Review Summary: While multifaceted with moments of genuine emotion, too many generic elements keep Wasteland from realizing its full potential.
Riverside are one of the modern progressive rock bands able to embody the term and stay true to their musical vision. Everything from the dark psychological themes of their early work, to high-concept rock bombast, sorrowful balladry, and even jazzy ambient/electronic music has been attempted by the gifted songwriters. While some of these genres were executed more successfully than others, the band always approached new territory with skill and innovation. Wasteland
is a rebirth of sorts, being released with the description of being a kind of second debut album.
The band are now a trio since former lead guitarist Piotr Grudziński tragically died at age 40 in 2016. The album title refers to both the state of the band since Grudziński’s passing and a thematic inspiration from post-apocalyptic fiction like The Road by Cormac McCarthy and the Fallout video game series. The band described it as darker, more mature, and with an emotionally charged weight behind it. Ultimately, this pre-release information is not inaccurate, but the album is not as much of a departure from their recent releases as one might think.
balances mostly quiet, melancholic ballads with accessible progressive rock, not so unlike the material from their recent albums from the past five years, but also being a slight return to their first few darker records. More than that though, it feels reminiscent of frontman Mariusz Duda’s solo project, Lunatic Soul, as he is now the primary composer for Riverside. Wasteland
ends up being a slight new direction instead of a total reinvention of Riverside’s style, with a lot certainly going on, but the profound moments are interspersed with too much rudimentary songwriting.
The least rewarding side of the band, energetic hard rock with mild progressive rock elements, is the route most taken when there’s not a slower, acoustic song. Lead single “Vale of Tears” exemplifies this, with a radio rock intro and verses before transitioning into an instrumental build-up and some quick lead guitar soloing before a quieter outro. The song has an unconventional structure, a promising sign, and it does get better as it goes along, but the various sections don’t add up to enough for it to work as a whole.
While listenable with plenty of enjoyable moments, there's no real internal logic to how Wasteland
plays out. The first half of “Acid Rain” sounds like an uninspired newer Muse track, not particularly bad, but not especially gripping or memorable either. The song completely changes halfway through, becoming a Floydian instrumental that could have served as an interesting interlude if it was its own track. Both sections don’t exactly seamlessly fit together as one piece.
The album epics are adventurous and unpredictable in their own right, but aren’t cohesive enough to live up to past songs like “Second Life Syndrome” and “Beyond the Eyelids." “Wasteland” is one of the highlights, despite some lifeless prog jamming in the middle and comical sounding high-pitched synth noises toward the end. A meandering instrumental right in the middle of the album, “The Struggle for Survival,” is nearly 10 minutes long and finds the band showing off their instrumental chops, especially with bass guitar, but there’s not enough of a compelling development or much of a soul to it. This is unfortunately the case with too much of the material here.
by Opeth influenced acoustic ballads are the most effective songs, particularly an impactful tribute to Grudziński, “Lament,” the quieter sections of the aforementioned title track, "The Night Before," and the beautiful “River Down Below,” the latter ending with a climactic Gilmour-esque guitar solo. Why more of the album couldn’t be that effective or where the inspiration of great predecessors Eye of the Soundscape
and Love, Fear and the Time Machine
went is a mystery.
It feels as if the band only went halfway with the inspiration for a new musical direction, with the slower, more mature songs that pay tribute to Grudziński being the highlights. Wasteland
is a good record with lots of musical ground covered, and there are rewarding moments to be found, but the middle-of-the-road modern prog rock elements hold much of it back from excellence.