Poland is fast becoming one of my favourite countries for progressive rock. Sure, there are other genres being plumbed well by bands like Vader, Velesar and Monasterium, but it's the land of Fren and Amarok and Collage and they all play prog, albeit in very different styles. Riverside are Polish and they've been playing prog rock since 2001 with this being their eighth studio album. The prior four all went gold in Poland so they're building a buzz, and it's time I caught up on that.
The first note to make is that they aren't like any of those three other Polish prog rock bands, but they're closest to Amarok because they have a very fresh contemporary sound for a band with two decades behind them, even though there's often a lot of neoprog in their sound. I see them listed in various places as progressive metal, but there's precious little metal here, perhaps only hints in I'm Done with You, but even there it's hard rock in its heaviest moments.
The keyboards of Michał Łapaj are the first obvious element, followed by a crystal clear bass from Mariusz Duda to kick off the opener, Friend or Foe? Over time, his vocals will take over frequently, but it starts with keyboards, as if Riverside plan to play in an Alan Parsons Project ballpark or even Queen from The Works era of commercial prog pop. The vocals, when they do arrive, are clean and smooth and, with a subtle shift in keyboards, anchor this in new wave as much as prog.
But whatever I pull out of any individual song, it all comes back to prog, because this is never just simple new wave or hard rock or even reggae, once we get to Self-Aware. It's progressive reggae, hard rock or new wave, and that's why this album is so fascinating. Friend or Foe? is reminiscent of Steven Wilson once it's over and we can look back at its seven and a half minutes from outside. Landmine Blast goes in different directions, most obviously funk because of how bass-driven it is, but there's still a Steven Wilson flavour to it. These are good songs but they're not my favourites.
I prefer the songs that dive more into neoprog, even if Big Tech Brother features heavy keyboards and more presence from Maciej Meller's lead guitar to take it away from that. Post-Truth is a prowling beast, again built on that confident bass, even if it's content to end with delicate solo piano. I'm Done with You frames its neoprog as hard rock, with a swagger (and some fuzz) to the heavy guitar but with the delicate keyboards dancing around it. It seems as if it wants to be simple but it doesn't dare, so settles for some elements either way. I like it a lot. However, these aren't my favourites.
Self-Aware is the closer, that combines elements I never expected to hear together. Initially, it has little intention of playing in the same vein as anything else here. The neoprog is dialled down and the Steven Wilson elements ditto. If anything, it starts out like Thin Lizzy, built from power chords and recognisable changes. However, just as we're getting used to a Riverside song that just rocks, it segues seamlessly into reggae. It's the first genre shift within an individual song that feels like an attention grabber, but it works very well indeed. And yes, the song eventually raises the white flag and goes full on prog for its last few minutes.
And that leaves The Place Where I Belong as the epic of the piece to kick off the second side with a sense of real style. By epic, I mean thirteen minutes and change with a patient build. It's acoustic guitar chords behind a storytelling vocal when it starts and that vocal dominates, even with some gorgeous sounds emerging from the mix and long instrumental sections that never feel too long. It's surely the most patient this album gets and likely the most neoprog. It's definitely my pick for standout track because this band seems to get better the more space they have to breathe.
Oddly, that means that, while the album doesn't consistently get better track on track, the second half is where the material that connected with me the most can be found. That rarely happens and I'm eager to see how this band got to this sound, given that it certainly isn't what I expected going in.