As a quartet, Polish act Riverside produced some of the most characteristic and captivating albums in modern progressive rock/metal. Sadly, the untimely passing of founding guitarist Piotr Grudziński in early 2016 sent fans and the remaining members—vocalist/bassist/lead songwriter Mariusz Duda, drummer Piotr Kozieradzki, and keyboardist Michał Łapaj—into a painful world of uncertainty about if, when, and how they should continue. After all, Grudziński’s distinctive style was a major part of their treasured formula, so adequately replacing him seemed both impossible and potentially impolite.
Ultimately, they decided to stay together, release a compilation of new and old ambient instrumental pieces dedicated to Grudziński (2016’s Eye of the Soundscape), and spend the next two years or so working on a proper follow-up to 2015’s Love, Fear and the Time Machine. Happily, their efforts and apprehensions have paid off, as their first studio album as a trio, Wasteland, is a beautifully bleak testament to the aftermath of tragedy that retains almost everything that made Riverside special since they first emerged with 2004’s Out of Myself. It’s not the group’s best work to date, but with Duda, Kozieradzki, and Łapaj still firing on all cylinders within a shared vision, it’s an exquisite sequence nonetheless.
Of the decision to carry on, Duda recalls telling Łapaj and Kozieradzki, “Let's remember that this is just the beginning. Many of our fans can't imagine an album without Grudzień and for some of them the band ceased to exist when he died. We have to prove that we are able to survive not only by playing concerts but, most of all, by recording a new album.” (Also, while Maciej Meller joined as a touring guitarist last year, he’s not yet an official member. Duda clarifies, “I love Maciej but everything has to have its place and time.”) Suitably written “from the point of view of someone bereft, someone who has survived a tragedy,” the LP finds Duda taking over six-string duties, too (alongside solos from Meller and Mateusz Owczarek) and it incorporates violins via Michał Jelonek.
Aiding the aforementioned personal subject matter is post-apocalyptic social commentary inspired by fiction like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and the Fallout video game series. Finally, Kozieradzki remarks that Wasteland feels like a second debut album and Duda aptly continues, “I honestly can't remember listening to new Riverside music with tears in my eyes, and there are such moments here. The music very often grabs you by the throat.” Indeed, Wasteland features some of the most gorgeously painful moments in their entire discography.
The record harkens back to earlier albums in a few ways. Most overtly, its opening mantra (“The Day After”) conjures Second Life Syndrome’s starter, “After,” in title and form (as does its closer, “The Night Before,” albeit more quietly and sparsely). Likewise, its harsher, more riff-focused cheerlessness evokes that sophomore effort, too, as well as Shrine of New Generation Slaves. Truthfully, its abrasive leanings and solos can be a bit perfunctory and repetitious at times (like the verses of “Vale of Tears”), yet Riverside still infuses those moments with enough inventive nuance and engaging intricacy to make it worthwhile. Of course, they mostly still excel when it comes to unleashing progressive metal delights, such as the gripping chorus of “Lament,” the mesmerizing (if also a tad too lengthy) complexity of the wordless “The Struggle for Survival,” and the infectiously quirky jam halfway into the title track. Without a doubt, Wasteland delivers plenty of idiosyncratically destructive and sophisticated gold.
That said, the band—as well as Duda’s solo project, Lunatic Soul—always shines most during the more introspective, melodic, and earnest moments; on that front, Wasteland is truly masterful. In general, it proffers an overarchingly ingenious compromise between its heavy and light personas, with a few standout passages ranking among the top Riverside moments ever. For instance, the closing half of “Acid Rain” lets an atmospheric bridge give way to one of Duda’s catchiest and most spiritually rich chants (a returning trademark that appears several other times, in different forms, on the full-length). Elsewhere, his frank deliveries meld with forlorn soundscapes to make “Guardian Angel” a lovely acoustic ballad, whereas “Lament” cleverly reprises the piercing violins of “The Day After” to give Wasteland even more conceptual continuity. Also, “River Down Below” is a wonderfully mournful and peaceful ode (Duda’s trembling tenor makes it downright heart-breaking, in fact).
Easily the most impactful piece in that regard, however, is closer “The Night Before” because it brilliantly exemplifies how the most richly emotional songs are often the simplest. Comprised only of a few luscious piano patterns and downtrodden, echoed reflections and hums, it captures perfectly a sense of acceptance and catharsis following a lengthy trauma. Taken in context, those elements, combined with sentiments like “When the night begins to fall / You and I in a safety zone / If all the world shall not return / But we’ll survive intact again,” make it one of the most ethereally devastating tracks Duda’s ever sung.
Despite its very slight instances of generic tedium, Wasteland is another remarkable album from one of today’s best progressive outfits. Sure, the absence of Grudziński’s personality is surely felt, but the guitar work here is still quite fitting and capable. Similarly, Riverside’s colorful eccentricities are clearly missing—but that’s precisely the point. Rather than offer vibrant theatrics (such as the “Reality Dream” instrumentals), Wasteland appropriately aims to be a somberly serene meditation on grief, abandonment, and ultimately, letting go and moving on. With the remaining players still at the helm, it absolutely accomplishes that, proving that while Grudziński’s passing indefinitely changed their dynamic, Riverside certainly has a second life as an empowered trio.