The Towards the Blue Horizon tour is a significant one for Riverside. For starters, its various legs take up most of their calendar year. The import of these manoeuvres has to do with more than merely logistics and workload: this marks the start of a new chapter, forced upon the band following the death of Piotr Grudzi?ski in 2016. The tour is clearly an emotional experience for Mariusz Duda, Piotr Kozieradzki and Micha? ?apaj, who opt to replace a more conventional support act with pre-recorded ambient music taken from the Eye of the Soundscape album, released after Grudzi?sk’s passing.
Duda opens the show proper by talking to the crowd about catharsis. Later in the set, he’ll refer to the crowd as family. The gig’s demographic is typical of such modern progressive acts – largely white men, almost all older than the performers and uniformly dressed in band t-shirts. There is a familial generosity from the audience today, which only seems appropriate given the circumstances.
Opening, perversely, with ‘Coda’, Duda declares his intention to “wipe the tears from your eyes”. In light of the past year’s events it’s easy to retrospectively assign meaning to lyrics that have nothing to do with Grudzi?ski. Still, the choice of songs tonight is fitting, and reminds that Riverside are at once a thematically melancholy and uplifting proposition.
The band made the decision not to fully replace the founder member, instead opting to hand lead guitar duties to frontman Duda whilst in the studio. This approach might work with multi-track tapes, but a different tack is needed for live performances, hence the arrival of Maciej Meller, a friend of the band and an excellent player. Meller finally joins the band onstage during a heavy, organ-led groove and is warmly greeted by the fans.
The first piece to test Meller’s credentials is ‘Second Life Syndrome’. This feels an apt choice, given its opening similarities to Pink Floyd’s paean to Syd Barrett – the message in the music appears to be, quite literally, “shine on, Piotr”. The through-composed song is the first of many ambitious selections and takes in a lot of what makes Riverside idiosyncratic. Meller’s sound is not dissimilar to Grudzi?ski’s, but crucially, he plays with a depth of emotion to match his flawless technique. The first ambient segment in the evening’s performance ends abruptly with Duda’s 6/8 bass runs, his dextrous fingers typically making light work of the complex shapes involved. ‘Conceiving You’ then serves as a reminder that Riverside can make succinct emotionally resonant music, alongside the epics they’re better known for.
The taut 7/8 strut ‘Caterpillar And The Barbed Wire’ is tightly executed, before the compound time hysteria of ‘The Depth Of Self-Delusion’ sets in. This composition soars before oriental keys lead us into a heavy bass solo that showcases Duda’s virtuosic abilities. This isn’t the only amazing solo of the night – shortly after this, ?apaj’s synthesisers take the spotlight for an equally dazzling turn. It’s not all technical prowess, however – Duda adopts an acoustic guitar for a brief acoustic segment that brings the pastoral elements of Riverside’s sound to the fore, before the band bring the funk with a powerful version of ’02 Panic Room’.
‘Saturate Me’ is more complex musically and sees the four piece playing in perfect unison, switching from delicate to heavy riffs with ease whilst mastering time signature changes. ‘Escalator Shrine’ is another epic that features delicate vocal harmonies before moving into a sludgy mid-section. The main set concludes with the tribal toms of ‘Before’, rounding off a truly progressive, metallic rock show full of light and shade.
Duda is on fine vocal form all night, able to sing with clarity for the majority of the set yet still omit a visceral scream when required. He thanks the crowd for their support over the last year before encoring with ‘Toward The Blue Horizon’: “I just miss those days, and miss you so; Wish I could be strong when darkness comes”. The emotional resonance between the audience and the performers, particularly Duda, is strong.
The band depart by reframing ‘Coda’ in an optimistic setting, weaving in the refrain from ‘Goodbye Sweet Innocence’ for a heartfelt singalong: “When something ends something else begins; We are moving on”. The effect is akin to a requiem for the departed Piotr Grudzi?ski that’s genuinely affecting for the band and the gathered fraternity. Tonight, and presumably elsewhere on this pivotal tour, Riverside set out to curate a collective musical and emotional catharsis. They achieve this emphatically.
All photos taken at the Islington Assembly Hall, London