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!