“What do you have left when you’ve lost everything?”
Self-answering question it may seem, Wasteland acquires its gut-wrenching emotional power by asking one primary question of its listener. Its title is as haunting as its stark, bleak and empty soundscape, the fluid guitars of Piotr Grudziński more conspicuous than ever due to their lamentable absence ever since his sudden death of cardiac arrest at 40 in February 2016. If emptiness truly exists, it is personified by the sound of Wasteland.
Riverside’s music has been a constant in my life since I discovered them in 2010, their all-guns-blazing metal-driven Anno Domini High Definition and their pensive, soothingly melancholy debut Out of Myself two of my most-played albums of all time. The former has entertained and energized me on many late-night drives home across town and kept me awake and excited on otherwise boring and cheerless evenings, while the latter was the soundtrack to many late-night studying sessions and has been a pillow to lean on (and sometimes to cry on) amidst a variety of pains and hurts, from draining workdays and lonely mornings, to broken friendships and failed romances. Wasteland has come out on the heels of a personal post-apocalypse in the summer of 2018, in which I experienced the terrible grief of saying goodbye to a former love interest concurrent with a steadily collapsing work environment, and left a job I spent four years in rather than risk having a mental breakdown and getting fired, and had to start over from zero. Thus, it has become not just the first chapter of a new story for Riverside themselves, but another chapter in my story with this legendary band, and a mutual catharsis that brought us healing. Wasteland is living proof that the only place to go from nothing, is forward into something new, and it must happen as inevitably as empires fall and rise, forests burn down and regrow, and people fall out of our lives and hearts and then back in again.
The first impression of Wasteland is not at all inaccurate. Singer, lyricist and bassist Mariusz Duda has taken over all rhythm guitars and driven the band into a much heavier and darker direction than the light and uncommonly bright Love, Fear and the Time Machine was indicating, probably for good if Grudzien had lived. Lead guitars are minimal and mostly contributed by Quidam axeman and Riverside’s live guitarist Maciej Meller, his style less bluesy and fluid than Grudzien’s but similarly emotional and expressive enough to fit comfortably into the mold, yet other tracks feature very minimalistic leads from Duda, plus one with a more dissonant and technical edge never once displayed on a Riverside album. By means of this drastic alteration, one feels as if a core element of the band’s music has been forcefully ripped out and, unable to completely heal itself, taken what it can from the past yet reconstructed itself organically. Duda’s experimentation with grave vocal tones, lower than ever heard in studio, and more liberal use of bleak yet beautiful acoustic guitars and Slavic melodic structures showcases the dramatic change in sound on Wasteland, that has forever altered the heart and soul of Riverside to reflect its greatest tragedy. Riverside feels incomplete and broken, clearly to never be the same as they once were, but yet the many moments where one notices this are perhaps the most poignant and human, and thus Wasteland is, in its own unique way, a more truly Riverside album than anything to come before it, or may ever come after.
The appropriately titled The Day After is an a capella vignette, burned-out eyes gazing out onto scorched fields of nothing as Duda’s vocals echo through an utterly terrifying silence, one never heard since Wasteland’s spiritual companion album Second Life Syndrome, at whose beginning he cast a futile whisper into an endless darkness that he can no longer stand. But where on that album, he had some hope in turning his life around to strive for at the end of the tunnel, there is no light ahead now, as the sun lies obscured seemingly forever by the smoldering ashes of civilization.
Who shot first? Who knocked down the first domino that led to the world tumbling down?
Were we always never meant to be? Or was it perfect, until someone made a mistake and broke us apart?
And now, there’s no way to put everything back together. No matter what Duda tries to say, it begins with an analog of “what if.” Because there are no other words for such an unspeakable tragedy that nobody really wanted, and nobody wished even on their worst enemy.
“Losing you destroyed my world. It felt like my heart was forcibly torn out and left an enormous hole that nothing can even try to fill. Every time I try to patch it up, I just get sadder because it never works. But what’s the alternative? To just let it keep bleeding and throbbing?”
Once the end has come, everyone looks for someone to blame. But there’s nobody left alive to interrogate, to demand an answer from, to point a finger or shake a fist at.
And for most of the survivors, nothing is the only answer, the only closure, the only reason, they will ever get.
As Duda’s voice gradually flickers out like a dying radio signal, the deathly silence is swallowed by an engulfing tunnel into the bowels of hell on earth, from which distant violins drone like elegies of the millions upon millions whose ghosts nurse each others’ wounds, approaching the few survivors slowly but hungrily, as if to haunt them for the rest of their lonely and insignificant lives. Like the rest of the world, they continue to exist, yet in such a hollow and incorporeal form, that they really don’t. Like they are just there to remind the remnants of humanity of their mistakes which caused this unspeakable calamity, ekeing out a sadistic pleasure in spending even one instant making them feel even more worthless before they join them in death. Perhaps the pall of impregnable darkness the victims cast over the survivors, is even more unbearable than the soot-stained void of the nuclear winter to come.
The earth will never see another blue horizon. And there is nowhere to run from the oncoming storm, as it brings with it the Acid Rain.
The thunder of corrosive heavy riffing surrounds every corner as acrid clouds slither over the devastated plains like an army of flies over decaying roadkill. The deep, ominous bassline gradually darkens the sky as the buzzy frequencies of drums, bass and the album’s characteristically overdriven electric guitars hiss and smoke until he can’t see ahead. Soon the air becomes blacker than one could ever imagine black to be, until Łapaj’s keyboards bring relief for a moment, except that they bathe the scarred, crumbling skyscrapers in a radioactive glow that becomes the only light for many miles. Duda’s voice emerges scowling, the rhythm and cadence of the gentle Caterpillar and the Barbed Wire from Love, Fear and the Time Machine maintained but with much more sinister and dark overtones, the smooth 7/8 meter now becoming unsettling and disturbing and periodically breaking up entirely as Duda sings as the personification of everything wrong, imperfect, and shameful about himself, the lid of Pandora’s Box blown loose by the ruinous shockwaves. Every mistake he made, every worry he ever repressed out of fear of judgment, every lie he let himself believe, every thought of self-loathing that he couldn’t stay, once all just stewing in his head and now raining down upon it like fire and brimstone from above. Just like the once virgin earth, human carelessness and greed destroyed something pure and innocent, but he knows this emotional storm is much more of his own making. So how could he complain, if he really deserves what is happening? But even though deep within, he cannot believe this to be true, it doesn’t change what is happening, and it is too late for repentance from judgment nigh.
“You don’t lose out on heaven unless you make mistakes. So was I supposed to be in heaven … but instead I’m being left behind here to be punished for my mistakes?”
Everyone around him takes cover, the pace of whatever daily life they’ve carved out amidst the chaos sent into a distorted haze by the constant fuzzy walls of guitar riffs, until no one can tell whether it’s day or night anymore. The chorus remains caught between major and minor keys, its 6/4 rhythm precarious, and Duda’s vocal floating above and then below the chordal center, as the vanishing sunlight makes everything that makes life possible, uncertain. Łapaj’s keyboard lead before the second verse billows like thick smoke rising from the burning Gardens of Eden, infested with sin and pestilence and merely cleansing themselves of humanity. As acid rain continues to soak the ground crying out for blood, Duda’s voice itself grows ever more deeply soaked with regret, decrying how unfair it must be for acid rain to fall on the just and unjust, the innocent to experience destruction with the guilty – or perhaps even the worse death, for everything around them to be wiped away, but themselves. He can erect only the flimsiest of defenses as the deadly clouds begin to pour out their seventy times seven bowls of wrath, cringing in dread as raindrops more caustic than anything known in nature cascade down from the hopeless skies, as if heaven and hell had been vertically flipped and hell’s fury began to rain down on the earth. The water that once gave the earth life, now silently brings decay, and the lack of effect it has at first is a fatal deception, because for a moment he thinks everything is okay, but then he knows and remembers that the acid will eventually corrode his skin. There is nowhere to wash it off, because all the water around is tainted. All he can do is pray for the storm to end soon, hoping that it doesn’t make life too unbearable to continue on through.
“People say it’s better to love and lose, than never to love at all. But look at it this way: if you loved someone and lost them, isn’t that like torture? Would you rather not know there’s a heaven, or even know that there never was one at all … or know there is one, but that you went somewhere else?”
The hazy overdriven riffing begins to fade into a colorful dance-club section with acrobatic bass and Meller’s wailing distorted guitar solos, flickering in and out with the electricity, every burnt-out light bulb and dead battery finding no replacement. Its steadily stomping kick drum and 70’s style organ recalls vintage Genesis or Peter Gabriel but with the electronic impulse of a Dead Can Dance or Depeche Mode, and though it seems oddly incongruous with the dark lyrical content, there is an artificiality underneath it, gazing back at dim echoes of the joy before the walls came down as Duda reflects with anguished spoken voice, that maybe they were never really happy at all, like they were the damned that C.S. Lewis said would find out in hell that they were always there. That if happiness was so transitory, perhaps it never existed in the first place. That even when they danced the night away like it would never end, they were really just dancing ghosts, whose bodies could be ripped away from them any instant.
Suddenly, it does. Bass and drums completely stop without warning. The gentle Mellotron keeps a solitary vigil over the city barely holding on to normalcy, until it resigns itself to its fate and dies down into the shadows of silence.
“Isn’t love supposed to heal all wounds, bridge all gulfs? Isn’t love patient and kind? Greater than even faith and hope? Then why can’t it stop people who would never give up on each other, from breaking apart?
WHAT DID WE DO WRONG??”
Kozieradzki’s drums thud through the blackened void, their very dry, mechanically gated tone a major contributor to the cold and dystopian feel of Wasteland. Vale of Tears’ title continues the dark religious imagery throughout many songs of the album, the foxhole from which the devout and atheist alike pray to be freed, but never can seem to escape, drawing them back like the gravity of a black hole. As he looks back on the relationship that never worked out, he sees that in this ravaged world, there’s scarcely a place unstained by the past to which he can run.
Each time he tried to make it work satisfies him on the surface as electronic elements and almost computerized vocal line akin to Muse or The Smashing Pumpkins, trade off with the Deep Purple-esque cadence of the steady 4/4 drum beat and the 70’s style rock guitar riff, yet once the narcotic artificiality fades, his emotions crash into colorless and arid electric guitar as Duda is left struggling to go on with life and reach a future that once was, but is now a mirage in the desert left behind after everyone’s dreams were set aflame.
“Why can’t we control who we fall in love with? Why is love so much more powerful than anything else? Because if you lived in darkness and suddenly the brightest light you’ve ever seen shone through, wouldn’t you fall completely in love with it? Make it the very purpose of your existence? Live as if your life depended on it?
And then one day, it leaves as quickly as it came. And even if you chase after it the rest of your life, you’ll never find it again.”
Yet he still desperately chases after that addictive rush of belonging to someone, anyone, as the groove reels him back in, yet the bass grows more metallic and incisive and the hi-hat pounds brutely as Duda fiercely reads an endless list of petitions to his subject – anything she could ask him to do to make her want him again, or that she could do to make him want to come back again. But every time their house of cards falls apart amidst the simplest tensions of life and leaves him hurt, just like the last time. And eventually the tension simmering underneath the surface bursts forth into open conflict, the marching forth of a battery of galloping snare, bass and rhythm guitar akin to classic Iron Maiden, never before a perceptible influence on Riverside. The rhythm sways like a tower wobbling under the unbalanced weight, until the root chord rings out fatefully, its tonal resolution toppling the balance toward the point of no return.
Łapaj’s electronic solo floats over a mid-paced groove-driven metal riff, gradually gaining momentum as he layers additional patches over the solo, until Kozieradzki sends the crash cymbal tumbling slightly off course and the rhythm is then derailed entirely by the highly technical solo by Mateusz Owczarek (Lion Shepherd). His employment of rock-influenced bends and eventually blisteringly fast tremolo picking is rather jarring, grinding gears with the choppy rhythm and its chaotically shifting time signatures until it burns itself out into dust where Duda repeats the chorus thricefold. Perhaps both of them now realize their hopes of being together have fallen apart, one person’s mistake setting off a chain reaction of mutually assured destruction that blows away any hope of ascertaining the initial cause, until no one knows who should apologize, or how. The floundering electric guitar and Duda’s signature wordless melisma let out faint gasps of dying hope, until all goes silent and still and what once were best of friends, become mere strangers.
“How do you forget someone who was the center of every single part of your life?
It’s like the solar system of a dead star, trying to forget the sun ever existed.
You can never stop noticing its absence.
You spiral in vain through miles of endless darkness, and never find the light.
And your life is and will never be even remotely the same.”
He chased too long after the one who was his world, and now all the world has turned and left him here. As he gazes out at the vacuous prairie, once fertile and now a dust bowl like everything else around it, he realizes he’s gazing inwards too. He walks alone and friendless through the ruins of himself, looking for who he used to be. Skeletons of withered trees dot the landscape like fossils from a long-gone epoch that he knows existed, but couldn’t prove to anyone born into this relentlessly inhospitable and unforgiving world any more than he could prove the existence of the color green to a man blind from birth. It feels as futile to chase after threads of that existence, as to try to catch flowers beset in a gale. But suddenly, strands of flowers actually blow into his face, one of the few species that managed to survive in this fallen and uncertain place without the sun. Even though they tickle his eyelids so perfectly in their tenderest spots that he can barely keep them open, he unwittingly chases after their source and sees for the briefest moment beside a tree stump, that something around it is actually moving and breathing.
Finally, someone left alive to talk to, says one shoulder.
Finally, someone left alive to blame you, says another.
Either way, he knows that life persists somewhere in this wasteland. He cannot wander through fields of death forever, running after something blown away by winds quicker than he could ever keep pace with. Even if what he finds here is nothing but judgment and scorn, at least it would be a quicker end than the slow, agonizing death by starvation, dehydration, or whatever he’d be lucky enough to find the soonest, that he knows millions have suffered before him. So he sprints the remaining mile in seemingly an instant, placing trust in his Guardian Angel to deliver him from the judgment ahead.
Off to the side of the tree stump, a middle-aged woman lies sobbing profusely, her once cherubic face buried in the grime coating the sandstone cliffs. The only human touch she ever expected to feel again was a kidnapper, rapist, or murderer, yet before her eyes inflamed with fear can fully peel away from his hand on her shoulder, they latch on to that sense of regret and emptiness in his eyes, and she suddenly feels a subconscious sense of empathy that draws her to him. His very existence is like a song to her, but one no longer fully beautiful and sweet, its mournfully chiming high-register folky lead melody melding with more traditional strummed chords reminiscent of Out of Myself’s layered acoustic ballads, with Łapaj’s more classically influenced piano placing the piece in the more modern era of Riverside. To punctuate the album’s darker mood, Duda’s crisp mid-range tone has been tainted by the rough-spun bass-baritone of a Tom Waits, the enunciation ever so gently trembling, just trying to soak in the immense tragedy and inhumanity of the scene she describes to him.
“Grief is an equal opportunity killer. It can come back to kick you while you’re down and leave you writhing with pain so piercing you can’t even get up, or it can kick you while you’re climbing the mountain you always dreamed about and send you plummeting to the ground. It doesn’t care when it comes, any more than cancer cares whether it kills someone who’s nearly finished dying, or who’s just beginning to live.
How are you supposed to prepare against an enemy you can’t even see coming?
No more than you can proceed with business as usual, knowing a deranged axe-man could break into your house at any single moment.”
Something about the explosions outside this small enclosure, set off a chain reaction within someone’s soul that sent a moral shockwave through their already damaged façades of civility. Someone seemingly pure and unstained, hid a monster within that became unleashed when the cover of law and order was forcibly riven along with the fabric of civilization. Far in the distance, the dust from a senseless and lawless firefight begins to clear, the acoustic guitars quieting down into a hushed near-silence as if never understanding how something like this could logically come to happen. What is it that could bring former friends who once shared crumbs of bread with each other when they were hungry, to fight for that same privilege over the very last crumbs of bread, even to blow each other away for them like the dust now billowing over the barren mountains? But on the other hand, is it really wrong to want to live when you’re on the edge of death, even if it means others must die who are on the edge of living?
Through the near silence left behind by the pensively understated acoustic guitar, Duda ponders the very meaning of morality in this wasteland. If morality is really just a societal construction and not an objective moral code, then shouldn’t it just not exist anymore when society disappears? Or is there some higher moral standard, of which he now knows he has fallen short? And what redemption can be found in a world so fallen from grace? There’s nothing left to fight for, except survival. But the last shards of a shattered humanity rarely ever band together as one to survive, but instead fracture even further into every man for himself. For in the struggle between man’s two opposite instincts and tendencies – to love and to fear – which one is favored to win in a world where life withers away with the second and death is around every corner?
The only way forward from the apocalypse is to search amidst the ruins for something to reclaim and restore. And perhaps by so doing, he can begin to expiate his great wrong that left his world in ruins, and atone for the sins of humanity by rebuilding it one person at a time. Fragments of a song left behind drift in the wind behind him, the desolate lead guitar line never quite forming into anything concrete as it once did, like it’s pleading for resolution.
“My son was out there. I can hear him crying.
Can you help me find him?”
He knows there’s no running from the wailing that hounds them like a starving dog begging for food. He can’t leave her trapped in the void of unknowing, for it is a worse punishment than to know the worst has happened – as then life can’t go on as normal even when everything could be perfectly normal. Something inside him seems to change, wanting the chance to become something more than a shell of existence that the dead gaze upon with pity, as if he was the one truly trapped in oblivion. He realizes his weathered voice softening with the acoustic guitars as it wraps itself gently over her distraught pleas like a comforting woolen blanket. He’d tell no one else this special secret, a safe passageway to the place she seeks, where they will boldly stare into the heart of suffering together in the faint but growing hope that perhaps they will discover salvation together in this forsaken land of perdition.
And on this journey down the rocky road to humanity’s Calvary, as the melancholic dual acoustic guitars recur, they learn to share their pain for the first time.
“They say ‘people come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime.’ They stay until they’ve given you all they can, and then they’re just gone. So why do people who have a lifetime to offer us, stay for so much less? Surely instead, you could be sent for a year or two one of the people worth no more than that much of your time anyway. And then it wouldn’t seem like such a waste of human potential.
We know our friends better than we know anyone else, until after they’re gone when we only seem to remember the moments we didn’t share, and the words we never said.
And then even our best friends begin to feel like people we never really knew at all.”
The path downward seems instinctive to him at first, and yet he finds himself spending far more time on the road than he thought he would. Though the once-glorious limestone rock formations lie bleeding out white and yellow, gouged out by acid rain scars that were never meant to be there, the outline of their remnants is still familiar enough to trigger just enough of his memory to convince him they were there, but not enough of it to remind him they’d ever looked any different. And thus the threads of his past memory of this place begin to unravel like a moth-eaten sweater until he starts losing his way, and he begins to actually believe he’d always felt like this.
“People say that you get over grief by doing things you enjoy. But what do you do when you were so close to someone that it seems like everything you enjoy makes you feel grief?”
The acoustic-based melancholia of Lament bleeds forth from the caverns of his deeply wounded heart, as the eyes that drifted in and out of consciousness opened to realize that he’d forgotten she was even there to begin with, and now she’s lost somewhere along the way. Duda’s fragile vocal drifts over a faintly disintegrating country-based acoustic guitar, the plaintive sense of sorrow transforming the boundless, fertile American plains of classic Johnny Cash into a ruin so barren and devastated it could be anywhere in a world where prairie and Eiffel Tower alike are equally no more. As he walks the charred backroads messily strewn with pieces of once flawless blacktop blown apart and scattered around the disfigured ground, he sees a tiny fortress at the end of the former riverbank marked with what he knows, in this vast catacombs of tomorrow’s dreams, must be a basalt cross. Because there’s nothing else left to build but graves, and nothing to build with but sticks and stones.
The river that once passed through here is no longer even a trickle, the waters of life now dried up except for one last bucket of water he can see in the distance – almost certainly the instigator of the firefight, once all natural resources were exhausted.
One way or another, he’ll find either life or death.
Now he forges ahead into the danger zone, prepared to sacrifice himself to find someone he doesn’t even know, but that right now would mean everything for him to find.
“Loss is never a one-time event. Every time you do something alone you used to do together, every time you stand somewhere they used to be, every time their face drifts into your head, every time their name crosses your lips, every time you come across or eventually let go of some memento, you lose them all over again.
Maybe we only stop feeling sad about it because we’ve lost them so many times that we’ve grown numb to it.”
He watches in horror as a boy’s face turns slowly away from the fortress and gravely gazes upwards at him, not even aged seven but emblazoned with the weariness of a tired old man who’s seen too much suffering to carry on. Even the permanent stains of soot and the still bleeding scar on his emaciated and blistered face cannot mask the sense of impending doom and dread that engulfs its every pore, the obvious fact that his skin is bursting out with radiation burns not even registering in his fatigued brain anymore.
The boy speaks – but painfully. Like every word is a knife cutting into his larynx.
“My daddy was here. My daddy taught me how to build things.
I didn’t know why. Until now.
What else is there to do anyways?”
And he tries to hold on to labored breaths as long as he can, hoping the approaching throng in the distance can at least see one of them, but his ravaged body gently falls like a tree’s leaves in winter breeze and lands in the dirt, the impact obscuring it briefly in a shroud of dust.
And then it lays hauntingly still.
A funereal chord sequence marches in on electric guitar, carrying the pallid crowd onward toward the body. Nobody who saw the bombs hit ground zero is alive, but those who remain are about to experience it themselves, the doomy chord intervals and staggered drums looming over them just as fatefully. All of a sudden, she emerges from the sea of mourners with black veil raised, frantically jumping over rock, twig and pothole in fear of what might just have happened. She shakes the lifeless body in vain, and as she finds no pulse or breath left in the flesh of her flesh, she lifts the corpse onto her back and comes out to give him over to the black-shrouded crowd.
As she struggles to bear the poundage of her son’s dead weight, he feels compelled to help carry her cross along this Via Dolorosa. The drumline plods along in the grisly and ponderous 6/8 meter, as if straining to keep on its feet, to stand up straight amidst the back-breaking pain, be it emotional, physical, or both. In a world of suffering innocents, only those who join those who suffer will demonstrate true love. And never since the firestorm came to feast upon humanity, has he felt so united with them, as in sharing their most unbearable travails.
The Slavic hymnal vocal melody from The Day After is reprised, a choir of humanity singing in unison as people who once fought over and strove to amass petty things are now struggling for scraps, mending each other’s myriad wounds, and banding together for the first time in their life – but for what end? The most they can do together now, is hoist their fallen brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters onto their collective shoulders, and lift them upwards back to the empty sky from which they were born, crying out in anger and despair to someone who seems to have forsaken his crumbling creation. If their prayers to save his life could not be answered, then why not stay in the business of letting people die, and let them join him? Wouldn’t it be even easier to grant death to people that actually want it, instead of those who were still trying to survive?
Duda’s newfound appreciation for the piccolo bass is showcased in the instrumental midsection, where xylophone, classical violin, and a cherubic wordless vocal sing their childlike lament, a song of fragile trust from a race reduced to nothing but God’s prodigal sons who can’t find their way home. But the four-note chug metal riff grinds the song to a halt, as a drifty, forlorn lead solo echoes dully with a doom-metal sense of static hollowness, betraying the emptiness of the absence of Grudzien more than any other yet. Duda layers a three-note unison solo on guitar over the final chorus, its superimposition over the addition of banjo casting a spell of famine over the once fertile grassland plains. Eventually, the wall of sound from the electric guitar abruptly recedes mid-verse as the dam of grief silently bursts open and everyone collapses into the dust, Duda’s vocal style shrinking back into the fragility of the acoustic intro as their final prayer squeaks out of their exhausted lungs until it vanishes silently into the sandful of nothing ahead.
But where once Riverside would have ended the song there, instead the violins provided by Michał Jelonek are left for the remaining minute to cascade aimlessly over each other, a hundred grief-stricken voices in a distraught cacophony of utter helplessness. Caught in limbo between this world and the next, crying with deep inward groanings for the howling winds, freezing cold, or even the slow-burning death of nuclear fallout, to come and take them away from this tomorrowless world, but too physically broken to raise a head in prayer, and too distraught to utter a word.
But as the sway of peaceful somnolence embraces the throng of mourners like a long-lost lover, only he remains awake, and he senses that it’s not yet his time. That he’s done everything he can for now to guide them along their path, to share their unbearable sufferings, and now must proceed onwards to his next mission, somewhere towards the black horizon.
The Struggle for Survival injects the classic Riverside formula with a sense of playfulness and espionage, opening with a guitar theme built around two notes but rather funky in its attack and phrasing, rather than heavy or imposing as this interval would normally have been. Throughout the following two minutes, the repetitive interval is layered with Tool-gone-funk bass, fateful electric clean guitars and melancholic alien synthesizers, as a gradual call to arms before some great battle to come. Vaguely Middle Eastern themes drift across the endless desert in which war drums echo from parts unknown, as he feels a certain sense of mysterious calling that leads him into that very unknown ahead, or perhaps not unknown, but just forgotten in a world where no one knows which way is up anymore. There are no words to say for the entire nine and a half minute piece, as his battle is not a dialogue with the vagabond gangs that still lurk in the grimy recesses of this playground of the damned, but rather a monologue within his own will as a one-man army sent to conquer the lawless unknown ahead.
“When life as you know it has ended, everyone around you fights to the death for the vain privilege of dying just a little bit later than everyone else. But the biggest battle is not to be fought outside you, but within. For just how much more courage does it take to not just look outside you at absolutely nothing, but to then look inside yourself to find something worth living for?”
The Marillion-esque squeals of Meller’s lead solos split apart into more Alex Lifeson-styled fragmented melodies and then even further into Al di Meola jazz fusion territory as the snare marches forward in tightly regimented time with the bassline, until the bass starts to thud and thump like Geddy Lee’s while Kozieradzki’s drums stumble into the unusual time signatures and rock-based up-beat syncopation of Neil Peart, as his course suddenly diverges into regions no man has yet explored. A sense of fear and dread begins to creep up behind him like every crawling shadow that could at any moment pounce upon him like an owl ensnaring its defenseless prey, as the piece evolves into a more tenacious rock juggernaut punctuated by more vintage-style keyboard leads until it becomes up-tempo, signaling the beginning of his Battle Royale. An ominous clean guitar line forms the basis of this second movement, its tone overdriven to the point of nearly sounding electronic as it is overlaid with a futuristic keyboard patch, ponderous chase through caverns of rock and sand fittingly brimming with the sci-fi intrigue of a classic James Bond soundtrack. Though the hyper-speed car-chase thrills of the primary cinematic influence on the album, Mad Max: Fury Road, may be no longer possible, Łapaj’s exotic synth patches continue to drive the piece’s momentum forward as Meller’s second solo winds itself up into the complete apoplexy of a Jimi Hendrix-style old-school rock deluge laden with tremolo and wah-pedal abuse. As he reaches his near-physical limits on this road through perdition, the well-worn joints of his body begin crying out in a protest about as loudly as his heart will sometime very soon. As the spy theme and rock groove continue to wage this same war of attrition outside him, an added impetus of energy arises within him, imparting the steel-hearted determination to escape the ghosts of his past, but little does he know that they are driving him towards one of their own.
“People tell me there are questions so big we’ll never understand the answers. But why are those always the questions we want answered the most?
How are you supposed to do better next time if you don’t know why things went wrong?
How are you supposed to accept something with grace if you don’t know why you can’t change it?
How are you supposed to move on from someone if you don’t know why they’re not the right person?
Because I’ve been told you won’t get the answer until you stop asking.
But how can you stop asking until you get the answer?”
The spy-theme is overlaid with fatefully tolling bells, foretelling one of Łapaj’s multicolored flashy displays of 70’s style organ as seen on the vintage Riverside albums like Second Life Syndrome or even the keyboard-driven orgy of Anno Domini High Definition. A paralyzing panic attack overtakes him for a minute as a million colors explode in insomniac chaos, as Duda becomes aware for the first time where his flight of instinct has taken him to, and yet he cannot turn back from this place where his worst nightmare took place, lest he return to an existence free of pain but forever devoid of anything worth suffering pain for. He feels like a pawn of fate, like everything around him and every good thing he could ever dare to hope would bloom from this burned-out cemetery called Earth, was doomed to never take seed until he prepared the soil to receive it.
As the song ends in a gentle parade of acoustic guitars overlaid with a gentle Slavic plucked guitar, the lush reverb of Duda’s wordless vocal calls him into the most hallowed place in the wasteland, but, he also knows, the one that brought upon him the greatest curse.
“How do you know the difference between someone you should hold on to, and someone you should let go?
You know that only the weak give up just because it’s hard. So you keep on holding on tighter to someone whose season in your life has passed, because you’re scared of being too weak, scared of being a terrible person. Until you’ve put all of your strength into holding on and the rest of your life falls apart around you. And you’re still afraid of letting go because now you have nothing left anyways.
And then when you finally can’t hold on any longer, you look in shame at the smoldering wreckage of your lives and you feel even more like a terrible person for putting both of you through way more pain than you deserve. You could have jumped ship to save yourself, but instead you crashed.
You could have just been too weak to do the right thing.
Or just too foolish to know what the right thing even was.
But instead…you were both.”
River Down Below opens with a lo-fi folk acoustic segment like one might find on a Simon & Garfunkel album but with the minor-keyed subtle darkness of Opeth, the vocals entering immediately and sounding ever so slightly out of key as if something is not quite right. He has arrived, not by choice but by fate, at the grave of his lost love. The place where he can only stare with jealousy and regret at the cruel earth whose cold, barren embrace wipes away her every memory of ever having rested warmly in his loving arms. As much as he doesn’t want to face up to his greatest mistake, he’d never be able to turn and walk away without seeing this sight burned into his eyelids forever. He feels impelled to make things right even if he swears dejectedly to himself it’s pointless. He sings the confessional lyrics to her as he scrawls them out hastily onto a piece of weathered paper, in hopes that as he buries it down into the dirt, she might read it and understand, and forgive him for saying goodbye.
“We were so close for so long. Why did I push us apart? You couldn’t love me if I couldn’t even love myself. And now we’re both hurt. And we’re growing apart. And it’s all my fault.
I wish it wasn’t too late to change what I did. But some wounds never heal.”
He still cared for her deeper than he ever thought to be humanly possible, but he cared enough to not want her to have to handle his problems anymore. He laments that he was the proverbial hedgehog whose spines hurt her worse the closer he tried to get, and so what once seemed like a gentle embrace was actually what drove her away. All he wants is to reach out and embrace her one final time, but she shrunk away in fear of getting hurt again, until the point where he could do nothing but give up. He wishes he could have triumphed over himself, but instead he lost them both, the tree that once gave them breath and shelter now withering away as his vitality dries up in the cold, sterile desert. Duda sighs out one final line, the sense of resignation akin to Opeth in that it contradicts the hopefulness of the words. For once he had everything he could ever have wanted right before him, and yet every time he made a mistake, trying to fix it just made things worse until it was too far gone.
“The last thing you ever want to do is hurt someone you love. But as long as you’re not perfect, you will. And because you can’t bear to see it happen, you rush in to fix it, and get closer. Only to hurt them again, even worse than last time.
And so on … until eventually, you wonder why you even try to love someone at all, if all it seems to lead to is pain.”
The nylon guitar dominating the entire remainder of the piece is a bygone remembrance of a bucolic existence now resurrected as a hollow monument to what had passed before, and a tribute to all that remains. Electric guitars drift in with a country spaghetti-western theme, their once majestic power reduced to mere wisps of wind in the distance, carrying with them the long-hollowed out echoes of those who perished in agony as civilization burned down and scorched their flesh into ashes. Duda’s bass strolls gently along as he paces to Kozieradzki’s languid, stolid drumline across the rocky desert in no particular hurry – after all, where would he be going to anyway?
Łapaj’s Mellotron casts a solemn yet ethereal mist over the hallowed grave, a memory seemingly dead and buried but never quite let fall into the afterworld, surprised that he somehow managed to find her again. Even after he found a new chapter of purpose out in the vast desolate expanse of starving earth that has become everyone’s empty existence, his soul remained too restless and yearning to turn the page on the last vestiges of the happy time before the fall of his world. In one sense, she is distressed that he would come back, but also hopeful that he has returned to do what must be done, for no one else can accomplish this lamentable yet necessary task.
“Why does it feel so abnormal to grieve more about someone who’s still very much alive and thriving, than the sum of everybody you’ve ever known who’s died? Maybe because there’s no finality. They’re still there, but just not still with you. You don’t have to think about the wonderful life that was stolen from them way too soon, but you instead have to think about how you were stolen way too soon from the wonderful life they’re still having without you.”
The acoustic changes from nylon to steel, the baritone vocal eerily reminiscent of vintage Camel as it layers over itself, gently pleading out its last request: that its ashes not be left to rot back into the earth, but that they find their way back into the river, a new baptism through which a scarred and lonely soul can find eternal rest from the ravaged wasteland around its grave. To finally accept that what joy and happiness they once shared long ago, is now gone, and to continue to hang on to its memory will only keep it from finding closure. Yet he must be the one to take the heartbreaking yet brave step of burying her specter. For not only must she move on into a new existence, but she grieves for him as much as he does for her, yearning for him to move on himself, to rebuild what still remains of his life and what future remains for those left behind, and not pine for what cannot be.
“That special someone is like the best meal you ever ate in your life. After it’s gone, every time you see food on your plate, you just gaze longingly at it, wishing it was something else. You couldn’t care if it was the finest haute cuisine. You leave every meal hungry and unsatisfied, nitpicking every little detail that isn’t more than perfect. Either you gorge yourself in desperate search of something as good, or you starve yourself because you’re convinced nothing will ever be as good.
Either way, you start slowly dying of a broken heart.”
Why would he ever do that, though? Even if there is no bringing her back, what else does he have left to cherish? But as he hears her voice one final time, pleading “take me to the river down below,” he realizes that even if he could no longer help her while she was living, he could do one last act of kindness in freeing her from the land of the living. His heart skips a beat as Kozieradzki slams his tom unexpectedly off rhythm and he slips off the ledge into the river down below. Meller’s lead solo suddenly swells out of the silence into a buzzy, sharp blues-rock tone similar to old David Gilmour, its tone clearly not Grudzien’s and ever more emotional for it, as her spirit permeates the ever so graying waters and turns them once more blue. The notes refract through the clouds as if two guitars are playing the same note a millisecond apart, as for the first time in untold months, a ray of sunlight shines through the ashen-faced clouds, ever so brief and tantalizing as it points towards some unknown Bethlehem far in the distance, the way to salvation in this dying world now finally appearing at the end of this seemingly endless tunnel.
And he feels her strength gently urging him on to reclaim his dying soul, and follow the way to his redemption until one day they can float down the endless river together.
The title track of Wasteland is again driven by acoustic guitars, the Johnny Cash style more prominent as their speed is swift and agile, a newfound rock undercurrent beneath this instrument previously used to mourn and pay homage to the past, as he sets up camp and gathers the supplies to make his grand voyage to the new Promised Land. She did all the packing last time they needed supplies, working with such a single-minded fervor that she barely seemed to regard his yearning glances hoping for one last loving gaze. He never got what he wanted, as he never saw those eyes again until the life left them. But in this abandoned cave near her grave, she left behind everything he needed for his future. And as he reads her last letter, that fervor begins to seem rather like an intangible spiritual instinct within her, as if she knew she was destined not to survive the apocalypse and, no matter his countless mistakes and failings, spent all of her remaining time on earth ensuring he could go on.
“Don’t wait for me here. And don’t wait to come home with me.
Live your life and I will come get you when it’s time.
As the guitar strumming grows more urgent and piano softly twinkles in the background, he knows the day is coming when he must depart this place, taking every blessing and lesson that she gave to him and leaving behind the sorrow and pain after they have served their purpose in emboldening and strengthening his heart. His wordless voice carries all of his whispered prayers up toward the heavens now ever so slightly clearing to let them through to her, and the meter widens into a 9/8 as Duda’s wordless angelic voice shines down from the celestial skies, as she gives him the strength to make this great step, to not let him wait any longer to begin his new life.
The remaining six minutes are fully instrumental, the Iron Maiden influences returning in full bore, the tom fills expertly channeling Nicko McBrain’s, and even some vintage 80’s harmony leads on guitar and keyboard hidden underneath the blocky metal riffing with thick walls of lead bass. Churning triplet rhythm guitar figures march forward with gritty determination as he climbs a gradually steepening escarpment, his boots’ grip on the sandy rockface ever so often slipping and sending him tumbling briefly. He thought this journey would be hard, yet he’s kept optimism, driven by a ravenous hunger for significance in a world where no meaning and ambition remain, where few can persuade themselves of the worth of living another day. Because for the first time, he has something worth living for.
Yet is it something worth dying for?
“I am afraid only of silence because that’s when the heart dies … I cannot drown in silence. That would be the worst thing to do now. It’s not what I was made for, it’s not my calling.” (Mariusz Duda)
Confidence rises in his rapidly beating heart with the accumulating pressure on a more metallic double kick drum pattern as he conquers the escarpment and the main riff figure continues to march forward with him into unexplored territory. As he marches between rows of limestone towers, the world seems to heal itself along with him, as those scarred by acid rain begin to give way to gradually fuller and more majestic towers. But their triumphant presence never quite obscures the group of black-suited figures approaching like a mirage in the distance behind him. He sighs to himself in relief, finally able to view his past with the greater perspective that not even the strongest of eyes and the most acute of foresight could have even squinted to see beyond the impenetrable blackness of soot and ash. He parades out into the open and calls out to them at the top of his lungs, ready to lead his people out from wandering in the desert, into the Promised Land.
But suddenly, they surge forward with primal yells of murderous intent, curdling his blood and paralyzing his nerves ever so briefly, and as their cronies emerge suddenly from almost every direction, he realizes with a lump in his throat that he’s been played by a ruse. And though he doesn’t know who they are, he knows what they must have done. They are the group of marauders who killed the boy and his family. The ones who killed the world. The ones who never cease to haunt his very existence. And those who’d be all too happy to give up the pleasure of haunting his earthly existence, by taking the pleasure of ending it. It’s been a while since he truly felt like he did anything more than just exist. And now he actually fears dying again, now that he has something to lose by dying.
Of course, he hadn’t survived this long without a couple tricks up his sleeve, and he deftly slips down the secret passageway into a blackened cave.
Everything grows dark once again as the band stops playing, a small organ sound reverberating so powerfully in this hideaway so claustrophobic it can contain no other sound, that it sounds like a thousand instruments all at once. The frantic heartbeat of his heart fights against his nonexistent field of vision, time passing by in a flash and seeming to last forever. He can do nothing but blindly trust in his instinct, the map written on his heart that continues tolling the coordinates of his destination through a solemn guitar line that his feet feel out. Floydian organs meld with Łapaj’s warbling synthesizers as they pop in and out of the rustic melancholy guitar soundscapes, like a futuristic western as the bucolic, dreary wasteland environs are gradually left behind in this cave, in pursuit of the more colorful future ahead of the tiny light that now approaches him. Kozieradzki gradually thumps on the kick drum and marches his snare in anticipation, the vaguely Middle Eastern themes returning as the zeal for enterprise flows back into him, hungry to conquer a world that is entirely his own as it welcomes him like a long-lost friend.
He takes one step out of the cave and can finally stand tall at his full height once more, ready to triumphantly overlook the spoils of his voyage – but he is surprised to not notice much of a difference. Yellow sunlight has been replaced with the beginnings of auburn sunset, the color beginning to become obscured behind the clouds of now-overdriven layered guitar, and it’s only the sunlight that remains, that bids him take one look askance to the wasteland behind, warning him that no matter how intently he hides himself away, his demons are not all that far behind him still. His limbs are temporarily rooted to the spot, knowing there can be no running from them forever, for even if his eyes gaze upwards towards the sun, their images will remain imprinted into his retinas – and so one way or another, he is doomed to come face-to-face with them at any moment.
As Duda unleashes a thickly textured guitar riff that picks up into a four-on-the-floor rock beat, returning to the tenacious triplet figure as the vagabond climbs mountain and hill, the wayward desert gangs in hot pursuit begin to amass in one feral single-minded purpose. Every second he climbs further, his limbs begin to ache for release, and yet as he finally steals a chance to look forward, just out of the way of the still scorching rays of sunset dead ahead, he can see in the distance a gradually opening canyon. Yet he knows if he turns back now, he’ll have nowhere left to run from the approaching storm. All he can do is muster all his strength to walk the next mile forward, until he reaches the edge, chasing after the setting sun in hopes that it will still be there.
As his muscles burn ever more fiercely than the sun ever did at high noon, Łapaj’s synth lets out a highly distressed whine over the crushing rhythm figure as the very breath of the miscreants behind him becomes audible, as if their lungs were specifically designed as instruments of torture, for no other purpose than to choke away the oxygen his own lungs can still pump into his body. He can only breathe because of the hope of the wooden bridge he now sees spanning the once-impregnable canyon. With a desperate prayer and her sweet nudge from inside his soul, he takes one tentative step onto the bridge, and the nefarious armies behind him lay still for a moment in fear. He gains a newfound strength that lifts him from a plodding crawl into a slow but confident walk, and as his confidence grows, he dares take a moment to taunt his mortal enemies behind him. With a furious scream, their fear and disorganization are murderously slaughtered, and now he instantly knows he is the next victim, as their eyes bleed with steel-honed determination to deliver the coup de grâce.
What strength remains to open his eyes, seems to wane as he cannot help but drift between salvation ready to embrace him ahead, and the past hungry for retribution behind him. As the last rays of sunset begin to twinkle out, he summons the courage to fix his eyes firmly on the glimmer of blue on the horizon, and as the hungry cavern awakens like a dragon from its slumber, he climbs forward to the its very edge with one last tug.
And then he hears an awful snap, as one too many human bodies pile onto a soon-to-be gravestone made of crumbling and rotting wood.
He prepares himself to fall forever.
But he stays still.
For a moment, he thinks he’s already died and just floating in limbo. Until he tries to grasp at something, and realizes he’s holding another human hand.
And as he glances upwards into the face attached to this hand, he recognizes the tribe chieftain, as many tribesmen emerge from hiding behind the rock just beside canyon’s edge, ready for this pivotal moment to bring his life full circle. As the sun becomes frozen in its dying moment, he knows that hope was always holding out against the oncoming darkness, even still shining like a candle in a basement somewhere in a fallout shelter as the lights flickered out all around the world.
As the final guitar solo quite admirably channels some of Grudzien’s subtler moments in a way none before had, he knows that from this day forward, harmony will become restored to a once senseless world, one note at a time.
And as his body is lifted up from the ashes into this new world, the determined rushing forward of the band comes to a halt, his past collapsing into an endless cloud of dust as a thousand piercing screams plummet with the bridge into the abyss of silence below.
The Night Before is a seemingly spine-chilling yet quite relaxing and beautiful minimalist piano vignette, Łapaj’s soothing grand piano arrangement the lone accompaniment to Duda’s gentle and vulnerable vocal, gently accented and regal like Anathema by way of Pink Floyd. He takes one glance back to the night before this all happened, all of humanity huddled together as they held out the last vestiges of hope in a nuclear bunker before disaster struck, lighting one last candle in memoriam to themselves. Yet somehow, he knew the candle around which they kept this solemn vigil, wishing themselves one last happy birthday as a species, would never be extinguished from their hearts and souls.
And now he has reached this safe camp, hosted by the tribe of mourners whose souls he set free from their past, the specter of the desert gang no longer haunting their every waking moment. They felt trapped between worlds, unable to move onwards but not dead, until a moment days ago when they mysteriously awoke, that he realizes, is the day he visited the river down below. The day his sacrifice of the past, opened his door into their present, through which they both now walk into the future, where all of the survival essentials are at their disposal and life can begin again. They take comfort that the distant echoes of bombs still ringing constantly in their ears, are no longer harbingers of death and destruction, but the seeds of new life and inspiration, the ghostwriters of the next chapter of humanity whose beginning lies just ahead.
“Grief is like a cold wind that you can’t stand. It hurts so much to face it, that you put on a glove and try to dull the pain. But though you at least acknowledge it is real, you must acknowledge it is temporary. For the glove may protect you from feeling pain, it protects you from feeling everything else too. But one day, you must decide that the gloves must come off. When you’re ready to embrace being fully yourself again, even if it still hurts, because even if you never get rid of the cold, now you can at least survive.”
Though a week’s journey still lay before them, it seemed so swift, as now they reach the end of the road intact, in this heretofore undiscovered and unstained oasis where life can begin again. The lush piano springs forth in alternating meters, 5/4 into 6/4 and back again, as a vista of green grass, flowering trees and the source of the endless river that marked her grave, sweeps across his field of vision with such wonder as if it all grew from seed in an instant.
But then someone nervously emerges from behind the tree, gently approaching him with a mixture of love and fear. His thoughts spin like a time machine as he remembers this face, once drained of all hope and crying out as faith fled from her, but one who also found a new hope shining ever so faintly deep within another pair of eyes more determined than she was, to find a glimmer of hope within herself. He could be enough to save her heart. And she could be enough to save his.
And he realizes the gentle presence he’s treasured so deeply within his heart is smiling, and he understands.
She nervously gazes upwards at him every so often, still struggling to avert her gaze from the ground where they both know their past lives lie forever asleep, still trying to hide her half-bloodshot eyes from him in shame. He senses as he catches a glimpse into them, how wounded the cruelties of time and war have left her. She is the only thing he can see in this new Eden who’s broken and imperfect. But there’s nothing else in it, that he’d rather see.
And with all the love drawn out of his heart through his own great loss, he reaches out for her hand and bravely smooths over its callused and scarred skin. Though for a minute she recoils just like before, as if no one had ever truly loved it like this before, she gazes down to see his hands so weary and wounded themselves, and knows in an instant that someone understands who she really is, knows how broken she is inside, but would care enough to help put her back together. And though perhaps they cannot make a difference alone, they can make a difference with each other, and make this once empty and hostile planet into something beautiful again.
“When it’s time to move on, you can let the winter choke away the last bit of life, or set the field aflame. Though you may be afraid of the flames, when you accept change, loss, and death as a natural part of life, then the ashes will fertilize the next crop.
And instead of dying a slow and agonizing death, you become like the phoenix who rises again. And because nothing ever truly kills you, everything makes you stronger.
In your life, you can either hide from calamity and it will find you anyway, or you can leave yourself vulnerable to it. But only the strong and wise who live unafraid of calamity and embrace it when it comes, will live through it to survive another day.”
And in this place once so far away, in a time so far removed from our own, that he chased after for so many days with no map and no guide upon his heart but his beloved’s spirit aiding him from beyond, he discovered the rebirth of humanity.
For here, he saw a face he never thought he’d see again. And in this woman’s withered and tear-stained eyelids, he senses a longing for peace that matches his own.
And he understands that it took the devastation of the planet as he knew it, and the uprooting of both of their lives, for these two pairs of eyes to meet, and to realize their need for each other.
And he knows that even if none of this tragedy was meant to be, that he wouldn’t rather go back and rewind.
And as the joy-filled piano raises their four eyes upward to the now smiling heavens, he feels her hand clasping his as they lift the brightly burning candle toward this once again star-filled night sky.
And so as their voices meld into a wordless prayer of thanksgiving floating upward like a child releasing a balloon to God, he feels an indescribable warmth now creeping across his skin and coursing through his body for the first time since the sky fell down.
And somehow he knows, it isn’t coming from the candle…
Though no grand rebirth of the world, no return to the Garden of Eden, may be in near sight ahead for those banished from an existence they thought was paradise, Wasteland affirms that no matter what we’ve lost, how far away we stray from this path of redemption, and no matter how bleak life may become, suffering and pain inspire one to make change and rebuild what little remains. The aforementioned eponymous movie The Day After’s only glimmer of hope, is that the bombs made music all around the world, and the terrifying shock value of the film is speculated by some ardent fans and critics to have been essential to the de-escalation of nuclear tension in the 1980s that ended the Cold War. And thus in one sense, possibly the most influential and impactful film ever made. Some albums have approached this title, but Wasteland is the first album that I’ve ever heard that I was unsure I could possibly even listen to. It was an album that my life story may have actually partly written in unbelievably tragic fashion, and then an extraordinarily timely means of reckoning and coping with the most painful grief and loss I’ve ever experienced in my life, and finding a way to hope in a seemingly hopeless future, to the stage of recovery and rebuilding that I have now reached. And thus in one sense, possibly the most influential and impactful album I’ve heard this year.
This review is specially dedicated to everyone who has suffered their own personal apocalypse. Whether you have endured loss of a loved one or a job; a friendship or romance that ended or never came to be; a devastating natural disaster; emotional, physical or spiritual trauma; even a brush with death; may “Wasteland” show you that you are not alone in your sufferings, as when our world ended before our eyes, we were all left to survive in our own “wasteland.” And may it inspire you to help others rebuild, and most of all, let others help rebuild you.
For there is no other way to truly heal your pain, than to just let it happen, and trust that no matter how far you have fallen into darkness, there is a light ahead, no matter how distant.
I’ve been there. And I’m a survivor. You can be, too.
If you need help, ask. https://afsp.org/