Album Spotlight: Riverside – “Wasteland”


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I have been pondering this album for about a year now,  and I think I’m ready to talk about the lyrics.  As usual, these are my own thoughts, not the official rundown from the band itself.  I do hope I can hit on some of Mariusz’s thoughts, though, especially since he cites Fallout and some of my favorite apocalyptic films as inspiration.  I am definitely projecting part of my own personal journey onto the lyrics and story, though.  This album isn’t clearly one story line, but I plan to interpret it as such.  I hope you enjoy it.

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1. The Day After

Mariusz begins his wasteland tale with forlorn a-capella, watching the paradise he loves burning in the distance.  “The Day After” mirrors “After” from Riverside’s Second Life Syndrome.  In many ways, the albums follow each other thematically, though I think there are some marked differences that we will discuss.  Perhaps, though, they are both talking about the same thing: humanity’s tendency to ruin and rust, and the aftereffects of personal tragedy.  Maybe one proceeds from the other.  Maybe our personal struggles can compound into something greater and more hideous.

“What if it’s not?/ If it’s not meant to be?/ What if someone/ Has made a mistake?/ What we’ve become/ There’s no turning back/ Maybe it’s time/ To say that out loud.”  This opening track paints the picture of a humanity that has lost its collective mind.  The consequences are now seen vividly in the towering mushroom clouds of nuclear devastation.  So, as our protagonist watches the decay of civilization with a tear in his eye, his heart is full of mournful recognition of the reasons for humanity’s decline.  This was all inevitable.  What we have become and what we are becoming has only ruin in its wake.

But there is another layer of sorrow here, one that runs deeper than any other.  We get some hints of a far more personal apocalypse.  Maybe the land that is burning the most is his own soul.

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2. Acid Rain

Acid Rain is one of my favorites on the album.  The lyrics have always struck me as more personal than overarching, as do most Riverside lyrics.  Though this story seems grander in scale, I think it is really a metaphor for something within each of us individually.  For this song specifically, the main idea is the mental aftermath of the apocalypse.  Some of these lyrics really do connect internal turmoil with the external consequences that the story portrays.

The first part of this track is appropriately dubbed “Where Are We Now?”, a telling label.  “Living a distorted day/ Distorted life/ In an uncertain place without the sun/ Where are we now?/ Living in a fallen land/ With fallen minds/ In an uncertain place without the sun/ Where are we now?/ What have we done?”  When a bomb goes off in our personal lives, sometimes we can be left wondering exactly what our purpose or place is.  We can feel the acid rain of the situation eating away at us, driving us to depression, disillusionment, or despair.  The protagonists here feel that exact same way: Was the world really this terrible?  Are humans really this depraved?  Did we really take for granted everything that we had?  It’s a nuanced idea of struggle here as the humans strive to survive, but are burdened by the haunting questions of what could have prevented this catastrophe.

And then Mariusz just says it: “I’m your sloth/ I am your aversion/ Intolerance/ I’m your private wasteland.”  Perhaps, the acid rain here is also representative of the continuing imbalance and issues that humanity retains, even after those very problems caused worldwide consequences.  Each of us has a private wasteland—a personal land of confusion—and when we collide with others and their personal problems, only disaster can result.

The second part of the track is called “Dancing Ghosts”, and I think Mariusz is trying to communicate something important in this short section.  “We’ve been waiting for brighter days/ How could we’ve known we were happy?/ Dancing ghosts/ Singing ghosts/ Where are we now?”  I feel like Mariusz is telling us that we often wait for our “golden days”, our happiest times of life.  But maybe those are here right now.  We have to take our eyes away from the horizon.  We cannot focus on just what could be, instead of what is.  Maybe we cannot take for granted what we have here and now, or else it may be taken from us.  If we do, we are nothing more than ghosts, dead even as we live.

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3. Vale of Tears

“Vale of Tears” might be one of the most disheartening tracks Riverside has ever created.  The song is deceptively upbeat, though there are points where the frustration and anxiety can be felt clearly.  The basic gist of this song continues from the last thought of “Acid Rain”: if we take for granted what we have and if we make the same mistakes over and over again, only pain and calamity wait for us.  Another perspective on that might be that pain is life, and it will eat away at us no matter what we do.

There are two sides to this song.  First, we see the response to a dictator or some sort of influence that is once again taking the surviving humans down a path of ruin.  “Shake me down, I’ll make a noise/ Tap my hand, I’ll make you smile/ Give me hope, then take away/ Like you did the last time/ Like the last time/ Like the last time/ Tell me who I have to be/ Cross my head, lips and heart/ Make me get down on my knees/ Like you did the last time/ Like the last time/ Like the last time.”  I think Mariusz may be specifically referring to religion here as he paints a picture of the powers-that-be forcing people to do as they say, to be who they say, and to swear allegiance to what they say.  These behaviors are never good signs of a health society.  When we cage people, an eruption is certain to occur at some point.

The other side of the song is the protagonist’s “wokeness”.  He sees all of this playing out this time.  He can see the shit and the façade, and he isn’t standing for it any more.  He has already seen the results of such behavior in his own life.  “Wading through the desert/ I am wading through the desert/ To the promised land/ You burned to the ground.”  As we’ll find out soon, the protagonist has a personal wasteland inside of himself that allows him to see the problems in the wasteland outside of his body.

One of the more interesting statements in the song is “Turn poetry into prose/ Then launch a crusade/ Make another vale of tears/ Like you did the last time”.  I’ve been pondering this, and I think this, too, is referring to religion, or at least to powerful influences in our society that militarize us against each other.  I’ve been thinking about “poetry into prose”, and I feel like that generally refers to snuffing the life out of the illustrious tapestry of human life, but more specifically it may be a reference to the Bible itself, as power-hungry men took vivid human expressions from the past and claimed them to be objective rules from God Himself/Herself.  They hijack poetry from the past to launch crusades under their own agendas, and they burn the land as they reap their deadly harvest.

Whether this refers to religion or not, we can see these actions in many areas of our society, and they are layering our lands with a vale of tears that we cannot possibly shed.  I cannot help but be reminded of the apocalyptic film “The Book of Eli” here, specifically in the way Gary Oldman’s character saw the Bible as a source of controlling power for his enacting his own will.  His actions brought despair, not hope.

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4. Guardian Angel

“Tell me now/ What is right/ What is wrong/ Where’s the line between fear/ And total callousness?”  The next track is the calm and baritone “Guardian Angel”, and I have to admit that it is also incredibly deep from a philosophical perspective.  In fact, I almost feel like an entire book could be written about it, not just an excerpt.

When I first heard this song, I wasn’t sure what to make of it.  I think the track is throwing shades of where the story is about to go in the next track.  What I can see from this track, though, is that the protagonist is searching for something.  On top of that, something or someone is guarding his steps.  He is a wanderer along with his lover, and someone is helping guide their way.

This song also speaks to the character’s own sense of morality located in his gut.  You see, the protagonist has witnessed death, corruption, and despair before and after the apocalypse.  In some way, he had expected it to be different, as if our society in general was the problem in the first place.  But he sees all of this continuing, even after civilization has fallen.

On the other hand, he wonders if morality is his saving grace, something his guardian angel is endowing upon him even in his despair.  There is something within him that will not allow him to behave the way he sees others behaving.  There is something in him that wants to embrace others, not take advantage of them.  He sees his situation as a chance to start something new and good, not a chance to continue the ruinous ways of the past.

“My heart’s beating too fast/ I’m trying to catch/ Echoes of morality/ Maybe there’s a chance to expiate my sins/ Turn around/ And start again.”  I am again reminded of The Book of Eli here.  Eli believed that if he could just get his KJV Bible to the West Coast that somehow civilization could be saved.  In the some way, the protagonist here seems to think that if he can only keep his humanity and his sense of goodness, that he can change the world and start civilization again.

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5. Lament

As “Lament” fades in, I think we finally discover the missing piece of the puzzle that helps shed light onto why the protagonist and his lover are more aware than their fellow survivors.  “Where have you wandered, my only child?/ Why are you not coming back?/ Your mother is crying her eyes out/ And I, in my dreams, hear your voice.”  It seems that they has lost their child as a result of this apocalypse.  Or, perhaps, the loss of the child is their apocalypse.  The protagonist doesn’t know for sure if she (I decided that it is a girl) is dead or not, but he does know that he has a hole in his own heart, and his lover is crying over her lost daughter.  Perhaps, he knows the truth about his child’s fate deep down, and that enhances the ruin that he sees all around him.  Perhaps, also, the spirit or memory of his lost child is his “guardian angel” that has been helping him see the world more clearly.  Her love and loss makes them stand out from this dreary new world.  She has changed them.

What’s worse, he is haunted by what he could have, should have, or could not do to save her.  He hears in his mind over and over, “Father, will you take me away?/ Father, will you take and save me from my fate?”  Our protagonist just cannot forgive himself for her loss, and he blames himself, as any good father would do.  He wanders with his lover, ever searching for that little girl they love so much.

He scans the crowds of survivors—the people entrenched in their greed and their entitlement, the people who had once had so much but never realized it—and he sees the acid rain of their ruin and consequences as it eats away at their innate humanity.  To be human is to feel what is good and what is not, right?  Or does not everyone believe this?  Maybe they just don’t know to follow their hearts?  Haven’t they not lost enough already?  To be clear, our protagonist was once one of these people.  Now, though, he is no longer blind because of the tragedy that has befallen him.

In a way, the loss of his child has become a touchstone in the middle of this struggle for survival.  His senses of morality and goodness have been heightened, and his child’s call has become a marching order for changing the world, for starting civilization anew.  You will notice that the first chorus is being spoken by his child, but the ending chorus is spoken by the survivors with raised hands, fighting through the mist of their own tears.  I think both his child and the survivors are saying this inside the protagonist’s own mind, not in actuality.  So, from his perspective, the loss of his child has come to represent the loss of humanity altogether.  He has taken his pain, and is determined to make it worth something.  And he is determined to unified these people under this purpose.  Yet, he wanders on in search of his little girl, always keeping hope as his ally.

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6. The Struggle for Survival

“The Struggle for Survival” isn’t necessarily just a struggle for the protagonist’s physical survival.  Very possibly, this is a struggle also for the survival of what is left of humanity’s tattered remains, whether that is humanity itself, or the humanity inside his own heart.  While this song is instrumental, it does have two parts, labeled “Dystopia” and “Battle Royale”.

The music itself evokes both Western and Middle Eastern vibes, as well as an almost James Bond-esque theme that showcases the protagonist on his mission to survive and to help others survive.  His battle is not against humanity, per se, but against the loss of humanity itself.  If you’ve ever been in the midst of tragedy, you will know the darkness that threatens to eat you alive.  You will know the depression and bitterness.  You will know the sorrow.

Yes, that is an adventure.  It is a mission.  It is a desperate, bloody, and sweaty endeavor.  But this is the noble cause to which he has committed himself.  He will not allow his own pain to be felt forever, either by himself or by those around him.  The battle for humanity, it seems, plays out each and every day in our actions, no matter how small.  The battle for our hearts boils down to our perspective and the small things we do to save ourselves.

When you experience pain and loss, you can either react in anger and self-pity, or you can try to make sure no one else ever feels that same pain.  Most everyone reacts in anger or self-pity at the start, but then the process of grief takes you to new thoughts and new concepts of coping.  On top of that, you can empathize with people who already have gone through this.  You can be survivors together.  You can change the world.  We can wander this wasteland together, surviving against all odds.

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7. River Down Below

“River Down Below” is a track as solemn as they come.  There are two sides to this song, and both are equally painful.  On the one hand, I believe this song was written for Piotr Grudzinski’s tragic passing.  We Riverside fans felt the pain of having such an elegant artist and wonderful person taken from us so soon.  Mariusz and his bandmates, though, were even closer, and I can only imagine the pain they still feel in his absence.  So, not in specific, but in theme, I think this song is about Piotr.

The other side is the story we have been following.  The protagonist and his lover are still wandering the wasteland, lead by the spirit of their little girl.  She guides them to a pile of stones with a cross stuck haphazardly beside it.  He knows in his heart that he has found the grave of their lost child.  I think he may have reached the grave literally, or it could possibly be figurative.  Either way, he has reached the apex of his pain, but also the start of his new river, the river in his heart, the river down below that leads to a beyond that holds questions and a new world.

“I’d like to tell you that it’s not too late/ I’d like to say that I won with myself/ But I say sorry/ So come my darling/ Come to me/ Sorry I’m dying on the tree”.  I think the tree here is the crossed planks of his daughter’s grave marker.  He feels his spirit withering when he has to confront the greatest pain he has ever known.  This reminds a bit of Mariusz’s Lunatic Soul song “Gravestone Hill”, only from the opposite perspective.  Instead of the deceased mourning that no one remembers him, “River Down Below” shows the living feeling the tentacles of death gripping his heart as he finally mourns in full, open display and realization. He had been searching for her for so long, and he finally found her.  “So/ You found me after all/ Pile of rocks/ And two nailed boards.”

But the river down below continues.  Life moves on, as sad as that sounds.  I think his lost daughter is crying out to him, begging him to remember her always.  She doesn’t want to “crumble into dust”, but wants to remain alive and vibrant in the river of his heart.  Even more than that, I believe she asks him to allow that river to flow and change the world.

Don’t let her be forgotten.  Let her sacrifice be the spark that lights the world on fire.

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8. Wasteland

At first glance, the title track to this sorrowful album could be yet another reminder of rust and ruin in our world.  Yet, I think this might be more about either a new world entirely, or what feels like a brand new world after a major catastrophe.  Even though the sorrow may have scarred our protagonist, it seems like this wasteland is actually a land of opportunity, something he can start to change for the better.  I remember when my mother passed away that the world seemed to come alive all over again, even though it was the same world I had always known.  Now, though, it did not have my mother in it.  My heart had become a wasteland, but one that was thirsty for water, not one that was dead forever.

“Wait in silence/ Until the stars go dark/ My companion/ With your cracked, withered heart.”  I think his lover is ready to move on, and he is, too.  They have mourned all that they can mourn.  There is nothing more to do then and there.  There are no “ifs” that can change was has transpired.  But they can move on to new things.  They cannot just wander the wasteland forever.  They cannot ruminate over their pain for eternity.

The spirit of their daughter beckons them to live their lives.  They can enter the wasteland and change it.  The wasteland may have sapped the hydration of love from their mouths and hearts, but they can water this land all over again.  They can quench their thirst for love.  Life can still grow out of this arid land, and it can be green once again.  And the spirit of their lost daughter wants it no other way.

“Half dead colours/ Residues of my soul/ Caught by the wind/ Hunting/ Thirsty for love/ That day is coming/ I know that you’re calling on me/ That day is coming/ I know that you’re calling on me/ I don’t want you to make me wait too long/ It’s time to get on the road.”

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9. The Night Before

“The Night Before” always makes me cry.  This is the ending of the protagonist’s journey, but also the beginning.  “Close your eyes/ Don’t be afraid/ I’m with you/ This place is safe/ We found a camp/ We have supplies/ They will let us stay the night.”  He and his lover have continued on their way in this life.  They are ready for the new world.  They are ready to take another chance at love and life.  They aren’t afraid to ask for help, either.

I want to share something with you.  My wife and I have had 7 miscarriages, which seems uncanny with that giant “7” on the cover of this album.  You see, we have experienced the wasteland this album describes.  Sometimes, our love dried up.  We lost so many children, and so darkness and apocalypse fell.  But the spirits of those children, whether literally or metaphorically, beckoned us to take new chances at life and love.

Our oldest, Gloria, was born, but then my wife miscarried twice after that.  Our chance at love became our son Atlas.  But then my wife miscarried multiple times again.  Our chance at love became our youngest, Iona.  Again and again, we tried to replant the garden of our hearts, to water this arid land.  And it seems like we haven’t been successful since, yet, maybe we actually have.  Our lives are full of love and laughter, and this arid land, perhaps, is greener than ever.  Some of it depends on our own point of view, not the reality of the situation.  Now we can enter this wasteland to raise our children to new life, new experience, and a feeling that they are loved.  That, I feel, is our land of opportunity.  That is a wasteland that I can change for the better.

I shared that with you because of the next verse: “Close your eyes/ I’ll tuck you in/ Mum will sing/ To make you sleep/ Don’t mind the noise/ They’re just the bombs/ A part of music for this song.”  It seems our protagonist and his lover have made life out of death.  They have unleashed love in their personal wastelands, and they are becoming green and new once again.  No matter what is going on around them in this sad world, they can take hold of their own hearts and create love.  And in doing so, they can change the world.  In that way, their lost daughter was not really lost at all.  She had been the good thing in their lives that helped them become who they are.  She is still there.  She is still present.  But she is at rest.  And the new world looks brighter than ever.  The wasteland, then, was not the apocalypse all around them, but the pain and numbness of their own hearts.  No matter what may happen now, they know that they can survive it.

“When the night/ Begins to fall/ You and I/ In a safety zone/ The former world/ Shall not return/ But we’ll survive intact/ Again.”

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