More reflections from the past. This one from four years ago today, January 1, 2010. Still lots of love for Steven Wilson.
A Steven Wilson solo albums can only come out every so often, sadly. Technically, “Insurgentes” came out at the beginning of 2009. But, for us Wilson nerds who follow his career way too closely, “Insurgentes” came out in 2008, even only in Wilson’s self-proclaimed hated MP3. According to my iTunes stats, “Insurgentes” remains my most played cd of this past year.
It was closely followed, again according to my iTunes stats, by Guilt Machine, “On This Perfect Day,” Oceansize, “Frames,” and Riverside, “ADHD.”
Like the cat who adopted us in the summer of 2009 and with whom/which I fell in love, Guilt Machine has been a constant for me since its release in the summer.
There were however, two really, really disappointing CDs. So disappointing in fact that I’m embarrassed I own them:
- Dream Theater “Black Clouds and Silver Linings”
- Pure Reason Revolution “Love Conquers All”
Not sure what either group was thinking in the direction taken.
And, finally, a fun and novel album, but almost assuredly nothing that will stick with me for years to come:
- Muse “The Resistance”
Lyrically, a great album, and moments of absolute musical genius can be found everywhere. But, excess whimsy mars the album, and everytime I doubted how serious the musicians were about this, I doubted my interest in their project.
[Additional note found: "Thus far, 2009 has been bleak. Dream Theater’s new album, “Black Clouds and Silver Linings,” serves as an incoherent exercise in notes chasing notes and embarrassingly written lyrics. Pure Reason Revolution’s “Amor Vincit Omnia” offers nothing but miserable sexual decadence and ridiculous Euro dance-type music. The title should’ve been Lust Conquers All, not Love Conquers All. How this could be the same band that released the captivating “The Dark Third,” I have no idea."]
(By the way, if you are wondering at the absence of Big Big Train’s magnificent English Electric: Full Power, remember that I am excluding rereleases of older material; without that restriction, it would most certainly be up near the top of my list!)
The debut release from the formerly-dubbed Concrete Lake, featuring two alumni of The Tangent: guitarist Luke Machin and bassist Dan Mash. Be prepared for a rollercoaster ride through a dizzying array of different musical styles as this album jumps effortlessly from prog metal shredding to jazz to salsa (yes, really!) and back again. It’s bonkers, but I love it to bits.
A minor change in direction for Poland’s premier prog rockers finds them flirting with more straightforward hard rock, blues and even jazz influences in places, to great effect. The resulting album is more cohesive conceptually than any of their previous work and touches on similar issues to those explored by The Tangent’s latest opus. Disc 2 of the special edition features over 22 minutes of instrumental music quite different in tone from the main album but highly enjoyable nonetheless.
An accomplished follow-up to 2010′s Diving Bell from Joff Winks, Matt Baber & Co. Sanguine Hum’s sound calls to mind Turin Brakes, Pierre Moerlen’s Gong, the layered electronica of North Atlantic Oscillation and even Porcupine Tree in their more reflective moments. It’s captivating, however you describe it, and the songs on this album are beautifully constructed. Apparently, the band have two album’s worth of new material already written, which bodes well for the future.
The best release yet from the ‘Steely Dan of prog’, offering a more coherent vision than their earlier high points Not As Good As The Book and A Place In The Queue. With music loosely inspired by Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring and a thought-provoking, opinion-polarising message regarding the mundanity of the daily grind and our role as wage slaves, this is a progressive tour de force as far as I’m concerned.
Quite simply, Steven Wilson’s finest work to date. Opting for a live recording approach over meticulous overdubs has paid off handsomely and the music frequently builds to a thrilling intensity as this masterful band of players feed off each others’ energy. It is difficult to pick out highlights from something so consistently brilliant, but Guthrie Govan’s guitar solo in Drive Home really does take the breath away, leaving us wondering how in the name of prog Wilson is going to better this.
While “pax” literally translates as peace, people generally use the term “Pax Romana” to refer to a golden age of Imperial Rome. Well, if that’s the case, then the year 2013 has left no doubt that we are in another golden age for progressive rock.
Now, you will have excuse me a bit for the “Progorama” thing in the title, but that’s the closest thing to alliteration that came to mind. “Pax Progtopia” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well. There were a few other ideas I had, and none of them were very good … “Pax Progorama” worked the best, ok? Hyphens added upon request.
The other question is this – do I have the best, most appropriate historical metaphor? Could the current era be just as well described as a prog renaissance? Probably. We could liken the 1970′s as the original Pax Prog-O-Rama … the punk rockers as the barbarians who finally toppled a weakening empire … the 1980′s and early 1990′s as the Dark Ages (with of course, the neo-proggers being the Monks/Byzantines that preserved the flame of Western Civilization) … the rise of the Internet being equivalent to the Gutenberg printing press … and the late-1990′s and beyond representing the Renaissance and the spreading of new ideas, knowledge, and in our case here – art. Maybe I should go back and rewrite the beginning of this post. Then again, as Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber says …. naaaaahh (start at the point about where 1:00 minute remains …).
No matter what metaphor you choose, the resulting conclusion is still the same: Anno Domini 2013 was an incredible year for progressive rock, quite possibly the best ever. I don’t say that lightly. This year also gives weight to the opinion (mine, anyway) that our current Golden Age of prog has surpassed the previous one – and I don’t say that lightly, either. The past few years, and 2013 in particular, have been nothing short of an embarrassment of riches for prog lovers. Just how good was 2013? Let’s take a look. Read the rest of this entry
Last year was an incredible year for Progressive Music (note: upper case), but in my opinion, 2013 has been even better. Thanks to this community (Progarchy) and the ever-lively Big Big Train Facebook group, I have been exposed to more new prog in 2013 than in any year since the halcyon days of the early 70s. As a result, my wallet has been considerably lightened, but my musical universe has been enriched way beyond mere monetary value.
What follows is a brief review of my top ten purchases in 2013 – albums received for review or borrowed from friends are not included, however much I enjoyed them. The list is alphabetic, as each of these albums is my favourite when I’m listening to it, depending on my mood.
Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused To Sing: A superb album from start to finish, replete with powerful, hard-rocking passages, beautiful melodies, jazzy interludes, lush arrangements, and oodles of emotion (not something SW is renowned for). Much as I enjoy SW’s guitar playing, I’m delighted that he has handed over most of the guitar work to the incredible Guthrie Govan and stepped back to be more of a musical director – he has always been an excellent songwriter, but I think his compositions have benefitted greatly from this change of focus. I also think this is Wilson’s strongest and most confident vocal performance ever. Of course the rest of the band members are all outstanding, but in particular I love Wilson’s use of Theo Travis’ woodwinds to add an extra dimension that was sometimes lacking in the Porcupine Tree soundscape.
Spock’s Beard – Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep: I love Nick D’Virgilio’s singing and drumming and was concerned when I heard that he’d left Spock’s Beard, but I needn’t have worried. I thought X was an excellent album, but Brief Nocturnes is even better. Ted Leonard not only brings his powerful and emotive vocal delivery to the band (I think he’s the best vocalist the Beard have had to date), but also his strong compositional skills, which were always evident with Enchant. And Jimmy Keegan is a monster drummer, a worthy full-time successor to the vacated “batterie” stool (he’s been touring with the band for years). Ryo’s keyboard work has also been going from strength to strength since Neal Morse, the uber-controlling force, left the band, while Alan Morse and Dave Meros seem to be even more energised by the injection of new blood into the band. A strong set of songs, powerfully delivered by a great band.
Sanguine Hum – The Weight of the World: Sanguine Hum are one of my favourite “new” finds. This Oxford-based band deliver layered and beautifully structured compositions with plenty of dynamics, which never fail to surprise and delight. One reviewer described their approach as “polymath”, but I think this may give the wrong impression – while their music is precise, it is never clinical, and while complex, it is never complicated for the sake of it. Although I slightly prefer their first album, “Diving Bell”, “Weight of the World” is an excellent album that gets repeated listening, and will continue to do so.
Riverside – Shrine of New Generation Slaves: “SoNGS”, to my ears, is the best Riverside album since their impressive debut “Out Of Myself” in 2004. With greater emphasis on songwriting rather than thrash, and more varied textures that their last few albums, this album is imminently listenable, apart from the rather tiresome first few minutes of the opening song, which seems to stutter along for ages before it gets going. Mariusz Duda’s side project, Lunatic Soul, is definitely bleeding back into Riverside, which I’m delighted about. More, please Mariusz…
Haken – The Mountain: For me, the find of the year. Two months go I’d never heard of this band, but now I have all three of their albums and can’t stop listening to them. “The Mountain” is a real tour de force, with light and shade, strong melodies, excellent harmonies, tight ensemble playing and impressive pyrotechnics that are just right in context of each song, when they explode. I think their “Gentle Giant” moment (The Cockroach King) is one of the finest since the great band themselves were performing – far better than Spock’s Beard’s efforts (which are nevertheless uniformly good), and rivalling Kevin Gilbert’s genius in his “Suit Canon”. This band has everything (except a permanent bass player – sad that I’m living on the wrong continent, too old and simply not talented enough to audition for the post… !). Great album, and great band with a stellar future.
Cosmograf – The Man Left In Space: I’m a sucker for good sci-fi – combine it with superb songwriting and musicianship from wide range of musicians and I’m in there, lead boots, space suit and all. The first time I heard this album, I thought some of the the interludes caused the album to lose momentum musically, but repeated listening has completely dispelled that impression. I now think this is a beautifully balanced album, lyrically and musically, and I’m really looking forward to the next Cosmograf album (which is always a good sign).
Big Big Train – English Electric Full Power: “English Electric”, parts 1 and 2, were already two of my all-time favourite albums, but the combined and expanded package, “Full Power”, has raised the bar even higher. I have already written full reviews of the individual albums (here on Progarchy and elsewhere), so suffice to say that the re-ordering of the songs and the additional material has created one of the most satisfying listening experiences I’ve had since I first became “aware” of music. Brilliant songwriting, meaningful lyrics, exemplary delivery, superb, lush production. And of course, there’s also the magnificent packaging…
Ayreon – The Theory of Everything: Two adjectives often associated with Ayreon are “bombastic” and “overblown”, but I prefer to use adjectives such as “majestic” and “melodic”. Arjen Lucassen has more musical ideas than is reasonable for any single human being, and he seems to be a helluva nice guy as well. “The Theory of Everything” is his best work, including side projects, since “The Human Equation”, which was my first encounter with his music and still my favourite. However, I’ve only had TTOE for two weeks, and already it is threatening to nudge THE aside. With a stellar cast of musicians and singers, including major prog alumni John Wetton, Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson, Jordan Rudess and Steve Hackett, he’s created another intense epic work that soars and delights, while examining the very human themes of genius, deception, ambition, pride and love. As a scientist, I also appreciate the recurring symbol of the lighthouse, representing intellect and science casting illumination through the gloom. Brilliant album.
The Aristocrats – Culture Clash: This band has literally blown my socks off (it’s OK, it’s summer in the southern hemisphere, so I’m not too uncomfortable). I bought the “Boing! We’ll Do It Live” DVD earlier this year, and was mesmerised by the incredible technical abilities of the three musicians, Govan Guthrie (guitar), Marco Minnemann (drums) and Bryan Beller (bass). But this is not just a musical show-off band – not only do they write splendid (instrumental) music that crosses a vast range of genres (truly Progressive), but their obvious enjoyment of the music, and each other, is completely infectious. “Culture Clash”, their second album, sees them settling into their relationships and interactions, and writing music specifically for each other – and it’s a sheer delight. Want more!
Antione Fafard – Occultus Tramatis: I get to listen to a lot of new music while I’m working, putting science textbooks together. Much of it tends to slip by me while I’m concentrating on the work, but every now and then an album wrests my attention from whatever I’m doing and forces me to focus on the music. “Occultus Tramatis” was one of those albums. Canadian bassist Antione Fafard has put together a star-studded cast of jazz, jazz-fusion and progressive rock performers including Jerry Goodman and drummers Simon Phillips, Chad Wackerman, Terry Bozzio and Gavin Harrison, and produced an outstanding album of prog fusion, which despite its musical complexity and ever changing time signatures is nevertheless fresh and rewarding, revealing different possibilities every time you listen to it. Each track has its own feel, with changes of pace, a variety of complex rhythms and contrasting instrumental arrangements, but the album still still has an organic flow. I listened to my review copy twice straight through, and immediately ordered the CD. Challenging, but excellent.
Thieves’ Kitchen – One For Sorrow, Two For Joy: I marginally prefer The Water Road, but this is a strong collection of jazzy prog songs.
Roy Harper – Man and Myth: Powerful, emotional work.
The Flower Kings – Desolation Rose: Their darkest album to date, but a real return to form. May have made it into my top 10 if it had arrived earlier.
Amplifier – Echo Street: Gorgeous guitar-based, atmospheric music.
Airbag – The Greatest Show On Earth: Only arrived last week. Excellent album that is rapidly growing on me.
Lifesigns: This is a strange one for me. I really like the instrumental work, but some of the compositions seem to meander for long periods. And I can’t get into the vocals – the delivery seems flat and unidimensional to me. Sorry.
Not considered (see above, but added to my wish list):
Comedy of Errors – Fanfare & Fantasy
Days Between Stations – In Extremis
Dream Theater – Dream Theater
KingBathmat – Overcoming the Monster
Levin Minnemann Rudess – LMR
Magenta – The Twenty Seven Club
Moon Safari – Himlabacken Vol. 1
Persona Grata – Reaching Places High Above
PFM – Da Mozart A Celebration
Shadow Circus – On A Dark and Stormy Night
Sound of Contact – Dimensionaut
The Tangent – Le Sacre Du Travail
TesseracT – Altered State
Verbal Delirium – From The Small Hours of Weakness
Von Hertzen Brothers – Nine Lives
So much to listen to, so little time. Prog has never been healthier.
What a bountiful year 2013 has been for good music. All the albums on my Best Of list are destined to become classics, I’m sure! So, let’s count them down, all the way to Number 1:
11. TesseracT: Altered State. I’ll kick the list off with the most unabashedly heavy album, but one that has grown on me over the past few months. Ashe O’Hara is a terrific vocalist, and the band lays down a multilayered bed of crunching guitars, drums, and bass for him to soar over. The songs are divided into four groups, “Of Matter”, “Of Mind”, “Of Reality”, and “Of Energy”. These guys know their mathematics, as well! One of the songs is “Calabi-Yau”, and the artwork includes the E8 Root System, a hypercube, and an Apollonian sphere. Best track: “Nocturne” (Check out the moment of transcendence at 3:14) -
10. Riverside: Shrine of New Generation Slaves. Mariusz Duda’s side project, Lunatic Soul, has had a pronounced effect on Riverside’s music, and that’s all to the good, in my opinion. SoNGS is more melodic and varied than anything they’ve produced so far, and even though it came out early in 2013, it still stays close to my sound system. Go for the two-disc set, which adds two extended tracks that flirt with ambient jazz. Best track: “Feel Like Falling” -
9. Steven Wilson: The Raven That Refused To Sing. Very few artists push themselves as hard as Steven Wilson, and TRTRTS is another leap forward for him. I’m thinking at this point he’s left the world of prog, and he is his own genre. Not everything works – “Luminol” is too much Yes-jams-with-Herbie-Hancock for my taste, but when he clicks, no one comes close. Best track: the achingly beautiful “The Raven That Refused To Sing” -
8. Big Big Train: English Electric: Full Power. Much has been written on this site about the sheer wonderfulness of this collection. The care that went into the accompanying booklet is a joy to behold. The resequencing of songs works well, and the new opener “Come On Make Some Noise” is as fun as a classic Badfinger single from the 70′s. I’m a Tennessee boy, but I could easily spend the rest of my days in the pastoral Albion depicted in BBT’s Full Power. Best Track: “Uncle Jack” -
7. Cosmograf: The Man Left In Space. A sci-fi concept album about the dangers of all-consuming ambition and the isolation that results, this is a very satisfying album both musically and lyrically. One of the most-played discs of the year in my household. Best track: “Aspire Achieve” -
6. Ayreon: The Theory Of Everything. A recent release, so I haven’t had a chance to fully absorb this sprawling work. Arjen Lucassen is the Verdi of progressive rock, composing magnificent operas that explore what it means to be human in today’s dehumanizing times. For TTOE, Lucassen gathered the most talented roster of musicians and vocalists yet – including John Wetton, Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson, Jordan Rudess, and Steve Hackett. The story itself leaves behind the sci-fi thread that previous Ayreon albums followed to chronicle the travails of a small group of family and colleagues torn apart by autism, deception, envy, academic ambition, and pride. Throw in a dash of the supernatural, and this is a very thought-provoking work. Best track: “Magnetism” -
And now it’s time for the Top Five!
5. Kingbathmat: Overcoming the Monster. This band has been very prolific lately, releasing Truth Button and Overcoming the Monster in a matter of months. OTM is a fantastic set of songs about the different “monsters” we all encounter in our day to day lives. Most impressive of all, Kingbathmat have developed a truly unique sound that is accessible yet new. I can’t wait to hear the next iteration of it. Best track: “Kubrick Moon” -
4. Sound Of Contact: Dimensionaut. I’m sure SoC’s vocalist and drummer Simon Collins is tired of comparisons to Genesis (he’s Phil’s son), but that is what first strikes the hearer of this outstanding album. Fortunately, repeated listening reveals SoC’s extraordinary talent in their own right. The songs themselves are perfectly constructed gems, and the production is top-notch. The band moves effortlessly from straight pop (“Not Coming Down”) to the most complex prog epic (“Mobius Strip”). Best track: “Pale Blue Dot” -
3. Days Between Stations: In Extremis. I’ve already written a full review of this immensely rewarding album in an earlier Progarchy post. Suffice it to say that this is already a classic. And Sepand Samzadeh is one of the nicest guys in the prog world! Best track: “Eggshell Man” -
2. Sanguine Hum: The Weight of the World. If XTC and Jellyfish had a child, Sanguine Hum might be it (with Frank Zappa for a godfather). This album is simply a delight to listen to, from start to finish. It’s one that reveals new details, regardless of how many times you hear it. Their secret weapon is Andrew Booker on drums. Reminiscent of Stewart Copeland’s work with The Police, Booker has a light and inventive touch that often becomes the lead instrument. The entire band generates an organic sound that is seductive and playful. Best track: “The Weight of the World” -
Album of the Year
1. Haken: The Mountain. Until a couple of months ago, I had never heard a note by this band. Fast forward to now, and there hasn’t been a 48-hour period when I haven’t listened to this album, in its entirety, at least once. An extraordinary meditation on the importance of never giving up on overcoming obstacles, The Mountain is a deeply moving work. Musically, it is progressive metal in the same vein as Dream Theater, Devin Townsend, and even Rush. Every single song is indispensable, but if I had to pick one, it would be “Pareidolia” -
Well, reader, thanks for hanging in there to the bitter end. I hope I’ve affirmed some of your own opinions and perhaps piqued some interest in an artist or two you’re not aware of yet. Here’s hoping 2014 is as good as 2013!
To paraphrase Wikipedia…a “perfect storm” is a term that can be described as a confluence of different related phenomena that combine to create what can be referred to as the “perfect situation” to generate an event (its first use was allegedly to describe a ‘perfect storm’ of applause).
And yes, things came together pretty nicely on Thursday night.
I have to admit I was a reluctant attendee, not because I don’t like Riverside, far from it. Unfortunately I had undergone a seriously bad day at work, leading to the cancellation of my holiday booked for the next day I also had a dose of ‘man-flu’. So I didn’t feel that inclined to trudge for an hour plus up to Islington; drink gratuitously (polish vodka maybe?) and get home well after midnight.
Things started getting better as travel connections were good and we (Nigel and I) managed to get to the venue fairly early and caught half of the set of the first of the three bands, Dianoya. Hailing from Poland, like Riverside, they were an engaging and enthusiastic Progressive Metal band and, as the set continued, there were various appreciative nods from some of the ‘older’ members of the audience (me included).
I have always liked the Academy, quite small but never a crush. Even a shorty like me can usually get quite close and get a good view. The acoustics are impressive which is important for an audiophile like me. The bar(s) are very ‘adjacent’ and I like the industrial ‘feel’…the ceiling is full of open girders and ducts; wires and lights. It’s a pretty ‘hip’ place and is used as a late night disco for the ‘younger’ folks after all we oldies are tucked up in our beds. At this point I should also name in dispatches the lighting crew, who added to the ambience considerably with a subtle yet creative lighting display.
Two pain killers taken earlier followed by the quick sloshing down of an (incredibly expensive) pint of lager had given me a renewed vigour. And there was not much waiting required for the second act, Jolly, who herald from the great New York City. They produced a powerful cocktail of heavy, experimental, art rock characterised by slow openings, fast bass lines and high quality guitar playing. They aroused my curiosity and I was quite intrigued to find out more. But please forgive me when I say their Facebook band profile is a load of pretentious twaddle; either that or it’s a very long-winded ‘p*ss take in Spinal Tap style. Nevertheless a strong support act.
A move towards the back (to meet another friend) put me in the perfect listening position, at the apex of the classic ‘audio-triangle’, as Riverside took the stage. This Polish progressive rock band led by the virtuoso bassist and singer, Mariusz Duda, have just released their new album, ‘Shrine of New Generation Slaves’ (SONGS), intelligently reviewed recently by my fellow Progarchists, Nick and Erik here:
The band has been gaining popularity following their critically acclaimed 4th album, Anno Domini High Definition (ADHD) released in 2009. Having gradually veered towards a more classic rock sound from their predominantly metal roots, Riverside have been compared with both Tool and Porcupine Tree. Lyrically far less disturbing than Tool they still retain a heavy guitar riff style and the inclusion of powerful keyboards and potent bass lines give the band an added depth, complexity and uniqueness to their sound.
Tonight’s set focussed on the new album and ADHD.
Having just been to one of my Top 10 gigs of all time (Steve Wilson at the Royal Festival Hall, London), how lucky I was to see another band at the peak of their powers. Displaying outstanding musicianship; exemplary timing and an almost telepathic understanding, Riverside are seriously talented. Understated guitar (from a scary looking lead!); extraordinary depth to the keyboards; complex bass patterns weaved by spider-like hands and beautifully sympathetic drumming. Virtually faultless, the only (small) downside was Mariusz’s voice, slightly let down by the flu (I read subsequently that their Sheffield gig the next day had to be cancelled).
There was no showboating; no unnecessary solos; no ego trips displayed. Professional to the last, Riverside were clearly enjoying their evening and showed a genuine desire to engage the audience. And this was reciprocated. How refreshing to see people of all ages. And clearly popular in their home country with plenty of London’s Polish community turning up. Riverside have clearly broken down that difficult barrier that exists for so many Progressive Rock bands…this is not just music for follicly challenged over 50s.
Having been impressed with their last 4 releases, I can say, indubitably, that they sound better live than on record, delivering an electrifying power that is beyond a recorded medium.
Great gigs are not just about the band, they are about the whole experience…the audience; the venue; the lighting; the acoustics.; the beer, absolutely everything ! All these factors combined beautifully to create the ‘Perfect Storm’ and at £19 a ticket it was a steal.
To those interested here is the set-list, with my highlights being tracks 2, 4 and 8:
New Generation Slave – SONGS
The Depth of Self Delusion – SONGS
Feel Like Falling – SONGS
Driven to Destruction – ADHD
Living in the Past – Memories in My Head
We Got Used to Us – SONGS
Egoist Hedonist – ADHD
Escalator Shrine – SONGS
Left Out – ADHD
Conceiving You – Second Life Syndrome
Lucid Dream IV – Rapid Eye Movement
Sad news tonight from organiser Kris Hudson-Lee of the cancellation of the weekend part of Y-Prog here in the UK, intended to be Yorkshire’s first progressive rock festival.
Saturday 15 March was to feature Dec Burke, Also Eden, IOEarth and The Enid; Sunday 16 March had Crimson Sky, Knifeworld, Manning and It Bites on the bill. Thankfully, the Friday night show featuring the mighty Riverside goes ahead.
I have no further information on the reasons for cancellation, but I presume poor ticket sales are at the heart of it. Y-Prog may have been hit by the subsequent announcement of HRH Prog, a bigger festival at a more glamorous venue a few miles away, just three weeks later.
It’s a salutary reminder that, despite prog’s resurgence, the audience remains finite. Too many events in too short a span of time and some are going to struggle.
Riverside’s recorded output began with three albums that are collectively known as the Reality Dream Trilogy (‘Out of Myself’, ‘Second Life Syndrome’, and ‘Rapid Eye Movement’). These are all very good albums, although I wouldn’t call any of them great albums. However, in 2009, Riverside took a big leap forward with ‘Anno Domini High Definition’ (ADHD). The music took a noticeably different direction from its three predecessors, and reflected well on the album’s subject matter, i.e. the frenetic pace of modern life and accompanying dissatisfaction that sometimes goes with it. After a two-and-a-half year wait (with the EP ‘Memories in My Head’ thrown in during the meantime), Riverside has returned with ‘Shrine of New Generation Slaves’ (SONGS). And once again, they have taken a big – no, huge – leap forward. Quite simply, this is Riverside’s best album to date.
Conceptually, the album relates to dissatisfaction with modern life, so much so that many people feel that they are slaves to something beyond their control. Thematically, there are some common threads with various lyrics on SONGS predecessor, ADHD (in particular, the lyrics on the excellent ‘Driven to Destruction’). Nevertheless, the lyrical (and thus conceptual) content extends beyond that to into areas such as stagnant relationships, the depravity of celebrity culture, surrender to nihilism, and ultimately, redemption.
Musically, the album is just fantastic. In contrast to its predecessor, it does not feature a barrage of notes and thus gives the listener a little more space to contemplate the lyrics. That being said, I wouldn’t call it dimensionally sparse either, as there is plenty going on. The music is probably the result of a different approach. Bass player Mariusz Duda stated in a recent interview:
I had some problems before as I was a little bit tired of the formula that we had in the past and I didn’t want to do another album with complicated structures. I just wanted to finally focus more on the arrangements and the composition. To focus on some details, like a way for playing drums, a way of playing guitar. I really, really wanted to focus simply on songs. Simply songs, ambitious songs should be the foundation of this album. The metal parts I skip and replace them with hard rock elements.
Confident in the chops honed on previous albums, the band has taken more of a big picture approach to the music on this album – an approach that seems to have served them very well.
‘New Generation Slave’ opens up the album, featuring a heavy guitar riff interleaved with verses of Duda’s protagonist lamenting his life and dissatisfaction with it:
Ain’t nothing more to say
Don’t look at me like that
The truth is
I am a free man
But I can’t enjoy my life
The tempo then picks up, and keyboardist Michał Łapaj announces his presence in this piece by getting in touch with his inner Jon Lord (RIP), and repeats this a number of times throughout the album. The opening track segues into ‘The Depth of Self Delusion’, which is less heavy and a bit slower, but no less good. The use of acoustic guitar and atmospheric keyboards make their first appearance. I don’t recall this much use of acoustic guitar on any previous Riverside release, and it’s great to hear them expand their sonic palette in this manner. The song includes some interesting bass work in the latter half and closes with light acoustic guitar. The band then blasts into ‘Celebrity Touch’ as Duda offers his critique of our Kardashian-ized culture and the pathological need some have for attention and approval from others:
I can’t afford to be silent
I can’t afford to lose my stand
What matters is to be in view
I am seen therefore I am
I can satisfy my hunger
I can satisfy my thirst
What about the feeling of importance
Now I’ve got my chance
In the center of attention
My private life is public
I sell everything
Days are getting shorter
They’ll forget about me soon
So I jump on the bandwagon
With no taboos
The song includes a nice juxtaposition between a heavy riff that accompanies the above lyrics, to a less heavy, more reflective section:
But what if we start to talk
Not only say out loud
What if we sift the babble
From what really counts
What if we disappear
Go deeply underground
What if we hide away
From being stupefied
‘We Got Used to Us’ follows, and is yet another slower track that has somewhat of a Porcupine Tree-like vibe as our protagonist ponders a stagnant and dissatisfying relationship. This one is pretty emotional.
Next up is the punchy ‘Feel Like Falling’, a song with crossover appeal having upbeat music that belies the lyrics, as our protagonist begins to realize the path he has chosen in life has led him astray and left him wanting to simply give up:
Had allowed that life to drift
For I’ve chosen a different trail
When light fades
I feel like falling into blank space
‘Deprived (Irretrievably Lost Imagination)’ is up next with music that is slower, mellower, and decidedly more melancholy than the previous track. The music includes a nice, Floyd-ian interlude at about the halfway mark leading into a jazz-infused instrumental section in the latter half featuring some excellent sax playing. Our protagonists dissatisfaction seems to be so intense at this point that they have gone beyond the mere desire to give up as in ‘Feel Like Falling’ – now we have a full fledged surrender to despair:
I shut away
Please don’t call my name
‘Escalator Shrine’ begins as another slower track, but picks up the pace after a few minutes. Once again we hear the Hammond organ with the Leslie cabinet, some excellent bass playing, and some heavy (but not necessarily metal) guitar. Like the previous track, it includes another Floyd-ian interlude at about the halfway mark. Lyrically, ‘Escalator Shrine’ approaches the new generation slavery from more of an intellectual level than an emotional one, as our protagonist channels Albert Camus and the Myth of Sisyphus:
Dragging our feet
Tired and deceived
Slowly moving on
Bracing shaky legs
Against all those wasted years
We roll the boulders of sins
Up a hill of new days
‘Coda’ is the final track on the album, and maybe the most emotionally heavy, even though it is instrumentally the lightest – a single acoustic guitar. Perhaps our protagonist has read some Epictetus, or maybe the serenity prayer, but it appears he has realized that his happiness and satisfaction with life is ultimately in his control and his own responsibility:
Night outside grows white
I lie faceup in my shell
Open my eyes
Don’t feel like falling into blank space
Indeed, for all of its darkness and all of its sadness, SONGS ends on an upbeat note, as our protagonist casts off his self-imposed chains:
I won’t collapse
I’m set to rise
It’s interesting to note that, although ‘Coda’ is the final track on the album, it is also numbered as Track 1, as is ‘New Generation Slave’. Indeed, our protagonist has hit the reset button and is starting over.
I simply cannot say enough good about this album. As thrilled as I was with ADHD, my response to SONGS is in a completely different realm. Musically, the album has a perfect blend of heavy and light, of complex and simple, emotional and intellectual. Nothing is overdone, nothing is incomplete. The lyrics have a strong message, and as dark as the album’s atmosphere, it’s ultimately a message of hope for those that get it. And if this album is an indication of what we can expect in the future from Riverside, then it’s another strong piece of anecdotal evidence that we are in the midst of a progressive rock golden age heretofore unseen.
Oh, and in case you didn’t get it, I strongly recommend this album
They like their prog in Poland.
Europe’s ninth largest country is an essential touring destination for the likes of Anathema, Marillion, Pendragon and many other well-established acts, and it is the source of much home-grown talent, chief amongst which must surely be the excellent Riverside.
If you want to know just how good these accomplished purveyors of heavy prog are, perhaps a die-hard Rush fan like me can simply point out that I saw them play live in the same week as Rush on the Time Machine tour in 2011 and was hard-pressed to pick the better of the two gigs!
Starting with 2003′s Out Of Myself, the band have released a new album every couple of years to ever-increasing acclaim, culminating in the highly successful Anno Domini High Definition back in 2009. Since then, though, things have been comparatively quiet. A three-track EP, Memories In My Head, appeared in June 2011, but we’ve had to wait until the start of 2013 for a new full-length work. It’s here now, it’s called Shrine Of New Generation Slaves, and it’s absolutely stunning.
Shrine builds on its predecessor and develops the Riverside sound in a number of respects. Its carefully-chosen title is a coded signal of the band’s intent to produce better crafted songs (look at the initial letters!) and in this respect, they have largely succeeded. The band have historically been more prog than metal whilst embracing elements of both traditions, but this release sees them flirting with more straightforward hard rock and blues-tinged sounds in places. There is even a certain jazzy looseness to parts of the album. They wear these new influences well. Above all, what they’ve produced here is something that is more cohesive conceptually and more interesting musically than any of their previous work.
The variations of pace and atmosphere on display here are a delight. Fans of the harder, heavier aspects of the Riverside sound will particularly enjoy opener New Generation Slave, which turns into a real up-tempo rocker after a slow-burn beginning of plucked acoustic guitar, ponderous power chords and treated vocals. Celebrity Touch is equally powerful and even more straightforward in its approach but is marred slightly for me by overuse of distortion effects on Mariusz Duda’s voice. Lyrically, though, it’s an effective stab at the absurdities of celebrity culture: “What matters is to be in view / I am seen therefore I am”. A similar urgency pervades Feel Like Falling thanks to its pulsing synthesiser and staccato rhythm. It’s an undoubted earworm, almost a pop song, and an obvious choice for another single.
The rockier tracks are interleaved with quieter, more reflective pieces, as is common on Riverside albums. The melancholic, piano-driven We Got Used To Us mourns a failing relationship in which the participants “started to keep ourselves at a distance we could control, not too close, not too far” and “pretend we’re OK by filling up our inner space with little hates and so-called love”. Longer tracks The Depth Of Self-Delusion and Deprived (Irretrievably Lost Imagination) are typical of the melodic, effortlessly flowing songs that this band do so well. The former boasts a very Opeth-like minor key acoustic guitar motif and the latter’s 8 minutes and 26 seconds give ample time for some understated but excellent keyboard work by Michał Łapaj and a wonderful jazz-infused closing section featuring Marcin Odyniec on saxophone. Deprived is, in fact, one of the album’s highlights, with a vibe not dissimilar from recent solo material by Steven Wilson.
Penultimate track Escalator Shrine is the longest on the album and can reasonably claim to be its musical climax. It starts in low-key fashion with a melody picked out by Duda’s bass guitar and some bluesy electric piano, before building to a crescendo just before the five-minute mark with Hammond organ that recalls first Floyd’s Echoes and then the late Jon Lord’s work with Deep Purple. The frenetic pace lets up half way through and the last few minutes are more measured but no less epic in feel. The lyrics denounce the superficiality of a modern consumerist lifestyle: ”Buying reduced price illusions / Floating into another light / Melting into another lonely crowd”.
Despite its brevity, final track Coda is anything but an afterthought; rather, this delicate acoustic piece lends conceptual integrity to the whole album by reprising the verses of Feel Like Falling – although this time the tone is more hopeful, the “Day outside grows black … Squeeze my eyes shut” lyric changing to “Night outside grows white … Open my eyes, don’t feel like falling into blank space”.
By the way, if you are planning to buy this, let me recommend to you the two-disc limited edition. Disc 2 of the set, entitled Night Sessions, consists of over 22 minutes of instrumental music, split into two parts. Part 1 is reminiscent of Mariusz Duda’s solo project, Lunatic Soul, and features sequencer patterns that bring to mind early 80s Tangerine Dream; Part 2 is more minimalist and boasts some haunting saxophone playing. It’s very different in tone from Disc 1, but it’s very good!
As I prepare to give the new Riverside a spin (it is arriving much later in the U.S. than in other parts of the world), I thought it would be worth offering my thoughts on the previous work of Riverside, in particular the last full album, ADHD.
Five songs at 44 minutes and 42 seconds. The intrepid Carl Olson (of Ignatius Insight fame and now fellow Progarchist) first introduced me to this post-Communist Polish band, and I’ve been more than a little fond of them since our first encounter.
Brilliantly, their first three studio albums–collectively known as “Reality Dream”–form one story. Though I’ve listened to the albums too many times to count, I’m still not exactly sure what that story is about. It follows a man who is either a saint and having endless mystical visions, or else he’s insane and trapped in an asylum.
Either way, I like the story.
ADHD appeared at an important moment for me, musically speaking. Compared to some of the other “big” releases of 2009, ADHD towered.
Dream Theater’s album that year, “Black Clouds and Silver Linings,” served as an incoherent exercise in notes chasing notes and embarrassingly written lyrics.
Even more disappointing, Pure Reason Revolution’s “Amor Vincit Omnia” offered nothing but miserable sexual decadence and ridiculous Euro dance-type music. The title should’ve been Lust Conquers All, not Love Conquers All. How this could have been the same band that released the captivating “The Dark Third,” I have no idea.
Riverside’s ADHD redeems them all. Labeled “harder” and “heavier” by several reviewers, ADHD is nothing if not insanely intense. Is it hard? Yes. Do notes chase notes? Yes. Is there sexual deviance in the lyrics? Yes. But, unlike the music of Dream Theater’s most recent cd, or the lyrics of Pure Reason Revolution’s new album, Riverside’s heaviness, notes chasing notes, and lyrics all have a purpose; they each serve the entirety of the album. Indeed, nothing in this short 44plus minutes is in vein; every aspect of the album has its purpose and knows its place.
Indeed, Riverside expresses intense anger and frustration about the state of the world—the “liquid modernity” identified in the first track, “Hyperactive.”
Modernity destroys real community. “In the mass of different runners/Different lies/We can’t make time to realize/How the same we are.” And, modernity results in isolated, insecure (“hatred for my inner chaos”), and self-centered individuality.
We’ve lost the flow of generations, and we wallow in our subjective realities. “I used to be one of you/With the same spark in my eyes/And now I don’t belong to this place/It’s a matter of merciless time/I wholly vanish.” So far gone are we as a people, that we obsess about our own created gadgets, the products of our will and ingenuity, and our immediate fame, here and now. “Come to me now/I will cure your soul/I’m the savior of our times/I know exactly what it needs/You’ve let yourself go/You’ve felt so down/So my hi-tech salvation is just for you.”
Properly, progressive rock reviewers love their tradition and the heritage of the music. Reviewers always compare releases of Riverside to Porcupine Tree, Pink Floyd, and Tool. These are fine comparisons, but Riverside–from the opening note on their first album to the ending note on this most recent release–are very much their own band. Frankly, while building on what Pink Floyd offered, Riverside has topped Pink Floyd in terms of musical ability and atmosphere. More than anything else, Riverside has confidence its in its own abilities and direction, it understands the parts each member of the band plays in the band as a whole, and it recognizes the importance of voice (human and instrumental) in its music.
While each member plays exceedingly well here, the keyboardist, Michal Lapaz, stands out the most. From the opening note to the end of the album, his work defines ADHD. No keyboardist has played this well since Steve Winwood on “Blind Faith,” Greg Allman on “Fillmore East,” Rick Wakeman on “Close to the Edge,” or Mark Hollis on “Spirit of Eden.” I can’t even put my admiration in words. Every time I listen to him play on ADHD, I can only provide a rather sincere but inarticulate “phew.”
I give Riverside’s ADHD one of the highest rankings I can. This album is simply exemplary. Thank you, Riverside. Thank you, Poland.