I don’t plan to discuss each song on the album, some of them really do give us a sensory glimpse into the process of creating. The first track, “Racing Thoughts”, is piano-heavy, and fast — we feel the initial swirl of ideas, and the intensity of trying to capture them,pinning them down. There is a palpable sense of the excitement of starting a fresh project.
“Interior Drawings” starts with the sounds of drawing – literally. Duda has even posted a short video of this: pencil in hand, drawing a square, circle, triangle, over and over, a visual representation of the musical representation of the making of this music (did I mention the recursiveness of the album?); then bass and electronic percussion start to build. Clearly these are the initial ideas taking shape; the song winds up with a rather beautiful piano theme, something that would not be out of place as an outro on a Lunatic Soul or Riverside track.
At the moment my favourite piece is “Almost Done”, a track of impelling forward movement, dark and full of synths and electronic drums, with little familiar themes tracking in the background. This really does give the feeling of the end in sight, racing towards the goal.
The album (and our journey into the making of the album) ends with “Temporary Happiness”: more upbeat and brighter, a nice smooth melody and soft vocals – appropriate given that the project is finally done. It ends – again literally – with the sounds of someone locking doors, street noises, steps walking away as the last repetitive theme fades into the background. A final soft chuckle, and it’s done.
As with the other albums in the trilogy, Interior Drawings is minimalist, mostly instrumental, mostly electronic, created largely on digital instruments. However, Duda makes great use of analogue piano and adds more vocals. There is also more straight melody here – in fact, there is much that is reminiscent of Lunatic Soul, or at least of Under the Fragmented Sky, in its moody electronic jaggedness. It does remain distinct though – the whole trilogy does – from Duda’s other projects.
Interior Drawings is a richer, denser, more melodic album than the other two in the Lockdown Trilogy. While I think that it lacks some of the overall diversity of Claustrophobic Universe, the addition of real piano and vocals adds depth to it: the album feels more grounded, more accessible. It is quite a personal album, too: we don’t often get an inside look at how creativity works, so we are privileged to go on a musical tour with Duda as he walks us through his process.
Interior Drawings, and the whole Lockdown Trilogy, give us a side of Mariusz Duda that he hasn’t had much chance to show us before, his main focus being on Riverside and Lunatic Soul. With this trilogy, he has reached back into his past, to his early influences and first musical loves, bringing them forward to this new reality. I think it is safe to say that Duda has a lot of ideas left to find and shape, and we look forward to hearing them for many years to come.
Mariusz Duda: pianos, keyboards, synthesizers, and all other sounds
Planets in a Milk Bowl
I Landed on Mars
Waves From a Flat Earth
Lemon Flavoured Stars
Numbers and Denials
Last summer, during the first phase of the pandemic and some version of some lockdown that we all hoped would end the problem, Mariusz Duda took a break from working on Lunatic Soul to create a brief album of jagged electronic sounds, that he called Lockdown Spaces. It is not clear whether the plan for a trilogy originated with the first album or if the idea came later, but here we are: Claustrophobic Universe is the second instalment of what will be a trilogy that explores Duda’s early musical love, electronica.
Lockdown Spaces was created in about two weeks, and it shows. Claustrophobic Universe took more time and, well, it shows. The album continues the minimalist trajectory started byLockdown Spaces: even though both rely heavily on programmed sounds and synths and electronic instrumentation, Claustrophobic Universe is a more nuanced album, more carefully considered, more textural, at times edging towards industrial. Along with the digital pulses and anxious rhythms there are analogue bits and pieces creeping in: piano, voice, small percussive sounds. The tracks are either constructions of jittery synth-beats, or leaning towards ambient (“Waves from a Flat Earth” versus “I Landed on Mars”, for example), but Duda cannot escape melody: even in the most spare, programmed tracks, little melodic themes trickle through, repeating and weaving in and out among the beats. Some of these tunes are on the edge of familiarity — it wouldn’t surprise me if he has reworked older ideas and I just haven’t identified them yet.
There is a lot of repetition in these songs; themes and rhythms bounce back and forth, and move from track to track, a fitting reflection of the overall idea of the album: confined as many of us are to four walls and a restricted physical space, we seek escape from the internet-filtered reality and distorted facts into universes of our own making, and yet this too can be constrained. We bounce between the two of them.
Notable songs include “2084”, which reflects the feel of the first track “Knock Lock”, both beginning with hollow programmed percussive rhythm, but then ”2084” develops into a bouncy little melody. The title track starts with a warbly hypnotic piano and synthesizer melody that weaves its way through the whole song, draggy and with deliberate drop-outs, imperfect, rising to choppy percussion and back again, some breathy sounds — there is a sense here of striving to escape but not quite making it. The last track (“Numbers and Denials”) is downright rock ’n’ roll. Okay, not really, but it starts out heavy, chugging nicely along, before it fades away into echoey keyboard plinks and white noise.
My favourite track so far is “Escape Pod”, a rather beautiful diversion after all the jittery distortion and processed noises of the previous songs. Starting with an actual piano melody it gathers momentum with drums (I’m sure they are programmed but they have a nice hefty feel), a throbbing repetitive bass rhythm, small percussive noises — a lovely, almost soothing song. It is reminiscent of material from Eye of the Soundscape.
With Claustrophobic Universe, Mariusz Duda has demonstrated that the breadth of his creativity goes well beyond what we have heard from him so far. This is nowhere near the heavy prog of Riverside, the lush, melodic sounds of Lunatic Soul, or even the electronic ambience of Eye of the Soundscape. Lockdown Spaces was a hint; Claustrophobic Universe takes it to the next level and proves that he can create and develop music that draws from a rather different source than his main projects, or at least draws from it differently. I don’t think it is quite as accomplished as Lunatic Soul or Riverside, but he’s been at those a lot longer. it certainly makes one look forward to what he will do with the third instalment.
As befits music based on digital noises and early musical influences, the releases are initially available as downloads, by streaming, or on cassette. Full physical releases will become available after the trilogy is complete.
I discussed in Part 1 why I didn’t get to a lot of music this year; no point in going over it all again. My head was just not in a listening (as opposed to hearing) space for most of 2020. At any rate, my album list is very short, eight albums in total, and one of those isn’t even from 2020 (despite the title). Of course I heard way more than these albums, but they didn’t make enough of an impact to get included here. Might have been different, in a different year.
Except for the first one, the Album of the Year (because it is such a clear winner), I haven’t ranked/rated the rest except in terms of repeat plays, but they are all albums I play relatively frequently.
Back in June I lamented the evisceration of the year in terms of music, and since then not much has changed. I just did not have the emotional energy for really investigating new music. My album list is ridiculously thin — it won’t even reach a Top Ten. However, I continued to pay more attention to individual songs, in an effort to reduce the wastage (both of money and storage space) of buying albums I rarely play. Spotify Discovery and Release Radar lists provide a rich mine of suggestions, more than I can rightly get to, and it is possible to purchase individual tracks through Bandcamp and iTunes. Of course the downside is that I end up with fewer albums on the Year End list. If that really is a downside….
So this year I will start with an individual Songs of the Year list, essentially a short-list of songs that I heard and flagged for follow-up, and then decided that I liked them enough to buy them. I used to make playlists constantly on cassette way back in the day, and I recall having some excellent ones. I need to do that more often (not on cassette, of course).
The songs here are either standalone singles, or from albums or EPs that did not make my final Album list. They are sort of ranked…I mean, I like them all, but some I do play more than others. Continue reading The Music of 2020 — The Songs→
I remember the first movie soundtrack that had an impact on me, lingering long after I watched the movie. That soundtrack was Doctor Zhivago, and I was captivated by Maurice Jarre’s dark, orchestral take on old Slavic traditional music (and the pomp of Russian classical). The great choruses and rich folk melodies hit some deep spot in me that must have been there from the beginning. I was too young to understand it in terms of music appreciation, but it was the beginning, and eventually led to an abiding love of folk-rock.
Fast forward many decades….
I discovered Lunatic Soul. That music dug in more deeply than anything had before, finding a Lunatic Soul-shaped space inside me I didn’t even know was empty. The earlier albums (LS I, II, and Impressions) weren’t strictly folk-driven, but did have a rich, vaguely eastern feel that served much the same purpose. With the fourth album, the project shifted to something sparser, electronic, and song-driven rather than atmospheric, but even so, hints of that primal heart sneaked through.
The seventh Lunatic Soul album, Through Shaded Woods, heralds a return to the acoustic folk-themed feel of the first three albums, but it follows a different path. The early albums tended towards ambience with some heavy moments worked in; but this album is pure joyous folk-rock. The eastern Slavic influence gives a weightiness to the the tracks that the music of the early LS albums did not possess. And there is no hesitation — right from the first note the album kicks into high gear, plugging straight into that ancient part of the brain that is connected to rhythm, pulse, and heartbeat. It is impossible for me to sit still while this album plays, and I mean that quite literally.
Lyrically, the album falls in with the story arc of the first two LS albums: death and rebirth, facing the past or losing it, and Duda does dip deliberately into the lyrical past with clear references to LS I and II. However, while the words evoke a yearning search for resolution, the music is for the most part hard, bright, and upbeat, driving the album along. It is an interesting contrast. There are monstrously heavy, distorted bass riffs, chants and shouts, layered acoustic guitar, thudding drumbeats (Mariusz plays everything on this album, including the drums), and of course Duda’s soaring vocals throughout (words and wordless). Not every track is a folk-rock juggernaut, of course, but the overall feel is one of chugging forward motion, right to the end. Which comes rather quickly, the album being a brief 39 minutes long.
Duda aimed (apparently) to have less eastern/oriental influences in this album than the others; however he didn’t completely escape them, as can clearly be heard in the title track. This is a song of the steppes, evocative of both the east and of dark Slavic folk. One can imagine the music the ancient travellers on the Silk Road must have heard as the sun dipped behind the cliffs and the caravanserai hove into view. The vocals are juddering and thickly distorted; spooky music indeed.
The star of this musical show though is the brilliant and compelling “Summoning Dance” — the longest track, and one that at times reaches almost ecstatic heights of pure rhythm and melody. This track demonstrates Duda’s masterful command of the style, and may have the most apt title of any: whoever does not respond to its call probably needs medical attention.
A feature of the later LS (and Riverside) albums has been a “wind-up” song — usually short, simple, and optimistic, even if not necessarily upbeat. While the core of “The Fountain” is a beautiful guitar/vocal/keyboard melody, it is so overpowered by the relentlessly swelling electronic strings and effects that the song itself struggles to survive under the weight of it all. It is distracting at best, and a bit of a disappointing end.
My reaction to this album is on two levels. On one hand, the melodies and rhythms are absolutely compelling, and I love them. They do the heart of this old folky some real good, and I play the record a lot. On an individual basis, these tracks hit me right where it counts.
However, one of my tests for an album is the resonance, so to speak, it leaves behind when it is over. The best albums feel bigger than they are: their effect lingers in the soul, and one does not want to play anything else until those echoes subside. I have to say that Through Shaded Woods doesn’t have that effect. The album, as a whole, feels insubstantial: not as much depth or meat as my favourite Lunatic Soul albums, and I think this is because the songs do not really connect together. There is no song-to-song continuum that carries the story along. This is very different from the three albums TSW is meant to follow. As well, for the first time for any of Duda’s shorter albums, it feels short. When it is over, I have fragments of songs playing in my head, bits of rhythm, but the main reaction is a sense of incompleteness: there should have been something more.
There is a bonus disc, which consists of three tracks including a 27-minute-long epic. “Vyraj” and “Hylophobia” sound like instrumental folk-rock outtakes — not bad songs by any means, and nice and danceable on their own, but it is clear why they didn’t make the main release.
Then there is “Transition II” — and it is hard to find words to describe this one. The closest I can come in the Mariusz Duda canon is probably “Eye of the Soundscape” from the album of the same name, but this is in spirit, not in sound. “Transition II” is a long, contemplative wander through the history of LS, with lots of references to past songs, reworked and linked together in a brilliantly-conceived and executed compendium of ideas that swirl around, lush and atmospheric one moment, spare and almost electronic the next. Impressions of Impressions, fragments of familiar themes, ideas and snippets on the edge of memory… This is the kind of track you need when you need something that is more than just aural wallpaper; an atmospheric soundscape that forms both a sonic backdrop, and rewards close listening. As far as I’m concerned it is right up there with the best of the genre: Tangerine Dream, Fripp and Eno, Bass Communion, early Mike Oldfield.
Apparently, there is one more Lunatic Soul album to come, one that will take its place on the “Life” side of the Circle of Life and Death, and I am very curious about how this album will wind things up. I say that because Through Shaded Woods has an air of finality about it; it very well could work as the last episode. But the plans have been laid out well in advance, and when that eighth album comes, it will spell the end of a remarkable musical journey.
A couple of years ago I gathered up my pile of ticket stubs, most of which I had saved from the beginning of my gig-going career, and began to organize them. The physical stubs are in an ever-expanding catalogue, and dates, bands, and venues are recorded in a document. It’s a long and interesting history, although there is a large gap in the middle, but all that is probably a topic for another post. What is relevant here is the second gap: The Year of No Gigs, the enforced global pause.
I have two shows listed under 2020: The Musical Box in January, and then the Katatonia live stream that happened in May. I decided to list it because I paid for a ticket to watch it, and it was better than many gigs I’ve seen in person, not just by Katatonia themselves, but other bands as well…once you got past the eerie silence at the end of each song.
Everything else has been cancelled, or postponed. There were some shreds of hope in the early days of the lockdown, that maybe by June there would be a return to normalcy or something close to it, but as the weeks went by it became depressingly clear that no such thing was going to happen. Tours were cancelled, postponed gigs were jettisoned, and even the gigs shifted from March to August are looking unlikely. It is probably safe to say that concerts, at least in any meaningful sense, are going to be the last things to return.
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.
Mariusz Duda: bass and acoustic guitars, piccolo bass, keyboards, percussion, programming, vocals
Wawrzyniec Dramowicz: drums
He Av En
Under the Fragmented Sky
Rinsing the Night
The Art of Repairing
“And it’s going to be the best story of your life….”
The tracks from this short album/EP/however you want to call it, were written during the Fractured sessions, but clearly did not fit that with album’s feel or direction. However, they were good enough (and I think recognizing how much of a departure from LS Fractured really was), that Mariusz Duda decided to gather them together into their own release.
In fact, I submit that Mariusz Duda had no choice but to release this album. Under the Fragmented Sky is an astonishing collection of music, so deeply evocative of everything Lunatic Soul as an idea stands for that I wonder whether LS really is an entity unto itself and Duda can only bow to its demands for life. I barely dared hope for something even half as good (especially after the disappointment of Fractured).
Or the tl:dr version of the previous paragraphs: Under the Fragmented Sky is a miracle.
Mariusz Duda: bass and acoustic guitars, piccolo bass, keyboards, percussion, programming, vocals
Wawrzyniec Dramowicz: drums
Marcin Odyniec: saxophone
Sinfonietta Consonus Orchestra
Blood on the Tightrope
Crumbling Teeth and the Owl Eyes
Red Light Escape
A Thousand Shards of Heaven
It is no secret by now (to anyone) that Fractured, the fifth Lunatic Soul album, was not the album of 2017 for me. I stuck it in at Number 5 but that was probably higher than it should have been. To say that I was disappointed and baffled would be an understatement. No matter how hard I tried, it just wouldn’t take. Fractured is anomalous, an outlier, straddling the border between Lunatic Soul and Riverside, not really one or the other: but perhaps closer in spirit to the last half of Love, Fear and the Time Machine than to any Lunatic Soul album.
It is hard to pin down exactly where the problem lies. I know this might sound a bit…self-serving, but the warning bells rang when so many people, heretofore not particular LS fans, embraced the album with enthusiasm. Lunatic Soul is a project with a fundamentally different feel than Riverside, darker and more ambient, less hard (but not “soft” by any means) dense and percussive, more adventurous and syncretic, perhaps even more nuanced. It is a project that has a rather more specialized audience, and perhaps a more dedicated one; certainly a much smaller following than Riverside. So it seemed distinctly odd that suddenly so many Riverside fans should profess to love the new album so much.
It is indeed an album of high accomplishment, with the trademark beautiful melodic passages that are a Mariusz Duda forté, and with some very powerful moments. But somehow, it doesn’t add up. The whole is not more than the sum of its parts. It is an album of fragments, a couple of very good songs (“Blood on the Tightrope”, “Fractured”) and exceptional bits from other tracks (“A Thousand Shards of Heaven”, “Battlefield”). But it has few of the attributes of Lunatic Soul. Duda has been moving away from lush analogue sounds towards more electronically-driven music, so the sound is sparser, more open, cooler. The rich density of small percussion is largely absent, replaced by a lot of guitar and electronic effects. This trend began with Walking on a Flashlight Beam, but that album retains the Lunatic Soul gestalt. Fractured has moved in a different direction.