Warsaw’s Riverside return with their seventh studio album in Wasteland. Whereas 2015’s Love, Fear and the Time Machine sought to connect with sounds of progressive giants Ayreon and Opeth (who themselves are heavily influenced by the progressive music of the ’80s), Wasteland embraces something in between the progressive and psychedelic movements of the 1980s, all while tinged with folk in various places and even touching upon outlaw country.
Wasteland‘s greatest successes become prominent when the band deviates from the tried-and-true progressive rock sound and push forward with outlier values instead of their cores. Progressive rock, for all intents and purposes, has become a particularly homogenized genre, but using its musical ethics as groundwork and deviating in tendrils makes for particularly interesting experimentation.
Wasteland begins with the oddly hymnal “The Day After” led by Mariusz Duda‘s powerful voice before distorting into the standard progressive jam in “Acid Rain” which touches upon all aforementioned influences. However, halfway through the track, the majority of the instruments fade away leaving the lead guitar to riff on a chord high on the fretboard while ambiance and an extra funky bass line lead into a wonderful choral vocalization.
Immediately contrasting this vibe is the straightforward “Vale of Tears” that is a fairly uneventful musical journey from beginning to end and stands out by, well, not really standing out much at all. Chromatic descents and standard “big” prog riffs? What is this, a Muse song? Well, basically yes. It feels like a necessary step for Wasteland, however, as the album is filled with instances of deviation from progressive rock norms that a template for the sound must be included. Regardless, the song itself feels like nothing much at all and quite like “wading through the desert.”
“Guardian Angel” is a phenomenal track. A major departure from the progressive opening third of the album, taking an ambitious jaunt into something resembling outlaw country in tone. The somber vibe of “Guardian Angel” is to be shared around a campfire after a devastatingly brutal loss. Truly magnificent track and easily one of the standouts on Wasteland.
Wasteland delicately places “Lament” after “Guardian Angel,” easing you into something slightly heavier, but still full of the melancholy tone set in place by the preceding track. “Lament” doesn’t “do” much in terms of crafting a real vision for Wasteland. Much like “Vale of Tears,” “Lament” is one of those necessary tracks on the album that attempts to create a real vision of diversity in Riverside’s songwriting. Nothing of note, but not a bad track by any means.
Thankfully, father takes us away from “Lament” and into “Struggle for Survival,” which is Wasteland‘s big progressive instrumental jam. “Struggle for Survival” begins with this repetitive staccato riff that lasts for the first third of the song, building a tension as other instruments enter around it before they all dissolve into a lone acoustic guitar that too makes way for an interesting and rambunctious guitar solo underlaid riffs reminiscent of turn-of-the-century Dream Theater. The final section of “Struggle for Survival” returns to acoustic guitars at the forefront, one rhythm and one lead, accompanied by some soft vocalizing before giving way to “River Down Below.”
“River Down Below” is one of the more folklike offerings, but in and of itself does not create an air of engagement in sound, composition, or use of instruments. The track does, however, pick up near the end by abandoning its central talk of the river down below and allowing Duda’s excellent lead guitar work to take center stage.
“Wasteland,” the album’s title track, feels like a grand fusion of all the tracks that preceded it. It begins with a shared outlaw country sentiment found in “Guardian Angel” before aggressively jumping into the big prog sound from “Vale of Tears” and “Struggle for Survival.” This sound eventually regresses into a harmonious mix of both attitudes, with lead guitars dancing around that country vibe while the rhythm guitars taking on the progressive sound we know and love. It isn’t before long that “Wasteland” throws a little bit of that familiar Ayreon sound with spacey keyboards leading the charge to close out the song.
In its final moments, Wasteland delivers “The Night Before,” a piano-driven lullaby depicting a safe zone in a war-torn area of the world. A solid closer, but leaves little to the imagination in terms of musicality and seems like a very “safe” way to close something of an eclectic album—not with a bang, but a whisper.
Wasteland isn’t a grand departure from the Riverside you already know and love. In fact, you’ll likely find many things to enjoy about the album and still others that may leave you desiring more vigor. The delicate risks that Wasteland assembles make it a more than interesting listen, but being so deeply married to its progressive roots leaves the album wholly unambitious and succinctly mediocre. The 52-minute record is simply “okay” when considered as a package, having tremendous highs that are so readily countered by apathetic progressive standards that harbor an overall negative impact. Wasteland never lets you forget that you’re listening to a progressive rock album, but maybe it should have tried harder to make that point known.