Second Life Syndrome is the definition of progressive music. What do I mean by that? Well, Riverside could have happily iterated on their excellent debut and first part of their Reality Dream trilogy of albums, Out Of Myself, with another album like it, and most listeners would have been perfectly content. Few progressive music acts put out debuts as strong or cohesive. Instead, just two years later, they expanded on the mixture of laid back, atmospheric prog rock and heavier progressive metal, but moving toward a darker and more raw sound. Second Life Syndrome is noticeably heavier than Out of Myself, without losing the atmospheric qualities and mesmerizing lead guitar lines that made that album such a classic.
The defining feature of this album and of Riverside itself, really, are the interplay between Piotr Grudziński’s guitar lines, Michał Łapaj’s synths and Mariusz Duda’s ethereal vocals, drawing comparisons to bands like Anathema, Katatonia, Porcupine Tree and early Pain of Salvation. Piotr’s guitar playing is especially interesting, channelling the best of Tool, Pink Floyd and King Crimson into a unique and interesting writing style that’s easily adaptable to multiple genres and song styles. On Second Life Syndrome, Piotr’s writing tends towards the more tonally and stylistically raw, complimenting the lyrical themes and occasional use of harsh vocals from Mariusz, but still retaining the identifying aspects of his style that made Out of Myself the album it was. In fact, the atmospheric, ethereal clean guitar sections are all the more effective contrasted with the harsher, heavier riff heavy sections, supplemented by Michał’s synths and keys.
The first half of the album really showcases everything that’s so beloved about the band. Starting with the ghostly opening of After, Mariusz sets the tone of the album well with the spoken word piece comprising the first half of the track; “I can’t take anymore, I can’t breath, I’m sick of this goddamn darkness, sick of the sadness and the tears”, which is followed by an instrumental solo section with some of the aforementioned Pink Floyd-esque leads, which runs into the next track, “Volte-Face”, where the album’s excellent production and mixing really shine, with short solo followed a riff that’s sure to get your head bobbing and foot tapping. Just as quickly, however, the band transitions into a slower section with Piotr playing one of the band’s best melodies. The band briefly develop that melody into a riff, before the vocals kick in. These abrupt changes aren’t for nothing, though, as the elements introduced in the beginning of the song are all referenced and utilized again throughout. Rather than sticking to a standard song structure, Riverside are comfortable with exploring and subverting the standards of progressive rock.
Mariusz’s harsh vocals also appear in this song. An entire album of this vocal style might be grating, but here it’s used sparingly and effectively to embellish certain lyrical phrases or crescendos, another example of Riverside subverting the trope of progressive music being ostentatious and pretentious.
The next track, “Conceiving You”, is a bit of a shorter, more mellow song, with some of Mical’s best key playing and fantastic lead guitar playing by Piotr. This is a track that never ceases to make me feel melancholic, the way the best Katatonia songs do. In fact, modern Katatonia have more than one song similar to this one.
After that, however, is the title track, which is very much the centerpiece of the album and a quintessential Riverside song, containing slightly aggressive first part, a mellow second part, and an instrumental third part. In fact, the band have said that they consider the song the “sum of Riverside” and it certainly shows. Everything that the band is known for is on display, and Mariusz delivers one of his best vocal performances here, exploring the depth and breadth of his vocal range in ways that he refrains from showcasing on other tracks. Clocking in at a colossal fifteen minutes, this is an easy song to get lost in and zone out to, especially the latter third, an impressive instrumental jam that really lets the band stretch their legs out and show off how good they are at synergizing and writing interesting, flowing arrangements.
After the title track, “Artificial Smile” starts with a grooving, driving riff and drum pattern, and again Piotr delivers a smorgasbord of catchy riffs and leads, his guitar playing the standout element of the rest of the album. His note choice, phrasing, and guitar tone define the band make their sound instantly identifiable.
Many, many guitar players, both amateur and professional, have attempted to either copy David Gilmour’s iconic playstyle or, harder still, build on the foundation he established in Pink Floyd, but none have succeeded so completely as Piotr Grudziński has with Riverside. Unlike the aforementioned amateurs attempting to simply buy pedals and copy Gilmour’s tone, Piotr goes above and beyond to actually carve his own niche in the guitar community, one that’s sadly underrated compared to his peers. His playing, especially on the Reality Dream trilogy of albums, doesn’t really sound like any of his peers, in the best way possible. It’s hard to channel your influences as a guitar player in a way that sounds original and not derivative of those influences, and it’s the best players who manage to do so. Piotr was one of them, which is why his passing hurts so much. He was truly one of the best, most influential players in prog, as this album demonstrates, and despite perhaps not achieving the level of recognition other players in the genre have, his impact can be still be felt far and wide.
Second Life Syndrome is about as perfect a follow up to Out of Myself as anyone could have asked for, and the way it stands on it’s own as an album while also setting the stage for the follow up, Rapid Eye Movement, is something more concept albums should learn from. It’s been too long since I’ve really given this trilogy of albums a dedicated listen, and it’s a damn shame that it had to happen under these circumstances. The progressive music world lost one of their best, but his body of work lives on, and it’s one many an artist would be jealous of.