A few years ago, Michał Łapaj, the keyboard player for the Polish band Riverside, announced that he was working on a solo album, much to the excitement of the fan base. Then followed an extended silence during which we heard almost nothing about it. Presumably the announcement was somewhat premature given the logistics of actually making an album; but finally, here it is.
While we waited, Łapaj offered us some teasers: a single, and some “jam sessions”, available on Bandcamp and his Youtube channel, showcasing his love of analogue synths and keys, and demonstrating his mastery of emotion and atmosphere. These are things that fans of Riverside already knew — Łapaj joined the band in time to appear on their second full-length album (Second Life Syndrome), and his presence provided the final element to the “Riverside sound”: the rich keyboard soundscapes and melodies that underpin all the albums. So I think it came as a bit of a surprise when the announcement of the album’s release included the information that there would be guest vocalists, and lyrics, and not just instrumental pieces.
Are You There features two guest vocalists: Mick Moss, of the UK project Antimatter, and Bela Komoszyńska, of the Polish art-rock band Sorry Boys. Artur Szolc (of the Polish collective Inspired) provides drums and percussion. There are also guitars here and there, but there is no information (that I have seen yet) about who provides them. So big question is: we know Michał Łapaj can compose great sweeping ambient mood pieces, because he has demonstrated this over the years. Can he write more conventional songs?
An ambitious project, to be sure, and there is every chance that if I look back on it, say, in three years, I’ll probably disagree with myself, but at the moment, this is my list.
The albums I considered were the ones that I had already chosen in my yearly lists — most of them, anyway. Occasionally an album came along after the fact that I realized should have been included had I heard it at the right time. The chore was to figure out which of them were good enough to make The Final List. I began with about 45 albums, gleaned from my listening over the years — I had no set number I was aiming for, I just went year-by-year and chose what I considered to be the standouts from my list for that year. In the end, I narrowed it down to fifteen albums: some years were simply better for great music than others, and I see no reason to ignore that fact.
Of course, there is the obvious question: What makes an album good enough to be an album of the decade?? It is a question that is harder to answer than I anticipated, since I have to have criteria that includes perhaps some … unexpected entries.
It comes down to a couple of essential qualities. The first, naturally enough, is sheer staying power. It has to be an album that can stand up to repeat visits and retain the power and appeal that made it a favourite in the first place. There are lots of albums that grab me and make me play them a lot, but eventually I drift away, and whatever it was that drew me to them has gone.
The best albums continue to be able to hit all those same triggers that snagged me in the first place: that ineluctable rush of joy, the goosebumpy thrill, forcing me to pay attention. They manifest the transcendence of the best music to me, whatever idiosyncratic stimuli I require in order to consider an album something of lasting value. It’s difficult to explain why I feel that particular set of responses for any record, given the variety of genres these albums represent — obviously the oriental-folk syncretism of Lunatic Soul is very different from the pounding hard-rock of Pretty Maids — but albums from both those outfits are capable of transporting me.
I guess it comes down to this: whatever the music is, it must feel authentic. I am not attracted for very long to stuff that sounds forced, or derivative, or self-absorbed, or that emulates something else even with the best of intentions. The best music should feel natural, unselfconscious, emanating, as it were, from a place deep in the soul of the creators.
In terms of the artists who made the cut: certainly there are The Usual Suspects, the ones I tend to find consistently satisfying, but I am always prepared to be surprised, and I surely have been over the years. There are albums on this list that literally came out of nowhere. There are candidates from bands that I have found unlistenable at times; there are albums that are not consistently great — that have a few tracks I don’t play very much — but the overall impact of the album as a whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. I hope at least you will find the list interesting.
Here is a rundown of the the Albums of 2019, which are so far mostly the Albums of 2018 I should have found last year. Well, I suppose better late than never and all that. Interestingly, most of these finds have popped up in my weekly Spotify Discovery list, so I must be tweaking it right. Yes, the platform comes in for a lot of grief from some of my acquaintances for its pathetically low payouts to artists, and if streaming is your primary listening source then you need a good kick in the ass. However, it has done a pretty good job at turning up music that has led me to buy albums. Some of its suggestions are entirely unexpected given that it is an algorithm, and it is nice to have an alternative source of new music, because quite honestly I think I have exhausted the musical possibilities of most of my FB friends; I can often predict whether their recommendations will work or not, and there is not a lot of convergence any more between their tastes and mine, with one or two exceptions.
As well, I will do a quick run-down of the anticipated releases for this year. If even some of these albums live up to the potential of the last ones the bands released, it could be a pretty mighty year for new music.
So … starting with what came out in 2018 that I didn’t find:
Illusion is a post-punk/grunge metal quartet from Gdańsk, Poland, founded in 1992 and with a rather on-again off-again career; Anhedonia came out early in 2018 and is their sixth album. It is a brief album, a shade over 30 minutes long. The songs are short, straight-up grunge rockers, nice and heavy but still quite melodic; these guys get right to the point without too many frills. This is not intellectual music by any means, but I find myself playing the album quite a bit. I have to say, the vocalist is excellent — some serious chops lurk beneath that gritty grunge style.
Author and Punisher: Beastland
When this one turned up in my Spotify Discovery list, I was a bit surprised. I happen to love drone metal, but admittedly I don’t search it out much in Spotify and as far as I know there is none in my playlists. But for some reason, Spotify suggested a little ditty called “The Speaker is Systematically Blown”… and, well, “brutal” is one of the milder descriptors for what came blasting out of my headphones.
Turns out that Author and Punisher is one Tristan Shone, who has been around for a while, a former mechanical engineer who has designed and made his own industrial musical “instruments”; Beastland was released in October of 2018. It is hard to describe exactly what we have here, except to say … imagine what a dozen drill presses might sound like wired up to a vocoder and run through a MIDI controller, turned up to eleven. Which isn’t to say that it is just noise. It’s not: it is industrial metal, and it sounds exactly like it should — a massive wall of rhythm and melody and a LOT of weighty drone. I love it.
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….
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.
Two reasons for this post: 1) to make a list of the stuff that is out/will be coming out/has been rumoured might appear at some point this year; and 2) to keep the blog alive. I really do need to actually write stuff for it…otherwise why am I dishing out $150 a year?
It might be a bit early to talk about new releases (for me; I do not accumulate new music at the pace of some others I know), but there does seem to be enough interesting stuff upcoming to make it worth taking a look to the future. There is a spate of albums coming out this spring, and then we wait for the fall season. If certain rumours/promises come true, it could be another epic year.
So far in 2018:
The Temperance Movement: A Deeper Cut : This album is seriously kicking my ass. Great blues rock from England. These guys are sharp and tight as hell, and clearly know what they are doing.
Dope Default: Ofrenda: Loose and dirty hard/stoner rock from Greece. Ofrenda is their debut album, and it sounds like a debut album, but it is certainly listenable and has some good moments. They are worth keeping an eye on.
Upcoming for sure/preordered (or will be):
Riverside: I have heard one track from this album, in demo form … and ohboy ohboy ohboy. If the album lives up to that promise…well, The Boys are Back. Fingers crossed.
Lunatic Soul: Under the Fragmented Sky (EP) – tracks that did not make it on to Fractured but are worth a release. As above – I heard one track from this, and it revives my hopes for a return to the LS of old—or more precisely the LS that sets hooks deep in my soul.
Solar Fields: Ourdom – time for some classic industrial electronica. I like some of his stuff more than others; I preordered the album on the basis of the youtube preview. I hope it is worth it.
Amorphis: Queen of Time. One track (“The Bee”) released so far. The Finnish folk-metallers sound much more symphonic and expansive, while retaining the heaviness and their signature growl/clean vocal tradeoff. Based on this track I’m not sure it will equal the last album.
Awooga: Conduit – nice heavy metal/hard rock, they had a great EP from 2016 which I would play more often if I didn’t have to switch to 45 rpm (details details…). A couple tracks already available to preview, they seem to have developed a more spacious sound.
The Fierce and the Dead: The Euphoric — I like them, but often what they do tends to get a bit too far into the technical/alt/art-rock region for me to love them. But when they are good they are great, and I think the new one holds some promise. Preordered based on the released track.
Toundra: Vortex – I have all the previous albums from these Spanish post-rockers, that I don’t play all that often…but once in a while they hit the spot. The single “Cobra” sounds pretty much like Toundra, dense and heavy.
Front Line Assembly: WarMech – new soundtrack for a new game. I find myself kind of up and down about these guys, I much prefer Leeb’s other project Noise Unit, but on the strength of the previous game OST (AirMech, which is pretty nice) I sprang for the preorder.
VNV Nation: Noire – Out in October, described as “dark and intense”, first studio album since Transnational in 2013.
Leech – The only Swiss band in my collection. It has been what – 5 years since their last one? Six? Anyway, it was a pretty nice post-metal album, and the only album I tried purely because of the cover. Be interesting to hear what the new one will sound like.
Nordic Union: wherein Ronnie Atkins of Pretty Maids (Denmark) lends his iron pipes to the sound of the hard rock outfit Eclipse (Sweden). At this point it is just the promise of a new release, no other info. But that is enough for me: hopefully it will be the same kind of straight-up kick-ass hard rock as the first one, which I love.
Rumoured for 2018:
Au4: Last fall an American internet radio guy scheduled a playthrough of 2014’s …And Down Goes the Sky, and had the guys live on the air to talk about it. They said a new album should appear this year. I surely hope so…if it is anything like that last one, it will be a strong contender for album of the year.
Missed from 2017:
Hypergiant: Father Sky – interesting doom/psych rock. It has its moments, and the track “Colossi” is truly epic, but the album might be a bit too much all at once.
Believe: VII Widows – a band that has been around for a while, in various incarnations, guitarist Mirek Gil’s vehicle since the end of Collage. I am not a fan of long-winded modern prog, as many of you know, but VII Widows is surprisingly good, very nice arrangements and passages, and I must say beautiful guitar themes (Gil on here reminds me of Steve Hackett, and there is nothing wrong with that). I am not crazy about the somewhat overblown and mannered style of the vocalist, but there are few enough vocal sections that he ends up intruding less on the experience than would otherwise be the case. Nice and listenable.
Decapitated: Anticult – I confess that I checked this out mostly out of morbid curiosity; the band found itself in deep shit in late 2017 while on tour in America (i.e. they were tossed in jail in Seattle for three months; charges were all dropped). Not generally being a fan of thrash metal (or so I thought), I had not paid them any attention. Well, you just never know: when I listened to Anticult I found, inexplicably, that I liked it a whole lot: in fact, it would have been one of the stronger releases of last year had I found it sooner.
2016 … When the (probably apocryphal) Chinese sage said “May you live in interesting times”, this must have been close to what he meant. We lost so many great musicians, especially in the early part of the year, it seemed as though the music gods were punishing us for unknown sins by taking beloved people, one by one by one. There were personal losses as well…and at least one of those crossed the boundary between fandom and friendship.
At the same time, the music that was released was of a quality that I haven’t experienced for a long time. This is not to say that everything reached the same stellar heights but almost everything I sampled had moments of interest. I ended up investing in more new music than I have for several years, just because so much of it seemed worthy of further attention. This made the task of sorting through the list of potential year-end albums excruciatingly difficult. Therefore this list is a Top 20 instead of last year’s Top 15, which itself was a statement about the quality of music out in 2015 since normally I think in terms of Top 10. You get the picture.
Things didn’t start off so well. I look back on my first statement, in early July I think, about how the year was going. I said this:
I can’t say I have made much of an effort to find new music this year. Just way too much stuff in the personal realm has gone wrong. In fact I have been so disinterested that I may not write up a full year-end report for 2016. But a few things have managed to sneak onto the list. And I know that some stuff is yet to come…so who knows. At least a couple of albums so far have been real surprises, so I’m not ready to write off the year just yet.
Oh how things changed after that….
Speaking of the music…if 2015 was my metal year, for 2016 it was industrial electronica. Some psychedelia (but just a little). And the 1980s are definitely still a thing, since the best of the electronica has looked back to classic days. Metal and post-metal, a bit of prog and some alternative are still present of course, but my horizons are expanding. At least, the best of the stuff coming down the pipeline has been from unexpected directions. But good music is good music, whatever the genre.
There were more things to consider than just new releases though. It was also quite a good year for specialty releases: compilations, re-releases, one-off projects, and such-like: albums that could not be included in the year-end album list but that deserve mention anyway because they are just very good. So for the first time I have a separate list for those.
And this is where I will begin.
The Reissues, Compilations, and Live Albums
These are the albums that cannot really be regarded as presenting “new” material, at least for the most part, but are definitely worth the money. It was a good year for this kind of thing as well, with bands finalizing anticipated projects, or stretching out into different territory, or small labels flexing their muscle with some outstanding examples of their artists. I have presented them in reverse order of interest (to me).
Pelican – Live at Dunk!Fest 2016
One of the iconic post-metal bands, and one I’ve never managed to see live, but one day I sure hope to. In the meantime they made available their utterly fierce performance at Dunk!Fest, available as a digital download or a beautiful coloured vinyl release. Well worth checking out.
Shearwater – Shearwater Plays Lodger (live)
One of the more curious projects to come along this year. I’m not quite sure what inspired the band to do this, apart from the fact that they love David Bowie’s Lodger album…but they really do manage to pull it off.
Nash the Slash – Dreams and Nightmares
Nash the Slash (Jeff Plewman), who died in 2014, was one of those musicians who, if you knew of him at all, you were captivated. With his bandaged-wrapped face, top hat, and electric violin, he was an iconoclastic purveyor of atmosphere and electronica, both solo and with the band FM. He was a legend in Toronto and across Canada and enormously respected in the electronica community. Dreams and Nightmares is a reissue of his 1978 album of the same name; this album features the spectacular soundtrack he created for the Bunuel/Dali 1929 silent film Un Chien Andalou.
Riverside – Eye of the Soundscape
This was released as a companion album to the rest of the discography, bringing together their much-beloved but still oft-overlooked forays into ambient electronica. It gathers together bonus tracks from the last two band releases, two of the bonus songs from Rapid Eye Movement II, and four spectacular new songs. It also stands as a heart-breakingly poignant tribute, because it was the last album that guitarist Piotr Grudzinski ever worked on before he died suddenly in early 2016. My review of the album is here.
Artoffact Records – I am Awesome Because I Still Buy Music
Label compilations, especially around this time of year (getting towards Christmas) are a dime a dozen. One can understand the motivation, since they bring together sample tracks from a label’s roster of artists; the problem, sometimes, is that these can be massive collections – I’ve seen upwards of 50 tracks on some of these things. Who has that kind of time?
Artoffact Records is the in-house label of the Toronto-based online shop Storming the Base, supplier of music leaning strongly towards electronica and synthpop. They have put together their own sampler, and folks, this is how it’s done. A lean and focused collection from six artists who are releasing new albums, with two tracks each, so it doesn’t overwhelm with quantity. But the quality…! The result is a monster sampler of dark wave, raucous and melodic industrial electronica/metal, compelling listening as an album on its own, and it’s free for god’s sake. And if the aim was to get you to investigate the musicians included here, it sure worked because I have bought albums from three of the six. Outstanding examples: the bleak and beautiful “Expiring Time” by Dead When I Found Her, both tracks by Toronto-based solo artist v01d, and “Shut Up” by Out Out, an incandescent statement of outrage against the faux news of Fox News.
My very favourite supplementary project for my very favourite Porcupine Tree album. It is no secret by this time that I am not much of a PT fan in general, I like a few albums and songs here and there. But Fear of a Blank Planet is one of my desert island albums, and IMO the four tracks that make up the Nil Recurring EP are just as brilliant. Of course the EP has been available for years, but it is great to have a silver vinyl copy of this as well, and in fact I play it pretty relentlessly.
(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.
As of this writing, I have spent well over a week reading the flood of tributes, stories, and remembrances of Riverside’s guitarist, from everyone: those who knew him intimately, those who knew him casually, and those who knew him only through his music. It is astonishing how thoroughly he has touched people’s hearts, what an impression he made simply by being himself. I have not said anything substantial beyond shock and sadness, but I need to say goodbye now.
2016 started out as a year bound to go down in collective musical memory as a major suckfest, as one by one musical icons and beloved individuals left us…but for most of them, somehow it was not completely unexpected. Illness, age, lifestyle choices — we regret their loss, and mourn it, but at some level we know that it is inevitable.
This was not one of those times. Fate was not yet done with us. On February 21st, with both middle fingers stuck high in the air, she dropped the biggest karmic Fuck You possible on the prog music scene: She took Piotr Grudziński.
There are people in this world whose kindness, generosity of spirit, whose sheer genuineness set them apart. They find a way into your heart just because of who they are. I met Gru because of what he did for a living. I am broken-hearted because of the man he was.