Review Summary: The best album ever to come out of Poland. A complete masterwork of modern progressive metal, with just about every aspect of a musical recording about as close to perfection as it gets.
The album artwork for Polish progressive band Riverside’s fourth album Anno Domini High Definition
is instantly enveloping: an upper-class man in the finest couture stands in the middle of a post-modern metropolis, lost and out of breath in the turbocharged maze of modern society. When the entire booklet is folded out, the visual experience is larger than life, and Riverside’s well-stocked website that (once) had its art as the default skin is a prime place to spend time. Like the narcoleptic allure of technology and the information age, Anno Domini High Definition
is instantly captivating from its opening piano notes to hazy noise conclusion and simply defines modern progressive music.
is a more progressive and much heavier release than the band’s first three releases, which were generally dark prog-rock with metal influences; the three albums were linked together conceptually and detailed the journey of a man through many changes in mental state of mind. I first heard Riverside in their new form, and because of this conceptual linkage I knew the trilogy belonged together (which they do); however, their consequent long playing time of almost three hours meant I only rotated Anno Domini High Definition
for a long period of time, which has still not revealed everything about it. This album is the beginning of a new journey down different roads, demanding different sounds, each of which succeeds mightily.
Keyboardist Michał Łapaj has a much stronger creative role, exploring huge soundscapes and prominent background and lead organs; though his style is strongly reminiscent of ‘60s and ‘70s rock including Deep Purple
, it is also played in a distinctly modern manner, which sounds fresh and relevant in the context of the CD. Łapaj has a sense of rhythmic interplay with the rest of Riverside despite playing instruments that don’t usually take a rhythmic role, and the equally creative rhythm section creates often world-beating results. The bass and drum intro of Driven to Destruction
features each instrument joining in turn, with the articulate and very
audible bass carrying the first two minutes and dueling comfortably with the drums until its owner Mariusz Duda also begins to sing. Piotr Kozieradzki clearly has plenty of muscle and power but knows exactly where and how to use it, as a form of energy rather than aggression, and has comfortably worked into this band so well that his death metal origins seem illogical; this is definitely his most accomplished drum performance to date.
Guitars by Piotr Grudziński are turned up slightly, but he will explain in interviews that "melody, atmosphere, space, some kind of mystery" in metal means more to him than heaviness; even when the distortion is turned up, there’s always a distinct mood and feeling to his playing that fits both the other musicians and the music as a whole. Unisons between guitar riffs and organ phrases, traded with a capella verses (Hyperactive
), distortion fading into piano breaks (Driven to Destruction
), and palm muting and theremin on the incredible Egoist Hedonist
display this philosophy, that heaviness can be an emotion and a way of feeling. Everything on the album works towards this idea in some way or another, musically and conceptually. Anno Domini High Definition
is a theme album about modern life and society, described by Duda as "liquid modernity, life in a constant hurry, stress and anxiety about the future. A picture of our times in 1920 x 1080 definition."
The album title implies that humankind has found spiritual fulfillment and salvation in such a life, which is a strong philosophical and sociological statement, yet rarely has any concept been executed this convincingly. Riverside’s increased emphasis on keyboards surrounds the protagonist with electronic effects, as he is introduced living "just another day of my life / in the high-res next-gen wonderland." Moments of calm introduce the first vocals of track two, Driven to Destruction,
as he searches to find fulfillment, and duel against impatient, slamming riffs and a few shouts, not quite growling but nevertheless powerful.
As the track times increase, the equation complicates further. Track three Egoist Hedonist
features rousing, chugging guitars and classic rock vocal phrasings leading into a swing brass interlude with a funky guitar figure underneath (!), signaling the start of the "hedonist party;" as the protagonist is warmly invited to join the masses, the instrumental third movement incorporates Riverside’s frequent experiments with exotic Eastern melodies into a dance-like groove, finally culminating in another brief wall of hypnotic low-end riffs. If nothing else, this is among the absolutely mandatory
works of progressive metal. Immediately, track four Left Out
establishes the melancholy, wistful mood the Polish quartet had made a cornerstone of their work, as if the main character has come to his senses the morning after. Duda’s vocals are spectral, almost whispery, portraying the outcast his character has become; as the music picks up at two minutes in, Grudziński shows why he is known so well for his lead guitar abilities, as few have made the six strings so expressive. This musical theme is scattered somewhat through the next four minutes until the vocals disappear; the remaining four minutes are all instrumental, orchestrating a dramatic mood change into one determined to rise above the world that imprisoned him.
The closer Hybrid Times
is the longest track on the album and easily Riverside’s heaviest song to date. A seductive piano intro is the call from society's representative to embrace "hi-tech salvation," yet M. Duda will not
let him win easily. Slicing, agile riffs, pounding drum beats from Kozieradzki and vicious growls by Duda combat against vibrating Hammond organs, and the battle continues to gain energy, abruptly shifting between two different metric figures, until an equally abrupt shift at 5:49 that brings the album to its lyrical climax. For through the endless struggle for perfection, "doggedly at any cost," the main character has
in fact surrendered and lost the battle for his own individuality. Exchanges between melodic lead guitars and electronic keyboards lead to a spectacularly
unhinged climax: Łapaj sends his keyboards whistling out of control while Kozieradzki ruthlessly bashes the skins, ending with a blast beat and then dropping out completely, leaving Łapaj’s whines and bleeps to reverberate into the distance. Attempting to play this section on drums will leave average drummers breathless, sagging from hyperextension, as the music fades over the remaining minutes into white noise, processed drumming and wordless singing.
All of this happens in less than 45 minutes. Riverside’s goal in making a five-track album that was by far their shortest full-length was to make something more cohesive, to the point and energetic, moving bravely forward as a band; the reason its success is so powerful is that their evolution has only increased their originality, musicianship, songwriting and progressive spirit. I struggle to find a flaw with this release and can only accede that the kick drum is too quiet, lacking the solidity it had on 2007’s Rapid Eye Movement
; the production quality is otherwise flawless, with the bass quite high in the mix, the snare and other toms quite punchy, the most au naturel
organ sound going, every subtlety of the expressive vocals audible and Grudziński’s melodic and heavy guitar styles produced to maximize the impact of his phrasing skill. ADHD
is, to put it very simply, a portrait of a band at its absolute peak of performance. It is among my favorite albums ever recorded and my number one release of 2009, among the best years in prog metal history, with no question whatsoever; I am wholly confident it will remain there for an exceedingly long time. Fresh, modern and 100% relevant on all accounts, this album is progressive music in its purest form.