GIG REVIEW: An Evening With RIVERSIDE Live at Islington Assembly Hall, London
Despite a generous throng of people amassing outside London’s Islington Assembly Hall, there was a distinctly subdued atmosphere about the gathered assembly that seemed somewhat at odds with the usual cauldron of excitement one would expect pre-gig. Not to say there was a lack of enthusiasm about the gaggle of early birds, far from it. The chatter was plentiful and the spirits typically high (including the drinking-kind), but there was a subtle lull in the air. It’s pure speculation, but could it be suggested that the gentle chatter and passive excitement may be down to the unusually warm, sunny evening that blessed the North London contingent after a hard Monday slog? Who’s to say, but the fear was that it may carry over into the response to the evening’s attraction: Poland’s prime proponents of prog, Riverside.
One thing that’s remarkable to note is the sheer broadness of ages that are along for the ride. One would often associate prog with elder gentlefolk, but one quick glance at those who dutifully lined up outside the venue’s doors demonstrated otherwise. Young and older mingled together in quiet admiration for prog, which served as a rather heartening sight. Rock and metal may have our extreme elitists, but exclude them and you’ll find a genre that’s quite welcoming and unifying. How delightful in these desperate times.
For an extended period of time prior to the band taking the stage, the crowd were treated to an aural tongue-licking in the form of ambient swashes and cool saxophone melodies. Whilst pleasant enough, it didn’t exactly function as most pre-stage music does: HYPE. As previously stated, the atmosphere already felt like a Sunday nap in the sun after a full roast lunch, yet this was to serve as a wake up-cum-build up to the night’s frolics? Not quite, and you’d be forgiven for reaching for the paper, pipe and slippers as a result. That being said, it did serve to add an air of intrigue and mystery for what was to follow. With just the tiniest of hints towards cinematic melodrama, Riverside could quite feasibly lay claim to the oddest of introductions.
When they do take the stage, the earlier haze is immediately dispelled with an almighty roar from the crowd. Islington Assembly Hall is by no means a “large” venue, but it is full to capacity (with people standing in the stalls above, too), so there is a hell of a lot of love for these Poles. What’s easily apparent is that they thrive off of it; the love in the room is why they are here and continuing doing what they love for the people that they, in turn, love.
By their own admission, Riverside had an exceptionally difficult 2016, with the death of guitarist Piotr Grudziński proving to be a hammer-blow. Such a tragedy will never be easy waters to sail through (just ask Architects and, more recently, Soundgarden), but it’s how you emerge from the other side that demonstrates one’s character. There’s a sense of humility about Riverside’s performance – not that they came across as the cock-sure glam rock-types, but there’s a certain sober quality to the affair and it’s really rather compelling. But it’s most apparent in frontman Mariusz Duda’s demeanor and chatter.
The man carries a very down-to-earth sensibility about him that is particularly endearing. Couple that with a dry, yet bright and sparkling sense of humor, and you can’t help but be charmed further into the band’s performance. The warm smiles and genuine thanks given to the crowd somehow felt much more than the often-token gestures most acts give. It was both heartfelt and heartwarming to witness, and served as able demonstration of the band’s steely determination to persevere on without their fallen friend.
With that resolve permeating through the band, Riverside’s set contained a veritable mix of their discography, from the delightful “Second Life Syndrome” off their sophomore release of the same name, the double rendition of “Coda” opening and closing proceedings (a delicious play on the musical term, for those musically-uneducated philistines), to the heartbreaking “Towards The Blue Horizon” from ‘Love, Fear & The Time Machine’. The latter was especially poignant, with its allusions to carrying on without someone sounding somewhat haunting and a little too close-to-home. Yet there was a quiet beauty about it – they are indeed carrying on, and day-by-day it will get easier.
Every member played a blinder and wonderfully displayed just why this room was so packed to the rafters. What was an absolute godsend was a near-perfect sound mix – the balance was exemplary and served to fill the room with a resplendent wash of sound. Guitar lines floated about the Hall with clarity and a delicate movement, the synthesizer created a bed of ambience, whilst the band’s engine room in the drums and bass cut through perfectly. Sound engineers don’t often get the recognition they deserve for good work (the notion is you don’t notice a good sound engineer), but the one that manned the board for the evening deserved his salary for their evening’s work. Props to you, soundie.
There’s a quiet serenity to Riverside’s body of work. It uses ambience and shoegaze-esque elements ably to generate atmosphere, and allows parts of songs to naturally gestate to their natural build. The feeling is that it can be a bit like a meandering river, with long, winding curves and gentle bows. Imagine being sat by the river on the banks on a pleasant day (much like the day gifted to London prior to the show) just listening to the river flow past. The gentle lapping and rippling is certainly a pleasant affair, but it can, at times, feel just there. To a degree, the flow of Riverside’s set marries rather neatly to that analogy: resplendent beauty with a quiet calm, but sometimes just slipping by quietly. It’s a shame, but it’s the inherent danger of playing and performing such progressive music.
That being said, the band’s show highlights centered around four songs. The aforementioned tour-title track stole the show with its depth and poignancy, but that doesn’t mean the show was one long slog to a climactic peak. A brooding blast through ‘Shrine Of New Generation Slaves’ beast “The Depth Of Self-Delusion” provided a moody introspection, just tip-toeing into the realms of heavy; whilst the uplifting acoustic rendition of “Lost (Why Should I Be Afraid Of A Hat?)” provided the evening’s best singalong (and a chance for frontman to sit down, as he was quite keen to point out). “NAME” allowed for another dunk into the heavier elements, with a melancholic sound and swirling atmosphere that captivated the room and brought back that sense of introspection sampled earlier in the set. The hairs were firmly stood on the back of the neck and ensured that non-fans in the room (presumably the “parents” frontman Duda’s thanked for being there) would investigate the band once they were home.
Carrying on without such an integral member will no doubt present a pretty exceptional challenge, but on the evidence the crowd bore witness to, Riverside seem set to uphold and continue Grudziński’s legacy. Progressive music can often be played with a straight face and an overwrought nature which seldom endears itself to those who aren’t already invested. Yet this is far from what was displayed by the Poles in North London. Sure, the set drifted by on occasions but it was performed with such a sense of joy and gratefulness that it would take the stoniest of sods not to become invested. Thankfully, none were present judging by the ovation the band received upon their set’s conclusion. They may have thanked the crowd profusely for attending, but it’s really the crowd that should be thanking them for having the courage to continue on after a terrible 2016. Riverside sail on and gave a splendid night’s entertainment.