Album Review — AFR AI D: Mariusz Duda

Released November 17, 2023

  • Mariusz Duda: synths, keyboards, bass, vocals, all other instruments except
  • Mateusz Owczarek: electric guitar on tracks 1, 3, 4, and 8

Tracklist:

  1. Taming Nightmares
  2. Good Morning Fearmongering
  3. Fake Me Deep, Murf
  4. Bots’ Party
  5. I Love to Chat With You
  6. Why So Serious, Cassandra?
  7. Mid Jorney to Freedom
  8. Embracing the Unknown

 

Back in 2008, Mariusz Duda began Lunatic Soul, a project that was intended to be different from Riverside and showcase another side of his musical identity. Eventually though, these two “musical worlds” (as Duda likes to call them) turned out to be insufficient to contain his ever-evolving musical inventiveness. He created a third, under his own name, for ideas and projects that fit neither Lunatic Soul nor Riverside. At first the MD world was to contain one-off alt/pop songs (and a couple of those have been released), but Duda found himself driven to revisit his first childhood musical love, ambient electronica: and the minimalist, digital Lockdown Spaces project was born.

AFR AI D is the next installment in the Mariusz Duda world of electronica. On this album he addresses current cultural fears and angst (as he did with Riverside’s ID.Entity), but this time focused around the growing dominance of AI in many areas, and the suspicion that many people have of it. It is also the first album since 2018’s Under the Fragmented Sky to include a guest musician, in this case Mateusz Owczarek (Lion Shepherd and guest guitarist on Wasteland) who provides electric guitar solos on several tracks. 

As if to live up to its title, AFR AI D begins with “Taming Nightmares”: we hear hissing, the catching of breath, drones and wails and other unsettling electronic noises, until finally a repeating melody begins in the background. Synthetic percussion, distorted vocals, unintelligible words, and a jazzy, jittery guitar solo towards the end, all of which are clearly meant to evoke the unease and anxiety that the rest of the album will work to dispel.

And that’s the key — from this point on, the album begins to get brighter and more upbeat. Duda’s message is not one of fear and suspicion; this is not music that aims to unsettle. As the album progresses the tracks become less jagged, smoother and less anxious, there are more analogue sounds, small bits of percussion, real piano and bass, and more of Owczarek’s thoughtful, careful guitar.

“Bots’ Party” (the fourth track on the album) was the second single released; despite what the title implies, this is a gentle, cheerful track. It starts with a slow piano melody, gradually becoming more and more programmed and synth-heavy but never losing its serene rhythm, even when it segues into party-time and the rollicking guitar solo.

This is followed by “I Love to Chat With You”, the perfect reminder of the beauty of the human touch, with its gorgeous rolling piano theme and choral backdrop, featuring Mariusz Duda’s voice — heavily autotuned, but soaring and hauntingly delicate nevertheless. It links moments from Under the Fragmented Sky to moments in Eye of the Soundscape. It is a truly lovely song, my clear favourite on the album.

The last track, “Embracing the Unknown”, was the first single, and it was an interesting choice given that it is the longest track on the album, and stylistically it doesn’t really reflect the album as a whole. It is heavier and perhaps less obviously electronic than the rest. However, it is a powerful track and gave us the first chance to hear Owczarek’s guitar contributions.

As noted, the album is named for the fear and suspicion of the rapid proliferation of AI into our lives. And yet AFR AI D is a surprisingly upbeat and optimistic album: Duda seems to be reassuring us that our fears are misplaced. AI is a tool, and will be used, but we will not lose our humanity in the process, or our emotional connections to each other. Mateusz Owczarek provides us with much in the way of that human touch, and Duda’s choice of him as the guest guitarist was a stroke of genius. He certainly has the chops, but more importantly he seems to understand the intent of the album, and he adds a rich, organic reality to otherwise deliberately digitized, synthetic, unhuman sounds. The solos are brilliantly and instinctively right. This album would not be the album it is without him.

When I first got the files, I was a bit worried about the music’s longevity: I do not play Lockdown Spaces material very much any more, and the new album is another offering from that same musical world. I should not have been concerned: AFR AI D is richer, meatier, and more immersive than Lockdown Spaces, while extending the electronic identity of this third musical world. Duda sometimes talks of the “flow” of an album — a seamless weaving together of the songs and the sounds that give an album a satisfying sense of unity. AFR AI D flows wonderfully well: it is an album of clear vision and great confidence. Mariusz Duda, in all his musical worlds, continues to surprise and captivate with his endless creativity and the breadth of his vision.

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