Label: Inside Out
As mentioned before on our site, Poland’s prog pride Riverside lost its guitarist Piotr Grudziński tragically in 2016. The surviving members finished and released the ambient compilation Eye of the Soundscape later that year as a tribute to their deceased bandmate, but Wasteland (released on September 28th, 2018) is the first full-fledged Riverside album without him – in his place, bassist/vocalist Mariusz Duda handled most of the guitar parts, and touring member Maciej Meller played a few guest solos. I was nervous yet excited to see how the band would do without Grudziński’s brilliant playing, but due to various things going on in my personal life, as well as the fact that the album took a lot of time to sink in properly, I wasn’t ready to review it until now, a year after its release, coinciding with the special edition that’s coming out on November 29th, 2019.
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Leading up to the album’s release, Mariusz Duda had said it would include heavy material, but those expecting another Anno Domini High Definition (2009) were ultimately going to be disappointed. Wasteland is slightly heavier than its two predecessors, but it’s also got a lot of ballad-y, slow songs with folk elements that bring to mind Duda’s solo project, Lunatic Soul, and there are no aggressive screams from him either. The record’s heaviness comes indeed more out of its post-apocalyptic theme, rather than the music itself. The album is bookended like Second Life Syndrome (2005), on which the first track was “After” and the final track “Before”, as Wasteland opens with the almost completely a capella track “The Day After” and closes with the beautiful piano ballad “The Night Before.” The first proper song is the riff-driven “Acid Rain,” which does a good job introducing us properly to the world of the album and culminates in a catchy and anthemic vocal section that sounds like it was made to be a sing-along moment in concerts. “Vale of Tears” continues with an almost Muse-like intro riff, and as a catchy rocker it was a good choice for first single, but after this the album slows down. “Guardian Angel” is a traditional Riverside ballad, but Duda goes for a low, almost spoken vocal delivery that brings to mind Roger Waters of Pink Floyd. He uses the same style successfully on the title-track, which is an epic that goes from folk to heavy rock and has a cool Western film vibe.
“Lament” is my favorite song and really captures the post-apocalyptic atmosphere that Duda talked about in the press, having a slow, almost doom metal feel. It’s enhanced by beautiful strings in its outro, and the plaintive plea of the chorus (“Father will you take and save me from my fate?”) is bound to haunt your head afterwards. Another highlight is the semi-acoustic “River Down Below.” which manages to be even somewhat anthemic despite its sad lyrics and ends with a great solo by guest guitarist Maciej Meller. On the Wasteland tour, the song has been the concert closer and it actually serves that purpose very well. On the other hand, the 9½-minute instrumental “The Struggle for Survival” is a miss and breaks the flow of the album in the second half. Its rather uninteresting riffing doesn’t justify its length and musically it’s not nearly as captivating as the “Reality Dream” instrumentals on the first two albums.
Wasteland was hard to digest at first – the album sounded dreary and seemed to lack the strong emotional highs of Riverside’s past work, due to the lack of Duda’s higher-pitched vocals and Grudzinski’s emotive guitar leads. Amazingly enough, however, not having listened to the album for a while, one day I put it on again and all of a sudden it made sense. While I miss the sort of heart-wrenching moments that made me fall in love with the band, Wasteland is emotional in a different, more reflective manner. I still haven’t warmed up to “The Struggle for Survival” though, and I believe having another energetic vocal track like “Acid Rain” or “Vale of Tears” in its place would’ve improved the flow of the album. Hearing most of the songs live last April also made me realize that the production lets the music down a bit and doesn’t reveal the full power of the compositions. While an earthier sound suited the last couple of records well, Wasteland sounds a little too bare-bones and would’ve benefited from having a little more bite in vein of Riverside’s early albums.
Wasteland reminds me of Rush’s Vapor Trails (2002), which was the first album the Canadians made after drummer Neil Peart had lost his daughter and wife, putting the trio’s career on hold for a few years, and upon its release got criticized for its loud, distorted sound (which the band would years later fix with a remixed version). Like Vapor Trails, which is one of my least favorite Rush albums due to its lack of the band’s traditionally strong sense of melody, I have a feeling Wasteland won’t be remembered as Riverside’s finest hour, but it will nevertheless have its deserved spot in the band’s history as the album that brought the band back to life following a devastating loss.
Rating: 7½/10, 3½ stars
1. The Day After
2. Acid Rain
3. Vale of Tears
4. Guardian Angel
6. The Struggle for Survival
7. River Down Below
9. The Night Before