One of the lamentable facts about great art is that it is often inspired by pain. It is frequently beauty borne of suffering. As many readers of this blog (and virtually all of the writers) are Rush fans, we are keenly aware of how the dual tragedies of Neil Peart’s life served as a creative impetus behind the band’s triumphant return on 2002’s Vapor Trails. Riverside itself is no stranger to tragedy, having lost their brilliant guitarist Piotr Grudzinski in 2016, while the band’s de facto leader, Mariusz Duda, lost his father only months later. Thus, the fuel for the creative fire behind Wasteland includes the pain of tragedies both real at a personal level, as well as imagined at a civilizational level when one considers the album’s apocalyptic theme. And based on some of Duda’s own words in a recent interview (see here), it may also serve as a metaphor for our current, chaotic times. The results of this creative fire are nothing short of stunning.
Musically, Wasteland finds Riverside significantly expanding their instrumental palette. While the album certainly includes some of the traditional Riverside sound we are familiar with from their previous six albums, juxtaposed with sounds heard much less frequently, if at all. The use of keyboards and acoustic guitars is more prominent on this album than any previous Riverside release. Meanwhile, Duda uses the higher pitched piccolo bass to great effect throughout. Some of this is undoubtedly due to recording as a trio for the first time, as a band simply does not replace a talent as unique as their dearly departed guitarist. Nevertheless, the solos and guitar work provided by various guest musicians are uniformly excellent. And of course, Riverside’s other members, Michal Lapaj and Piotr Kozieradski have stepped up their contributions as well.
In the end (and to use a metric I apply frequently to great progressive rock), Wasteland simultaneously sounds like everything and nothing that Riverside has ever done before. More particularly, the album contrasts songs that have much of the classic Riverside sound, with others that are wholly unique in the Riverside canon.
Wasteland opens with The Day After, the title of which is identical to a 1980’s movie about a nuclear apocalypse. Initially vocal only, a listener gets an immediate sense that something in the protagonist’s world has gone horribly, horribly wrong:
On the wall we paint our dreams
Hiding in the fallout shelters
While the Gardens of Eden
Are burning above
Duda’s voice fades into the background as the ominous music comes to the foreground to tell us the Earth has indeed been scorched.
The next two tracks, Acid Rain and Vale of Tears are heavy and very much in the classic Riverside vein. Lyrically, both of these songs paint a bleak picture of the wasteland to which the album’s title alludes; musically they convey the persistent and necessary urgency needed to survive in such a world. Guardian is up next, and paints a different picture. Lyrically, our protagonist is able to take a breather to contemplate the horrors that have befallen the world. Musically, this song is a much slower piece built on acoustic guitar and piano, conveying a sense of reflection.
Lament is a track of dynamic contrasts, arpeggiated guitar in the lighter parts with power chords and keyboards dominating the heavier parts. The final minute of the song features what sounds like an electric violin or perhaps some keyboard sounds that would not be out of place on a Vangelis album … and it’s hauntingly beautiful.
The Struggle for Survival is an instrumental track that provides a sound painting for the post-apocalyptic world of the album. Full of rough edges and dynamic contrasts between heavier and lighter sections, this track takes the listener through a world that is fallen far more than just metaphorically.
River Down Below is almost a plea for a breather by our exhausted protagonist, a search for solace and rest in a fallen world in which survival requires one to keep constantly on edge, while also finding the grave of someone who did not survive the apocalypse. Between the lines, the song also symbolizes the memory of their fallen guitarist Grudzinski.
The title track Wasteland picks up the urgency of movement through hostile lands:
I don’t you to make me wait too long
It’s time to get on the road
Musically, this track is widely varied and quite innovative. Among its best features is the highlighting of the piccolo bass by Duda, in what he describes as “the spaghetti western” section of the song. You’ll know it when you hear it. In an album stuffed with great songs, this one is probably my favorite.
The final track, The Night Before, closes the album with an extremely powerful emotional punch; one that is both understated and underscored by the use of a single piano as the song’s instrumentation (which, if I’m not mistaken, is a first for Riverside). Lyrically, the song alludes to taking solace and refuge in loved ones when the entirety of the surrounding world has fallen apart. Don’t be surprised if you feel at least a lump in your throat while listening for the first time (if not needing a tissue).
No matter what expectations I set for a new Riverside album, when I finally hear it I realize those expectations weren’t high enough. On Wasteland, I am absolutely floored. This album is utterly brilliant and might be the most emotionally resonant thing they’ve ever done. When you consider the entirety of the Riverside catalog, that’s really saying something.
[This review is dedicated to the memory of Piotr Grudzinski … rest in peace.]