By: Dave Cooper
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Released on September 4, 2015 via InsideOut Music
Polish progressive rockers Riverside have made many friends since their debut album, Out Of Myself, which turned them into an overnight cult in 2003. Thanks to an unbroken series of truly outstanding records, their audience has expanded steadily, and their last album, Shrine of New Generation Slaves, showcased the band at the top of their game. It appeared to display an increased confidence, and a broader musical palette: longer, more evidently progressive pieces built upon sturdy riffing have long been Riverside’s stock in trade, but on Shrine of New Generation Slaves the band seemed to be flexing new songwriting muscles – and perhaps the band themselves were perfectly aware of this, as the acronym of the album’s title (SoNGs) seemed to acknowledge.
Love, Fear and the Time Machine is the band’s sixth album (sixth album, six words in the title, just as the fifth album had five words in its title; although what this trend might mean for the band’s twelfth album, who can say?). In some ways it picks up from where SoNGs left off, but there is a key difference this time out. It is one of thematic approach. Riverside’s albums have long been conceptual, or rather thematic; that much has not changed. What has changed is the nature of the chosen theme. Chief writer Mariusz Duda has acknowledged a tendency to write about dark subject matter, but this time he has deliberately set out to write about a more upbeat subject. His chosen topic is possibly best described as a midlife crisis – not, perhaps, the most obviously jolly theme to write about, but Duda has set about it with a light touch and an emotional sensitivity that regular listeners will already have long since learned to value.
The whimsically titled opener ‘Lost (Why Should I Be Frightened By A Hat?)’ sets a meditative mood, and is half over before the full band arrive to kick things up a gear. Even this early in the record it becomes evident that this album is something a little different for the band. The sound is clearly and identifiably familiar, but there’s a new strength in the highly melodic opener, an unapologetic simplicity that makes it all the more memorable and affecting.
By recent Riverside standards the mood throughout the album is almost womblike, a warm, shimmering pool of sound that provides a deeply atmospheric stage for vocalist Duda’s finest recorded vocal performances to date. The usual touchstones – mid-period Porcupine Tree, Pink Floyd, and the occasional crunch of Dream Theater – remain in place, but this record continues the trend begun with SoNGS, that of a band truly discovering their own voice. A new confidence appears to have taken root in the band recently: whether this is in any way due to Duda’s extra-curricular activity under the Lunatic Soul moniker is open to question, but the timeline suggests that it may be at least partly responsible. The last Lunatic Soul record, Walking On A Flashlight Beam, even covered some vaguely similar thematic ground, albeit very much from the shadows. Here, the sun shines into Duda’s world view; but as has been observed before, there can be no shadows without the light, nor light without shadows, and so it proves here.
‘Under The Pillow’ flirts with the sound of late 90s Porcupine Tree but never slavishly so. It’s tale of late-night unease perfectly suited to the mood of the music. It also contains a wonderful keyboard-led section from Michal Lapaj who is really coming into his own on the band’s more recent records. His ability to hang, spectral, in the background, only to then deliver powerful and atmospheric playing that really helps to drive the music along is deeply impressive. ‘#Addicted’, on the other hand, is an almost instant earworm, an instantly memorable song with a very strong chorus, underpinned with one of Duda’s typically sturdy basslines. For all its propulsive nature, though, the song delivers a final surprise with an unexpected instrumental section, all gliding keys and acoustic guitar. Moments like these are a classic Riverside device. Some bands might be tempted to truncate or remove them altogether since they are hardly essential to the construction of the songs, but their presence demonstrates that Riverside have not forgotten that sometimes, in stripping things down to the essential, some of the soul can be lost.
‘Caterpillar and the Barbed Wire’ sees the protagonist’s midlife crisis in full flow, as they lament the necessity of subduing their own dreams to live their day-to-day existence “I’m tired of suppressing all my needs / I want to belong to the cloudless sky“. SoNGS was thematically preoccupied with sacrificing our personal happiness to remain on the hamster wheel of day-to-day living, remaining in unfulfilling jobs to allow us to enjoy what is left of our lives. On this album, Duda has taken that idea and taken it further. Given that this happens to us, how can we break the cycle? The central message of Love, Fear and the Time Machine – that personal transformation, for all its difficulties, is the route to true happiness – really takes hold here.
‘Saturate Me’ is more typical Riverside fare, Duda’s trundling bass shot through with brief explosions of drums and some sturdy riffing. However, the band’s newly discovered restraint ensures that the familiar soon gives way to a cascading ballad of throat-catching beauty. The protagonist’s fears wonderfully voiced by Duda, who sensitively explores the familiar fears and desire to improve our lives that we all experience. “Am I invisible? / Or alive? / I don’t want to feel like I’m no-one any more“. The mid-section of this song is a joy, as Lapaj’s keyboards join Piotr Grudzi?ski’s guitar to create a chiming duet that is both intricate and wonderfully atmospheric, before Duda’s vocal returns, poignantly underlaid with gentle acoustic guitar. It’s just one of a succession of highlights.
‘Afloat’ is wonderfully reflective, a creeping mist of organ underpinning chiming acoustic guitar and gently repeating bass part whilst Duda harmonises with himself about letting go – of anxiety, of the weight of expectations – all of which is perhaps merely a preamble to the following track, ‘Discard Your Fear’. This is perhaps the big crowd-pleaser of the album, Duda’s thundering bass thrumming with power as it drives along an anthemic life-affirming hug of a song. The song’s message of courage, belief and self-reliance in the face of self-doubt and uncertainty is a triumph, the huge chorus a cathartic moment that in many ways defines the album and vindicates Duda’s decision to seek the light, rather than the darkness, in his writing on this record.
The light having now well and truly broken through, the closing tracks of the record are perhaps its true heart. ‘Towards The Blue Horizon‘ begins as a swooning ballad, but gradually builds muscle and momentum before turning into a storming tech-metal blowout halfway through, a transformation that will delight existing fans; even here, though, there is a restraint and a finely tuned sense of drama that prevents the instrumental fireworks from outstaying their welcome, the powerful section slowly destabilising until it fizzles out into a tranquil afterglow that’s all the more affecting for the contrast. ‘Time Travellers‘ – with its message that we are all in the same boat, travelling our own personal roads through life, wondering what might have been had we taken a different fork in the road – compounds the life-affirming nature of the previous track whilst turning up the Pink Floyd quotient. In many ways this is really the last track, the last chapter of the story; but there is room for a coda in the shape of ‘Found (The Unexpected Flaw Of Searching)‘, which is the band’s final reminder that life is to be lived, not something to be afraid of. Duda’s vocals are truly outstanding here, as his heart is so plainly on his sleeve: “Oh, it’s a lovely life / You have gone so far / Don’t give it up / Oh, it’s a lovely life / You gotta go with what you think is right“, he croons as the musical sun sets into the sea behind him, a musical and lyrical afterglow that might just be the most affecting thing that Riverside have ever recorded.
Those who opt to buy the two-CD limited edition, another half-hour of Riverside in full instrumental flow awaits in the shape of the Day Sessions, a thematic sequel to the Night Sessions contained on the bonus disc from the limited edition of the SoNGS album. True to the thematic titling, the Day Sessions tracks are more relaxed and peaceful in feel than their predecessors, but that’s not to say that there’s not instrumental fireworks aplenty: drummer Piotr Kozieradzki and Duda are both in excellent form, the powerful rhythm section both serving as a backdrop for Lapaj and Grudzi?ski to indulge themselves to great effect, and occasionally the star turn in their own right. For aficionados, it’s a treat to hear the band stretch out in time-honoured fashion; for new listeners, it’s a demonstration of the band’s ability to build atmosphere and display their formidable skills away from the more song-based setting of the album itself. Either way, it’s more than worth the additional outlay.
It’d be tempting to proclaim this album to be Riverside’s finest hour, but the truth is that the band have been on a roll for some time now, each album more accomplished than the last, so the same has been true of each of their new albums for some time now. Here, though, the band seem to have tapped into something indefinable that renders the whole greater even than the sum of its parts. Much as the last album by Lunatic Soul, Walking On A Flashlight Beam, was that project’s most complete and emotive work, the same is true of Love, Fear and the Time Machine. In many ways the two records are the flip sides of each other, one seeking the dark, one seeking the light. This dichotomy is at the heart of all of Duda’s writing, and nowhere else – yet – more amply demonstrates his skill at crafting a musical journey, or how powerfully he can connect with the listener. Simply put, this album is a masterwork, showing Duda and his bandmates at the peak of their powers. It’s high time that more listeners discovered this astonishing band and their enormously powerful music; and with Love, Fear and the Time Machine the band have a record that has true crossover appeal beyond their existing, dedicated fanbase. Hugely melodic, profoundly moving and beautifully performed, this is a triumph beyond even the high expectations the faithful undoubtedly held. Riverside’s time has surely come.