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→
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.
(Triple vinyl tracklist is in a somewhat different order)
When I first discovered Riverside, I really had no idea what I was getting into. I was astonished: this music grabbed me in a way none ever had before — emotionally, intellectually, even physically – I listened in an enraptured transcendence that never seemed to fade. A friend of mine likes to say: “The music of your life will find you”, and it was only with the discovery of Riverside and Lunatic Soul that I truly understood what he meant. I’d listened to and loved a lot of music and artists over the decades, but nothing like this.
I eventually realized that I had also become part of an extended family, that there was a real connection – something I had never experienced before – between the band and their fans, and the fans with each other. We shared anticipation, accolades, joy, and alas, the tragedies. In this year especially that connection became manifest, where we came together, sharing our shock, our loss, our memories. The line between the band and the fans blurred in the tears.
I discovered the experimental side of the band early on with the REM bonus material, and those tracks became among my favourites from that album. Fast-forward to the release of Shrine of New Generation Slaves and the spectacular “Night Sessions” bonus tracks: surely here was a direction that the guys should explore — in fact it would almost be criminal if they didn’t. Of course, the “Day Sessions” tracks just reinforced this. Piotr Grudziński was openly eager to do a dedicated ambient experimental project; his excitement was palpable. And then, it became a reality. The guys – at least Piotr, Mariusz Duda and Michał Łapaj — headed into the studio to make this special album, this anticipated addendum to the Riverside discography. Good news indeed.
Then…early in 2016 came that devastating blow to band and fans alike; and instead of being a celebratory exploration of a beloved genre of music, the project became a memorial. A poignant tribute to an unfinished journey, a legacy of love and loss.
It was about a year ago as of this writing that Riverside’s sixth album, Love, Fear and the Time Machine was released, with all the usual hype from the band, and excitement and anticipation amongst the fans near and far…and oh, I was going to review the shit right out of it. I had the keyboard all polished and ready to go, headphones warmed up, I’d heard a couple of the songs on Youtube that had been played live at summer festivals…it sounded so hopeful.
Well…I listened to it and listened to it. There were days when I loved it to death, and days when I couldn’t figure the damned thing out. It was both a Riverside album and not a Riverside album. It was marvelous to hear, and yet at the same time strangely off-kilter. It should be a well-known fact by now that Riverside refuses to remain stylistically static – but LFatTM went even beyond that. The album was written by Mariusz Duda during and after a series of events that influenced its flavour and direction, and his persona is more deeply embedded in this album than in any that have come before. It hangs like an obscuring veil over the presence of the other guys in the band. In fact, this is the first Riverside album on which Riverside the band received no writing credits at all.
My review, at least something sensible and coherent, never appeared. I simply couldn’t figure out what to say.
Now, whatever the roadblocks were to writing … they might still pertain in some ways, but their importance is diminished. Love, Fear and the Time Machine, due to an event after its release that no-one could even imagine, let alone foresee, is for all intents and purposes the last Riverside album. There may well be other albums by a Polish band with that name, but with the death of Piotr Grudziński the old Riverside is gone forever.
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.
After the release of Anno Domini High Definition, four long years passed before the fifth full-length album appeared in 2013. However, the guys were not idle: Mariusz Duda released two albums for his Lunatic Soul solo project: Lunatic Soul II in 2010, and Impressions in 2011, and the band continued to work on new material.
As it turned out, 2011 marked the 10th year of the band’s existence, and the Memories in My Head EP became part of the celebration of their first decade. It certainly seemed as though the band had reached a high water mark: Their label in Poland, Mystic Productions, released the 6-cd Reality Dream box set (combining the first three albums with additional material), and Inside Out released several limited edition coloured vinyl versions of their first four albums. The band then embarked on a “Jubilee Year” tour of Europe, which culminated with the release of this EP; they also began talk of a new album.
“When something ends, something else begins/We are moving on”.
Memories in My Head was intended as a farewell nod to the foundational Riverside sound of the Trilogy years (and perhaps to placate the fans impatient for a new album): as ADHD (and subsequent albums) demonstrated, the musical intentions and direction and of the band had shifted, and would continue to do so. Still, the EP may well be one of the band’s most beloved releases, and it is not hard to see (or indeed hear…) why. MiMH truly is a magnificent little album, a consummate distillation of everything that made the Riverside sound unique, an almost perfect summing up of ten years of musical and lyric artistry, inspiration and influences, writing and touring.
Clocking in at a shade under 33 minutes (and by now the numbers game should need no explanation), the three glorious tracks merge seamlessly into each other, creating a musical flow that makes the EP feel almost like one long, magnificent song. Driven by Piotr Grudziński’s hallmark melodic winding guitar themes, and Mariusz Duda’s powerful leading bass and fine vocals, it is packed with musical metaphors and classic Riverside tropes and themes, lushly atmospheric, full of the vast, cinematic soundscape that is so fundamental to their sound. Lyrically Duda is very much on the ball; there is some excellent word-smithing here, at least on the first two tracks, evoking both nostalgia for the past and hope for the future. “Forgotten Land” does break the continuity in that regard, being one of the very few songs he has written (for any of his projects) that is not from an intimate first or second-person perspective. However, the track was used in a trailer for The Witcher 2 video game, so it works in that respect.
Memories in My Head looks back to the more expansive, more progressive, much-beloved sound of the band’s origins, and winds up that era of the band’s history in an almost perfect fashion. There could hardly be a better way to commemorate their first ten years.
Released: June 2009 (Poland); July 2009 (Europe and RoW)
Driven to Destruction
And then there were four….
Mariusz Duda, when interviewed, often likes to draw attention to a couple of things: that Riverside has a recognizably distinctive sound, and the band does not like to remain stylistically static. These facts are abundantly clear nowadays, but I warrant that even after three albums, the second point was not so obvious. The Trilogy introduced an unmistakable Riverside-ish musical Gestalt, one that essentially defined them and even though there were some differences from album to album (especially in regard to how heavy they became), there really was a unity of sound that likely has helped pigeonhole them in the “progressive” category from which it is proving difficult for the guys to extract themselves (in fact, anyone who has paid any attention at all to interviews and comments over the past couple of years will realize that being styled “progressive metal” is somewhat of a Duda bugbear).
Anno Domini High Definition (ADHD), their fourth album (with its four-word title and double-entendre acronym) was the first album where this desire for stylistic change became undeniably manifest. And what a change it was. It must have seemed as if they were not just abandoning their lush progressive roots, but dropkicking them into the next solar system. The guys took their sumptuous atmospheric sound and slammed it head on into a heavy metal wall; they embraced it so enthusiastically one might even suspect they were eager for a change. The keyboard sound acquired a much harder edge. The guitars are dense and raunchy and full of relentless energy, the bass punchy and riff-heavy, taking the lead like it had never done before. Piotr Kozieradzki must have been in drum heaven on this one, with his extensive death metal background. No acoustic guitar, no ballads, no real soft pieces except the start of “Left Out”. For all that, Duda’s first point stands: There is no doubt we are listening to Riverside—their distinctive core remains untouched.
Live tracks recorded and filmed during a concert played in Łódź, Poland on May 17th 2008.
The reviews of the three studio albums that make up the Reality Dream Trilogy are posted, so it seems like a sensible spot to put a brief précis of the only live concert video Riverside have managed to bring to fruition thus far, a live set of tracks and a DVD stitched together from songs from those albums. If they played anything from Voices in My Head or new songs during this show, it does not appear here.
As of this writing, apart from some videos on the band’s and the label’s Youtube channels, the Reality Dream DVD is the only official record of the band’s on-stage presence—at least as it was at one point in their career. It provides a touchstone for comparisons to their recent performances, especially if one refers to the documentary “In Between” that accompanied the last Lunatic Soul album wherein Mariusz Duda briefly discusses the changes made by the band in how they approach their live shows. Duda is indeed much more of a physical presence on stage now than he was in the early days, and Michał Łapaj is much less restrained…but otherwise there isn’t a lot of difference. They were and are superbly rehearsed, almost preternaturally in touch with each other as performers, and while audience participation is more actively encouraged in recent years the band seems to play more to each other than they do directly to the audience.
In terms of production it is a good record of a live performance, fairly straightforwardly shot but alas edited as if someone had spent too much time watching Porcupine Tree’s Arriving Somewhere DVD, chock full of faux scratches and fading colour and the flare of decaying film, with aspect ratios flipping back and forth at random. All of that distracts more than it enhances. Just give us the show. The songs are almost perfectly rendered versions of the studio tracks with some minor concessions to the live context. This perhaps is the biggest contrast with the current approach: today many of the songs have been modified and transformed into unique and in some cases superior versions for live performance.
There are four versions of this show, in different formats, and each with slightly different track orders. At the moment the availability of the different releases varies from “You Can Find It If You Dig” (the DVD mostly) to “Yeah Right, Dream On”. Set lists for the different versions continue below the fold.
Released: September 2007 (Europe); October 2007 (North America)
(The band lineup has remained stable since Voices in My Head; if anything changes, relevant reviews will note it)
Beyond the Eyelids
02 Panic Room
Through the Other Side
Bonus Disc Tracklist:
Behind the Eyelids
Lucid Dream IV
02 Panic Room (remix)
Back to the River
Rapid Eye Movement
And then there were three.
The release of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) wound up the Reality Dream Trilogy, the first three albums united by their ambitious and lushly intricate musicality, and their common lyric arc of self-exploration and change. As it turned out, REM also marked the end of the first phase in the band’s ongoing quest to explore new musical directions and keep themselves sounding fresh, but this wouldn’t become clear until album number 4.
I find this a difficult album to review. I like it, of course, I like all the Riverside albums, and I would rather play REM than many other albums in my collection, but I rarely feel the urge to play it in its entirety. It is an album that seems “stuck between”, as it were, in a kind of limbo between potential and success, as if something intangible is missing. In other words, it is not immediately obvious why REM should not be a well-played album. I don’t have an easy explanation for why it niggles at me.
At any rate, I suspect that if anyone is going to bother to disagree with any of my Riverside reviews, it will be with REM. I know a lot of people connect with it, but I seem unable to do so. I think my issues with the album boil down to this: the largely hit-and-miss nature of both the songs and the lyrics.
The lyrics of REM appear to be themed around psychological aspects of duality and opposition: sides of our personalities that often are in conflict. Sleeping, dreaming, and the liminal state between sleep and wakefulness are some key metaphors that drive this theme. And I have to confess that these ideas are cleverly handled: hooky imagery abounds, sly cultural references, and plenty of deft turns of phrase—and yet, there is just something missing.