Progressive Rock has become such an ambiguous term—is it merely a catch-all for bands who push the boundaries of rock beyond where they’ve been before, or is it a closely-knit net, woven by the thread of King Crimson’s dark bravado; Pink Floyd’s atmospheric conceptual albums; and Yes’ epic compositions and virtuoso skill? Someone who was around for the glory days of those three bands would hardly recognize their precious sound in bands of today’s progressive ilk, bands like Porcupine Tree, Radiohead, the Mars Volta, Dredg, and Tool.
Still, I would argue that today’s bands are continuing the tradition of Progressive music full force. While it’s hard for me to review and comment on the effects of an album that was released in a time period, culture and context different than my own (beyond the actual music, of course), I can still understand that the high tradition of Progressive Rock did not devote itself to one specific sound—ha! to build boundaries around itself would contradict everything Progressive Rock stood and still stands for, a paradox that would cause the genre to destroy itself from the inside out. Experimentation is what defines Prog Rock. Our ever-long search for new sounds, textures and sensations has lead us to some of the greatest and most innovative bands of the past decade, just as it did almost forty years ago.
And here we arrive in 2005, nearly forty years after Progressive Rock’s true birth. The genre still exists today, though most of the bands are submersed underneath the mainstream, creating for themselves a niche between obscurity and fame. Enter Riverside. The progressive styling of the band’s first album, Out of Myself
, indicated a seed of talent and compositional mastery that would only come to more fruition here, with their second album. We see the band improving and maturing on almost all levels and breaking free from the shell of Porcupine Tree and Anathema look-alikes in which they inadvertently caught themselves. While the comparison holds plenty of validity, it really only exists in method and not in sound or madness. And this album stands on its own as a great and forward-thinking progressive album.
A fresh group of four talented and passionate musicians from Poland, the members of Riverside came together in 2001 from different musical backgrounds ranging from death metal to electronic experimentalism. After the realization that recruited bassist Mariusz Duda could not only set down a great low-end, but could also sing, the band had a full lineup and began recording their debut album in keyboardist Jacek Melnicki’s studio. While every member had a wide variety of experience and musical interests, they all come together with a similar frame of mind.
“Riverside is a way of expressing reflections, dreams and fantasies through music. It is an idea for exposing emotions, for an escape from the grey or unnaturally overcolored reality. It is a music inspired by a time, a place, a thought and a word, a figment of their own and other people's imagination. It is joy and sadness, a whisper and a scream."
Though Riverside’s members have undoubtedly been inspired by a great diversity of sounds and musical sources, there is an edge to their sound that interplays very well with the overall melancholy and spacey, dark atmosphere of their music. As guitarist Piotr Grudzinksi says: “I admit that I have never been attracted by [heavy metal music]’s brutality, I have always been looking for melody, atmosphere, space, some kind of mystery, and then I found Anathema. Their every album is a trip through the wilderness of melancholy, every sound is overflowing with emotions... the honesty and the message is what matters for me most in music."
Such is the essence of Riverside. It is music that incites an enigmatic entity familiar to metal music, but without all the brutality. In its place is a plethora of soaring melodic guitar passages, emotional and honest vocal arrangements, rhythmic presence, and a dark, shadowy imagery.
Second Life Syndrome
, in particular, is a concept album that is interconnected with their first album. It is the next step in the trilogy of Riverside’s story [the third part is yet-to-come]. The difference between most concept albums and this one, however, is that it seems very personal to the band. With such epics as Volta-Face, Second Life Syndrome, and Dance with the Shadows, SLS blazes a trail of its own, while remaining true to Riverside’s trademark melancholy wail.
The album kicks off with a very interesting track. Some intense and hardly-audible whispering segues the piece into a unique vocal harmony and percussion section that brings to mind tribal-like sounds and even a hint of Dredgian eastern experimentation. Mariusz’s voice proves to be extremely effective in this experimentation, drawing forth a sense of passion, desperation and fragile vulnerability. Soon, spacey, textural keyboard sounds rise up from the desert-like soundscape and the guitar begins to entwine itself into the mix, and Riverside’s synergy is ignited. Sound effects from the first song then segue into the next track, launching us into Volte-Face
, one of the highlights of the album. An engaging guitar melody and rhythmic bass kick things off to a nice start before the tranquility of the last song is shattered with some good, chunky heaviness. Once again Mariusz’s vocals are one of the highlights of this band’s instrumentation. The keyboards do an excellent job of harmonizing and adding a sense of space to the band’s sound, allowing the guitars and bass to spread themselves out and experiment with different arrangements and effects. After a melodic yet assertive guitar solo, a piano-laced bridge begins, and the final tension for the huge climax begins to build. Finally, at the end, the all-out aggression that has been simmering underneath the surface of the song finally comes out full-force.
Another highlight comes in the form of the title track. Clocking in at nearly sixteen minutes long, this song is a lesson in atmospherics as well as an almost intrinsic skill of progressive songwriting. Moving in and out of itself, the song’s structure is ever-changing and seamless, juxtaposing soft, enveloping melodies and atmospheric guitar/keyboard interaction with long instrumental passages and sections of reverberated sparseness and mystery. Every instrumentalist really shines here, but in a collaborative sense, not an individual one. In the song’s great buildup section, rhythmic bass transforms into a melodic line as haunting guitar lines swell in and out of hearing range and distant, haunting vocal melodies rise from the background. It’s like traveling through one’s own mind. “Secret exhibition/cure for loneliness" sings Mariusz in the song’s key vocal passage. It’s a song about confronting painful memories and cutting them off from your mind.
As you can see, Riverside has truly delved into its talent for compositional fluidity, creating some flawless progressive-styled arrangements on the above-described Volta-Face as well as on Second Life Syndrome and Dance with the Shadow. This compositional mastery is an aspect of their songwriting only hinted at in previous releases. However, a key to this album’s success is what comes in between the epic cornerstones that define the album—the shorter, more manageable songs that we find interspersed between the more ambitious tunes. Conceiving You
is an atmospheric, melancholy ballade with a driving and beautiful piano line and the usual slew of stunning guitar tones and amazing vocal melodies. I Turned You Down
is one of the best achievements on the album—a song that captures the band’s progressive spirit in only a four-and-a-half-minute tune. With extremely compelling melodies and swells of guitar weaving inside a driving rhythmic section, the song compliments and defines the band’s sound extremely well. Reality Dream III
, employs melodic and harmonic sections rooted in song parts one and two of the same name [found on Riverside’s previous album], but expands on them for one of the heaviest and hardest-driving songs the band has ever written.
Riverside is really able to delve into the human mind, and as such find a way to the heart. Mariusz’s voice is not so much beautiful as it is purely expressive and emotive, perfectly complimenting his lyrics of a search for a new identity; a new and revived sense of self. It’s a concept album that explores avenues of the human experience almost anyone can relate to on some level. Progressive Rock or not, it is, at the very least, an incredibly poignant statement. While there’s still a feeling that the band has not fully matured, the seeds for their greatness have been planted, and I know we can expect truly amazing things from them in the future.