A few years ago, I started a series of posts in which I ranked and reviewed all of Riverside’s studio albums and EPs that had been released by that date (which I believe was 2015), and have kept it updated with each subsequent album. I meant to do the same thing for Lunatic Soul—in fact, it made more sense to do it for Lunatic Soul given how I feel about that project—but somehow it didn’t happen. (You can find the initial Riverside post here.)
I guess the problem is simply this: As deeply important as Riverside is, Lunatic Soul goes even deeper, is more profoundly a part of me, has captured me in a way no other music ever has. I have already reviewed (in either short or long form) all of the LS albums since the fourth one; the only ones I haven’t talked about are the first three. But those three are the albums that introduced me to the Lunatic Soul magic, and naturally they hold a special place in my heart. And I’m not sure I have the necessary literary skill to do justice to them. Perhaps something other than a standard review is necessary.
What exactly is Lunatic Soul?
Lunatic Soul is both a musical project, and an alter ego: it is the name that Mariusz Duda chose in order to distinguish this music from that of Riverside; and by not using his own name, he was giving himself space for future projects that might differ from both. Musically, Lunatic Soul was intended to be darker in mood than Riverside (as dark as that project could be at times), and electric guitar has never appeared on any album, which necessitates a different approach. The musical styles did shift and evolve over the various releases, but the overall feel of the project somehow remained true to the original intent, at least mostly so.
However, it is the lyrics that set the project apart. Lunatic Soul tells a more-or-less coherent story spanning the six current albums with lyrics (two supplemental albums are largely instrumental): it is a narrative, with a protagonist (the Hero), whose travails (both external and psychological) we follow through the albums. The original plan was for two albums of contrasting colours and somewhat contrasting moods (Lunatic Soul I “The Black Album”, and Lunatic Soul II “The White Album”, released in 2008 and 2010 respectively), and the theme was: what happens to us when we die, and what do we leave behind us? What are the consequences of our choices?
Clearly this story did not end with LS II in 2010. While it started out as a straightforward tale of a protagonist who dies and then must choose the terms of his revival (laid out in the first two albums), the narrative became more complex. The Circle of Life and Death diagram appeared, to help map out the story and which albums to listen to in what order (the narrative arc does not follow the album release dates). The details of this diagram can be found over a number of Duda’s social media posts and his official website. The last album of the cycle is scheduled to be released in 2024 (it is not yet known whether Lunatic Soul itself will cease to exist).
This is the hardest thing to do, and maybe a dumb thing, but hey, sorry, as squishy-close together as a lot of these albums are, I do have some preferences. Of course this is my personal opinion, based mostly on the emotional impact each album has, and no doubt your mileage will differ. Musicality is important, but we’re talking Lunatic Soul: all the albums showcase Duda’s vast creative power, inspiration, and performance chops – there are no bad albums here, no lapses of creativity, even though the styles and approaches differ. I’ve added release dates and a link to reviews.
7. Fractured (2017)
This is the LS album that for me is the least satisfying, and I find it sits uneasily in the canon. It departs in some important ways. The music is jagged and sharp, it is more heavily lyric-dependent than any LS album before or since, and these lyrics are probably the most autobiographical in Duda’s entire discography, which pulls me out of the story. Fractured is not, I hasten to add, an objectively bad album. It is simply an album that does not appeal to me. Short review is here.
6. Lunatic Soul II (The White Album) (2010)
This is another album that doesn’t work quite as well as the others. Overall it is the least memorable in terms of music: it doesn’t seem to display the same level of inspiration as the first one, and there are fewer strong tracks. However, there are a couple of songs absolutely crucial to the story arc: “Gravestone Hill” tells us the Hero’s choice (from the LS I cliffhanger), and it is unlikely that the fourth album would fit in so well without “Transition”.
From this point, the rest of the albums are clustered very tightly together.
5. Under the Fragmented Sky (2018)
UtFS consists of songs that were recorded during the Fractured sessions, and was released mere months after that album. However, once Duda had lyrically cauterized his personal pain, he was left with some fine songs that found their way here. It is largely instrumental so it doesn’t contribute to the narrative, but it is strong enough to stand alone as a second supplement to the Hero’s journey (see also: Impressions). Review is here .
4. Through Shaded Woods (2020)
This album for the most part does not have the nuance or intuitive inspiration of the first album or Walking on a Flashlight Beam … but what it lacks in, say, theoretical musicality it more than makes up for in its sheer playability. It is a return to unadulterated folk-syncretism, and it is pure joy to listen to. However I say “for the most part” above because the bonus track “Transition II” is as close to untrammeled genius that Duda has ever gotten, and is up there with the best songs he has ever written. IMO of course. Review is here.
3. Lunatic Soul I (The Black Album) (2008)
The Black Album was the very first LS album I heard, and it was the first one conceived of and recorded, when the idea was to tell a story over two albums. The atmospheric folky-oriental feel of the project was established here, a sound that was (at the time) entirely different from Riverside, and it was this dark, sensual sound that captivated me on such a deep level. This album is pure inspiration made into music. It teems with powerful songs and the universal lyric themes that the rest of the albums build on. While the album may not be at the top, the song “The Final Truth” most assuredly is — there would be no project at all if there was no “The Final Truth”.
2. Walking on a Flashlight Beam (2014)
It is hard to convey just what a musical tour-de-force this album is. It is probably the best LS album, and maybe the best album of any project that Mariusz Duda has ever created. The inspiration, the music, the emotional journey it takes us on—it is hard to see where he put a foot wrong. In terms of the story, it riffed off of the lyrics of “Transition” from the White Album, and became an almost seamless prequel to the first two albums. It was a difficult album to make, and made at a difficult time in his life, but in objective terms I’m going to call this one Number One. Review is here.
1. Impressions (2011)
Impressions was the first of the “supplemental” albums, an album that extended the musical ideas of the first two LS albums, but not in an obvious way. It is hard to explain why I love this album so much. I know that part of it is because it is instrumental, and I do have an inordinate fondness for instrumental music, but it is more than that. I have said before and will continue to say that Duda’s skill as creator of instrumental music has long been overlooked, and he demonstrates here just what he can do with atmosphere and emotion, in the absence of words. Duda simply lets the music itself speak. And it does speak to me, on such a deep level.
There it is: a summary and rank of the Lunatic Soul albums to date. I expect many will disagree with my list, but that’s okay. There is one more to go, and maybe at some point I will have more to say about the first three.