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Riverside - Second Life Syndrome CD (album) cover




Progressive Metal

4.26 | 1361 ratings

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4 stars 4/5

This is probably the first Riverside album I heard all the way through. I do know that the very first song I ever heard by them came from this album, and quite by accident. I think we all pile up those free cds that come with each issue of Prog Mag, and (confession time) I pretty much never get around to playing them. This time though the cd was a "history of prog" compilation, so I gave it a shot.

Insert cd...[stuff plays] Yeah this old stuff is good...what about this new prog? [listens] Meh; okay; meh; meh; meh...["Conceiving You"] Oh wow who the hell are these guys? [jawdrop] And who the fuck is that singer???

I sure found out, because my immediate and subsequent digging around on Youtube for Riverside inevitably turned up Lunatic Soul, and that was the music...but anyway, that's a different set of reviews. As it was (and I discovered them late: they were a year away from releasing their fifth album) I spent the next six months listening to almost nothing else but the Riverside and Lunatic Soul back catalogues.

Second Life Syndrome is the album where Riverside became complete, as it were, and its release must have quelled the apprehension of many fans eagerly awaiting the follow-up to Out of Myself: were these guys really going to be able to fulfill the enormous promise of that first album?

Well...not only did they fulfill that promise, they utterly annihilated any doubts about their capabilities. The unmistakable "Riverside" sound had coalesced: lush and complex, sweeping and powerful, delicate and bone-crushing. Michał Łapaj settled in as the new keyboard player, bringing a depth and richness to the soundscape that wasn't quite there on the first album. All the performances are strong and nuanced, but on this album Piotr Grudziński really comes into his own -- he dominates Second Life Syndrome like he has on no other album since, a virtual Niagara of massively inspired, heartbreakingly beautiful guitar themes and riffs on track after track.

And what tracks they are: some of the most enduring favourites come from this album, ranging from the poignant delicacy of "Conceiving You", through to head-pounding prog metal ("Volte Face"), to the album's massive coiling final track ("Before"). Overall the album feels heavier and more intense than Out of Myself; Duda lets loose with much more in the way of growls and screams -- it was probably this album that gave the band their "progressive metal" descriptor. There are no real ballads here, but "Conceiving You" and "I Turned You Down" serve as the more sedate tracks on the album. Still, there is something for everyone.

And then...Heavenland... If there is a song that says "Riverside" to me, the one song that completely defines their essence, it is the album's monstrous title track. This is a piece of music that has ascended to that rarefied paradise reserved for those very special, very few, shut-the-hell-up-while-this-is-playing songs. "Second Life Syndrome", with its intricate three-part structure, its gorgeously-developed themes and inspired writing and performances by all involved, is so completely mind-blowing, so immersive that it renders time meaningless: in mere seconds fifteen minutes has gone by. The band has produced some magnificent epics since, and at least one has edged close to the pure transcendent glory that is "Second Life Syndrome"...but so far, this song remains unmatched in the Riverside catalogue.

Taken together the songs are somewhat variable in quality, which gives the album a slightly inconsistent feel. "Artificial Smile", "I Turned You Down", and "Dance with the Shadows" are not quite as strong as other tracks, and the opener "After" seems a bit self-indulgent. However, even if they are all not of equivalent quality the differences are slight: there are no really weak tracks on this album. This manages to put Second Life Syndrome -- for me, anyway -- close to the top of the Riverside album heap. It surely was a hell of an album to hear first; and it has been surpassed by only one other.

This is the second album in the threesome that make up the Reality Dream Trilogy; the Rule of Three (as it were) continues in the album name and the number of tracks (see my review for Out of Myself for more on this). The overarching lyric motif of the Trilogy involves themes of exploring and negotiating the psychology of self-identity; in Second Life Syndrome the focus is on the need to break away from old habits and desires, and a yearning for new. Mariusz Duda can be a fine lyricist, and especially so given that he writes in English. The lyrics work well enough on this album, but he's a couple of albums away yet from what may be his best songs for Riverside. His solo project is where he truly shines as a wordsmith, but...a different set of reviews.

If I was asked to recommend a Riverside starter-album to someone, this is the one I would choose. It is not my favourite, but if we were to try and disentangle personal preference from objective analysis (yeah, go ahead, laugh...) I would be willing to argue that it might be their best. I think it exemplifies the soul and spirit of the band even if it does not represent their current musical direction. Beautifully lush and immersive, heavy and melodic, it is the signature album for the band's unique sound. And really...that title track....

ergaster | 4/5 |


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