Riverside has always been known as a progressive metal band. In truth, that’s always been a bit of a stretch, and to no one’s surprise, their sixth long player, Love, Fear and the Time Machine, settles the question for good. For now. The Polish quintet has long shared a more-like-heavy-prog-than-metal space with familiar entities Porcupine Tree and late Opeth (and late Fates Warning, to a lesser extent). Heavy, sure, but – apart from the occasional burst – not metal. There’s arguments out there, too, wondering whether Riverside is progressive. That question remains a little less easily answered and probably stems from the band’s general disregard for the technical wankery that brands so many prog bands and gets so many prog detractors’ panties in various states of wad. Most of what gets argued back centers on the above observation of sonic kinship with other progressive acts, but also that, as a for instance, it can be really difficult to pin down a time signature in any given Riverside song; that is, the band wields its chops in subtle ways.
The point is, it’d be silly to let a label set the table for your experience with the new Riverside record. If you’re not convinced, consider the band’s history as an example of how expectations ain’t always the best gauge of what you’re going to get. Early Riverside records were all about that coveted compelling contrast: serene or melancholic atmosphere slowly building and even-more-slowly building some more to catharsis and yet always leaving you wanting more. The flipside experience of those early records is that, beautiful as they are, sometimes the anticipated climax brings less of the relief you might get from your refractory period’s built-in breather (you dynamo, you) and more of the getting the last handful of broken chips at the bottom of the bag’s frustrating “almost there.”
Anno Domini High Definition solved all that by finally giving us pedal-to-the-metal progressive Metal for nearly an entire album. What made ADHD great was more great songs that also actually made good on all that threatened metal awesomeness – and without sacrificing the nifty tricks that make prog Prog. Follow up record Shrine of New Generation Slaves thought a cleverly acronymic title was the key and then forgot to pack the amazing songs. SoNGS was tethered to a novel-for-them bluesy/classic rock structure and managed some fun in its simplified take on dark themes, but it never felt wholly invested, save for typically beautiful melodies from Mariusz Duda.
The constant through it all, even on ADHD, has been Riverside’s pure comfort with contemplative melancholy, to the point that it feels like it’s where they belong; emotion is the name of their game. Makes sense, then, that just like ADHD was an exploration of hard-charged mania, and SoNGS was all groovy noir, this next one would be a whole lot of soft and feely. And so it is. Look at the album cover. Where earlier works were wrapped darkly in abstract weirdness, this latest is soft, edgeless, full only of muted hues and the silhouette of a small child. So what’s it saying? Well, as before, you can safely bet the house that it’s about love and loss and feelings and frustrations and redemption and reconciliation. But this time the voice is different. Softer. Gentler. In fact, the edge is gone altogether.
A lot of early Riverside’s metal rep came from some hefty distortion and edgy riffing. On LFatTM, they’re having none of that. The production is super warm and soft and works perfectly to capture and convey the trip they’re on here, which is quiet and focused inward. The first half of the record does some familiar things with the new sound, reaching back to the low key moments of their heavier albums and running them through the finer filter here. It’s the Riverside you know turned down a few notches and it works really well through the first half, where the progressive tools are used sparingly but lovingly and pay homage to the greats of prog’s yesteryears. “Under the Pillow” might be the track that best fits the band’s natural progression through SoNGS, featuring restrained rock-and-roll riffing and a pretty sweet guitar-keyboard interplay that will stick for a long time. The most immediately satisfying song on the album, though, is “#Addicted,” which calls back to 80s pop-post-iness via Porcupine Tree’s penchant for palatable pop melodies.
Following through the back half of the record, Riverside essentially becomes a new band bent on killing the listener softly with an unrepentant string of ballads. The only real break from gossamer nostalgia comes from “Discard Your Fear” and that’s just one track into the second half. It’s an excellent song, though, with loping bass lines that lends urgency to sleepy sad melody and a load of lovely atmosphere. The ballads are beautiful, to be sure. But there are five of them covering nearly a half hour of riffless drift, with but two minutes in “Toward the Blue Horizon” that run faster than slow, and those minutes make the Porcupine Tree homage play just a little too cozily, sliding right up to and even a little inside of “Anesthetize.”
There’s certainly a place for this version of Riverside, and it’s right here at this point along their trajectory, which is to say no fan should be surprised by the band’s recent comedown. The songs are gorgeous, even if they focus a little too much for some on being that and not much more. Unabashed fanboys and -girls are going to love the snuggly melodies and warm blanket feels, and prog metal heads are going to christen the beginning of the end for one of the subgenre’s standard bearers, and both of those things are pretty right on. Most will likely hear Love, Fear and the Time Machine for the first real step toward a new identity that it probably is and look forward to the complete transformation down the road.