Some of the best albums released each year are also some of the mostly poorly marketed. I think that is the case for Michał Łapaj’s debut solo record. This is a fantastic album by any standard, but many people aren’t aware of it. The album is called Are You There, and it released on July 16th.
Michał is the long-time keyboardist for my favorite band, Riverside. He joined the band after the debut and has been with them ever since, not to mention how he has grown and matured musically since that time, too. I’ve always wanted to hear something that is purely Michał, as I had some sneaky suspicions that he might create something both nostalgic and unique at the same time. On Are You There, he brings with him some high profile guests, namely Mick Moss of Antimatter and Bela Komoszyńska of Sorry Boys on vocals, with Artur Szolc on drums.
But therein also lies the problem. Mystic Productions is handling this release, and, as you may know, they are a Polish company that mainly only serves Poland itself. Michał is an internationally known musician, probably more famous outside of Poland than inside of it. You will have noticed that there were very few advance reviews outside of Prog Magazine and some Polish webzines. There wasn’t much hype leading up to release, either, especially with the last minute delay. When it comes right down to it, this should have been a huge event, but many people don’t seem aware of its existence. And that’s a shame.
I don’t think it helps that what marketing the album has received has been somewhat misleading. Based on the two singles released, “Flying Blind” and “Shattered Memories”, you would think this is a collaboration between Michał and Mick Moss. But it isn’t. Mick only appears on those two tracks, as fantastic as they may be and as high quality as the music videos are. Bela herself only appears on two tracks, as well, one called “Shelter” with actual vocals, and another called “Fleeting Skies” where she does some vocal inflections and eerie harmonies. If you bought the album based on the singles, though, you may come away disappointed, especially if you expected the whole record to be a sort of Porcupine Tree or Riverside prog rock affair.
No, this record is primarily instrumental. Seven of the ten tracks are completely so. And while we do get the modern progressive rock vibe from the singles and from “Shelter”, the rest of the album has hefty influence from Vangelis and Tangerine Dream most of all. Many of the tracks sound like something on the Blade Runner soundtrack, and, my, are they beautiful! Some of the instrumental songs do have something akin to a rock vibe, such as the hushed beats and building energy of “Unspoken”, but that is being gracious to call it “rock”.
And you know what? I love this album all the more for it. I love the singles, I really do—especially the parts where Michał can shine with his gorgeous keys and ambient ideas. Mick, of course, has a great voice, and the choruses really stick with you. The same goes for “Shelter”, where Bela lays down a terrific performance. However, my favorite parts of this record are where Michał braves the elements alone, where he presents himself only.
Two examples of this are “Where Do We Run” and “In Limbo”, two tracks that are each over 10 minutes in length. The former is an ambient electronic track that breeds and festers with emotion, and it grows, not necessarily in energy or rhythm, but in awareness and in layers. And it is deliciously dark and unapologetically atmospheric. “In Limbo” casts an even murkier shadow, pulsing as it does with subliminal life and hazy recollections. This song does build into something of a climax with razor edges, and the entire experience will leave you thirsty and uneasy.
I’ve fallen in love with the spectral nature of this record. Songs like the opener “Pieces” or a later track “Surfacing” communicate wordlessly, yet vibrantly. They both feel mysterious, the former as something quite cyberpunk, and the latter as something nameless and faceless that breaks the surface of the water—of a cold, unnerving emotional plane of existence. Silent mutterings and muted textures make this song something memorable for me.
And I love all the tracks here. Michał has shown that he has vivid, yet intangible ideas, and that he knows how to put them into action: how to execute them maturely and strikingly. Are You There deserves your time and money, not just for its fantastic progressive rock moments, but primarily for Michał’s arresting, vivacious artistry and burgeoning emotions. This will definitely be one of the best albums of 2021.
Find Michał Łapaj online: