As the field of progressive rock/metal continues to grow, it can become increasing difficult to discover really meaningful artists. After all, the subgenre(s), which began fairly modestly a few decades ago, now contain hundreds of acts, and while the vast majority of them are surely worthwhile from a technical standpoint, many merely imitate their predecessors a bit too overtly. In other words, fewer and fewer of them manage to circumvent tiresome clichés and emulation by offering a blend of songwriting, instrumentation, performance, and production that feels almost entirely distinctive, resonant, surprising, and consistent. Fortunately, Polish quartet Riverside has spent nearly 15 years doing exactly that.
Founded in 2001 by vocalist/bassist Mariusz Duda (whose solo project, Lunatic Soul, is equally remarkable for different reasons), guitarist Piotr Grudziński, and drummer Piotr Kozieradzki, the current line-up also includes keyboardist Michał Łapaj (who replaced Jacek Melnicki in 2003). Influenced by legends like the Beatles, Rush, Pink Floyd, Marillion, Dream Theater, and perhaps primarily, Porcupine Tree, Riverside’s five full-lengths–starting with the “Reality Dream” trilogy of Out of Myself (2003), Second Life Syndrome (2005), and Rapid Eye Movement (2007) and finishing with Anno Domini High Definition (2009) and Shrine of New Generation Slaves (2013)—have showcased how the darkest themes can yield extremely beautiful, tense, and elaborate aural art. (Of course, their two EPs—Voices in My Head (2005) and Memories in My Head (2011)—are similarly absorbing). Without a doubt, theirs ranks as one of the best discographies in modern progressive rock.
Next month, Riverside will add its sixth LP, Love, Fear and the Time Machine, to the set, and while not much is known about its concepts or contents, it’s sure to be a valued entry. In the meantime, it’s worth looking back over their catalog thus far to discuss which of their many fantastic tracks are the most extraordinary. As hyperbolic as it may sound, Riverside has yet to write a truly lackluster piece, as all of them lie somewhere on the scale between very good and outstanding; however, the following five (listed in chronological order) likely deserve the most acclaim.
”The Same River” (from Out of Myself, 2004)
Although it may be a predicable choice, the first selection from Riverside’s first album still reigns as one of their strongest compositions. As an introduction to both the “Reality Dream” saga (whose themes touch on mental illness, lost love, isolation, brutality, depression, and disconnection) and the band itself, it’s a striking representation of how the quartet typically focuses on moods and melodies instead of egocentric virtuosity. Likewise, it showcases how Out of Myself is overall calmer and more atmospheric than its predecessors (although Love, Fear and the Time Machine is said to return to it).
At 12-minutes, “The Same River” was also the first in a long line of multipart suites for the group, and while the build-up during the first half could easily be condensed a bit, it’s nonetheless an incredible journey. After a few moments of miscellaneous radio soundbites, feedback, and music (including a second or two of “Hotel California” by the Eagles)—which also appear at the end of Rapid Eye Movement to bring the trilogy full circle—a dreamy echo says, “I stay / I swear / I am / I can” as Grudziński’s emotive guitar lines complement the somber ether generated by Kozieradzki’s subtle taps, Duda’s thick foundation, and Melnicki’s faint coating. Grudziński eventually introduces his first main pattern, which is matched by tense syncopation (including simple but effective cymbal crashes) and more unsettling keyboard outcries. The arrangement continues to swell as the echo returns and heavy guitar riffs are piled on top.
Suddenly, a piercing guitar note signals a total shift in the arrangement at roughly the five minute mark, which is unexpected but brilliant. Both Melnicki and Duda stand out more now too, as each proposes a riveting cycle that makes the prog jigsaw puzzle quite fascinating. Two minutes later, the chaos dies down so Duda can begin his main bass line (which is still one of the best he’s ever created). It’s quite hypnotic, as is his verse: “Please take a walk with me / Let me know / Am I to blame?” He says it twice before going into his gripping chorus—“As you know I’ve always / Loved you and I know I will always / I will always / I will always”. It’s one of his most fragile and urgent performances to date, expressing the disconnected angst of the character, and the way the rest of the band continues to construct around him is masterful.
Following a pleasing yet penetrating guitar solo, the sequence transforms into its final section, which is tranquil and mournful, with a delicate riff resting underneath Duda’s repentant falsetto pain. He laments, “I am your fear / I am your hope / I am your grief / I am your joy” before replying with “I know / I can / Wanna Stay” in a slightly lower register. This juxtaposition showcases how well Duda can sing both softly and forcefully; it’s nearly impossible not to be affected by it. From there, the music intensifies again, with Grudziński picking up where he left off before everything dissolves into a chilling air. Despite the overt influence of Pink Floyd on several elements here, “The Same River” remains a stunningly creative opening full of romantic regret and yearning.
”Loose Heart” (from Out of Myself, 2004)
Track by track, Out of Myself likely contains Riverside’s most cherishable and straightforward songwriting, as well as some of the finest examples of Duda’s penchant for exploring the darker side of the human condition. Devoid of instrumental embellishments, the shorter songs on the record rely almost solely on the band’s ability to write and deliver poignant lyricism, expressive singing, and captivating melodies. On that front, the album’s fifth piece, “Loose Heart”, is its strongest selection.
It begins with inventive percussion and a touching guitar arpeggio, both of which are made even more striking by their muted/faded tones. It’s like a symbolic way to show how the character’s thoughts and feelings are buried beneath his muddled cognizance. Fortunately, he breaks through once Melnicki and Duda start playing too, brining both cognitive and sonic clarity. Vocally, Duda has never sounded more desperate and sorrowful, decreeing, “Raise me up / Don’t let me fall / Cause I don’t get myself” and “All these feelings went away / I may not be what you think I am / Think we ought to find ourselves [again]”.
After a heartrending guitar solo, he repeats the same words with extra vocal layers before adding some more sentiments: “All those questions never asked / All those days are coming back to me now / Dreams that can’t be realized / All those nights are coming back to me now / And I know they’re coming back / Coming back to you”. Distortion fills the background as Duda demonstrates his signature growl for the first time in the band’s discography, commanding, “Raise me up / Don’t let me fall” with increasing devilishness before the music crashes into silence. All in all, “Loose Heart” extreme, moving, dynamic, and exhilarating, proving that Riverside knew how to balance temperaments and aural tension from the get-go.
”Stuck Between” (from Voices in My Head, 2005)
It’s not uncommon for EPs to be considered less important than full-length works in a band’s catalog; after all, many artists put them out just to satisfy contract obligations and/or appease fans while they wait for a proper follow-up. However, these shorter collections may just include some of truly preeminent material, such as “Stuck Between” from Riverside’s first extended play, Voices in My Head, which came out between Out of Myself and Second Life Syndrome. Actually, all five new songs on the disc are remarkable, but this one is certainly the most transfixing.
For one thing, it’s among the most atypical Riverside songs, as it’s led by a simple programmed beat, which gives it a slightly ‘80s pop (or ageless hip-hop) vibe. Aside from that, Łapaj marks his initiation with faint majesty, providing an extremely light yet effective background, and Grudziński implements some compassionate arpeggios and a token solo too. Obviously, the musicianship is fairly low-key overall here, which is perfect for the real star of the piece: Duda’s various vocals.
Undoubtedly, Duda gives one of his most elaborate, moving, and beautiful performances here. For instance, his verses are blunt and weathered, with backing falsettos causing an astonishing duality. His words are appropriately mysterious and bleak too, with phrases like “I’m stuck between myself and me” and “The more I see, the less I feel / But I don’t want it to stop”. Afterward, his chorus is even more heartbreaking, as his central claim—“Know you forever / Will be there / I’m arising / I will stay / For you and I know / I will care”—is blanketed with several interlocking voices. The final instants are the most breathtaking, though, as the music stops to allow these voices to fill the room like a more heavenly and harrowing centerpiece by Gentle Giant. Although Riverside would use this technique in the future (as I’ll discuss later), it was done the best here.
”Second Life Syndrome” (from Second Life Syndrome, 2005)
Riverside’s sophomore LP was substantially heavier and more complex than its precursor (making it more of a progressive metal opus than a progressive rock one), with majorly aggressive instrumentation and a bit more vocal antagonism. This isn’t to say that it’s without delicacy, though, as there are many instances of Riverside’s softer side scattered throughout. Because of this irresistible dichotomy, Second Life Syndrome is surely the best entry in the “Reality Dream” trilogy (if not their best LP in general), and perhaps the biggest reason for this is the brilliance of its eponymous epic centerpiece. In fact, at just over 15-minutes in length, the staggeringly varied and emotional three-part “Second Life Syndrome” is the best Riverside track to date.
An ominous hum and gentle ambience shelter the opening guitar motif (which is easily one of Grudziński’s most memorable); shortly thereafter, Duda bursts in with an impeccably modest yet imperious bass lead, over which Grudziński continues to play while Kozieradzki introduces a marching pattern. This combination is highly dramatic and captivating, assuring listeners that something big is coming—and it does about two and a half minutes in, when simultaneous rising notes give way to a more dizzying bass line.
From here, Duda leads the charge with reflective denouncements like “I don’t want to waste / Any more of my life / Live from day to day / Live from hand to mouth / Facing the light / I brush aside your plans / I’m going to have / It all my own way”; meanwhile, Grudziński packs in gritty riffs while Łapaj backs him up with smooth tones. Suddenly the music shifts a bit as the chorus kicks in; Duda declaring, “And when that all shattered / I felt I’d broken my fall / Couldn’t pretend / That I felt strong about us anymore / Without your help / I finally started to live my own life / I just want you to know this time”. It’s among the band’s most commanding moments ever.
After a bit more compositional trickiness, cymbal crashes segue into the more tranquil second movement, which is decorated by a light bass line and Łapaj’s rich echoed piano chords. The drums and guitar play a small part as well, but they don’t stand out as much here. Vocally, Duda sounds more remorseful and disquiet, confessing to his lover that “I just want to feel your sigh on my neck / Want to feel your breath / Feel your need to stay” and “You know there are things / I just can’t forget / You’ve helped me so much / To learn to be detached”. Afterward, he sings the chorus in a higher pitch (which is gorgeous), although he changes the last line to “I finally started to live my own life / And I know I don’t need you now”.
Next, Grudziński issues a wonderfully luscious and emotive solo before the verse comes back. Once it’s finished, a few percussive taps, some feedback, and a faint reprise of prior lyrics (including some from album opener “After”) bleeds into the final segment.
Duda spits out miscellaneous sounds as another crucial bass line forms momentum. Synths and percussion crash around it as another guitar riff takes center stage. Soon Łapaj copies the bass line as Duda sings something that’s a bit difficult to understand (there’s no documentation for it, but it sounds like “If you were there the summer before / If you were there the summer lie”). Grudziński then charges in with several more infectious and devastating melodies, making his guitar weep and scream with powerful elegance. There’s an instant near the end at which things die down so that he can build them back up, and it’s brilliant. By the end of the piece, listeners are left both emotionally and sonically overwhelmed in the best way possible. If there were only one composition you could use to represent what makes Riverside so special, this would be it.
”Escalator Shrine” (from Shrine of New Generation Slaves, 2013)
Seeing as how Riverside’s previous suites were so spectacular, the penultimate track from their last studio album had a lot to live up to. Luckily, the quartet nailed the form once again, offering another multipart masterpiece full of idiosyncratic techniques and irresistible cohesion. Shrine of New Generation Slaves may not be quite as diverse and consistent as some of its predecessors (which isn’t to say that it’s not amazing anyway), but “Escalator Shrine” easily stands out as its highest moment, as well as one of Riverside’s greatest achievements thus far.
Honestly, it starts out like “Second Life Syndrome”, with another pairing of low hums and fancy guitar playing. Grudziński forms great anticipation in how he slows down and speeds up the treatment; it’s almost classical. Duda takes over about a minute in, issuing a somewhat funky bass line while mellow keyboard chords keep stability and guitar notes soar like violins. It’s very atmospheric and enticing. Duda sings calmly, with a tinge of regretful acceptance, commenting on indoctrination and conformity by observing, “We are escalator walkers / In the brand-new temple / Came to reshape identities / Shed our skins / Be reborn and feel the same / Feel the same / That no one here is real”. With this final line, the rhythm section thumps before repeating the main arrangement. It’s a bit jazzy, actually, and very cool, getting under your skin and making you move along with it.
After some tasteful but hectic jamming (which definitely evokes the work of ‘70s greats like Jethro Tull and Yes) in which Grudziński and Łapaj battle for supremacy, Duda sings a more abrupt and aggressive part—“Used to have our love / And now, disposable needs / Used to have our souls / and now, refined new skins”. It’s short-lived, though, as the music becomes more tranquil, with haunting psychedelic ambience rests underneath a hypnotic guitar riff. Here, Duda layers his vocals to enhance the power of his words and melodies, which make this section the best portion of “Escalator Shrine” by far. His verses—such as: “ In the arms of the setting sun / Our burdens cast shadows over fiery ground / Catching final rays / We try to reach the journey’s end / Before the sun will die”—are wonderfully ominous and poetic, while his chorus—“But we can’t stop / So we walk ahead”—is delivered as an outburst of cryptic salvation.
The remaining two minutes consist of one of Riverside’s greatest instrumental passages. Grudziński belts out a fierce, devastating riff while Łapaj issues equally apocalyptic horns and Kozieradzki keeps the pace with concentrated cymbal crashes. Slowly, another angelic vocal counterpoint emerges as choral streams flow; it’s beautiful and arresting, staying with listeners long after it melts into album closer “Coda”. It’s a magnificent flash surpassed only by (you guessed it) the closing of “Stuck Between”.