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The above title is pretty much what this album is about – it starts where Out of Myself left off, with a very unclear situation and plenty of trouble to deal with. We are no longer in the nice and fairly simple dreamworld, it's time for the difficult, brutal reality to enter... The lyrics describe this perfectly, and it's really obvious Mariusz Duda has matured as a lyricist since the debut album, as this time we get much deeper into detail, deeper into emotion, and nothing is as clear and simple as it used to be – there are many more ways of interpretation, more ways to see the problem, and many more possible paths after the (very mysterious) end. Everything is darker, more unfriendly, more complicated, and at times we might even wonder what's real – and what's not.
Most importantly, however, this is reflected by the music on Second Life Syndrome. I started with the lyrics, even though I normally don't do it, on purpose – the lyrics tie perfectly with the music on the album. Out of Myself was fairly good at doing that, but here it feels like it's really difficult to detach one from the other – both are necessary to form the atmosphere, and the image of the state of mind of the person we're dealing with. For this reason, the music is much more diverse, more experimental and more daring than earlier. The melodic, melancholic style remains here, but it's just one of the many pieces of a greater image rather than the core of the music like on Out of Myself. There are only two songs that are dominated by this style, both fairly short – Conceiving You and I Turned You Down, which work very well for “linking” the songs together and are enjoyable on their own, but are probably the least impressive compositions here (though I know plenty of fans who would shoot me for this statement...). What's entirely new is the use of heavier influences, going into straightforward progressive metal at many points, and the way they are combined with experimentation and the band's softer style. While the debut album was rather monolithic, this time the music can be very contrasting at moments, switching rather rapidly from melancholy to energy and anger, and showing a great range of different feelings and emotions. However, everything has its place here thanks to the songwriting, which is clearly another huge step forward – the songs are far more unpredictable and diverse, but even with all these contrasts and differences, it feels natural and logical, rather than being a bunch of random ideas put together.
Some of these ideas are rather unusual and definitely step out of the “safe progressive zone”. The opener, called After, is probably the most obvious one, starting with a spoken intro, and then using a kind of wordless, layered vocals, giving the song a bit of a tribal feeling. Despite being something entirely different than the rest of the album, it manages to introduce the listener into the atmosphere perfectly. This is the most obvious example, but throughout Second Life Syndrome, Mariusz Duda has greatly expanded his “wordless singing” technique, using it as a sort of instrument in several songs. It creates an amazing atmosphere in several moments (the third part of the title track is the most important one) and is one of the band's most original ideas here. His clean singing is just as great as on the debut, full of emotion and feeling in every song, managing to sound calm, peaceful, melancholic or resigned, whichever is needed. On the other hand, however, there's more of the harsh, angry vocal technique that has first appeared on Out of Myself, complementing the heaviness of the music. Artificial Smile, easily the heaviest song on the album and probably the most straightforward of the entire trilogy, uses them the most, giving the song an extremely angry, frustrated feeling, in a few moments feeling even on the borderline of extreme metal (it's also an excellent live song, but for some reason they haven't played it for a while now).
The whole album, however, is clearly dominated by the title track which could be the most impressive thing the band has done to date (right next to Ultimate Trip which ends Rapid Eye Movement... but that's another story). It is also the longest one, with the length of 15 minutes 40 seconds, and definitely deserves the title of a “progressive epic”. There are some obvious Pink Floyd inspirations throughout, but the whole suite is one of the things that truly define the band – at least during the trilogy. The whole composition is full of incredible atmosphere, feeling and emotion since the first note, something that's been created with mind and soul – a creation that's perfectly written and crafted, with not a single needless second, but also done with amazing finesse. Divided into three parts, each one is something different, yet the flow of the song is perfect – after the intro (which is the clearest Pink Floyd inspiration), part one is the closest to progressive metal, with more complex instrumentation and an incredible chorus, which really feels that it is the breaking point and the centre of the entire trilogy; part two is very mellow and peaceful, with the voice nearing a whisper, and a very calm piano leading it. And finally, part three... if a band is capable to create something like this on their second album, you know you're dealing with something extraordinary. This is where words fail, and the only way to believe is to hear it. Let me just write a rather simple statement – it is easily one of the most incredible guitar solos I've heard in my life... and it didn't need much technical complexity to achieve that.
Other than the title song, there are two more songs with above-average length on Second Life Syndrome, they're also probably the ones that reflect the new, more progressive metal-oriented direction of the album the most. Volte-Face is exactly what I had written about contrasts and sudden changes, with plenty of heavier and calmer moments, heavier riffs and a piano section, and also with a bit of a classic hard-rock influence that can be felt throughout. Dance With The Shadow is probably the most technical composition on the album, although “the most technical” doesn't make it any less atmospheric or emotional – it's simply heavy and with more emphasis on instrumental complexity. However, it is in between of two shorter songs, both of which remarkable to say the least, and clearly make the album become darker towards the end. The first one is the third Reality Dream instrumental, which is rather different than its predecessors from Out of Myself, using one of the heaviest riffs on the album in the beginning, but also alternating between heavier and more melodic sections (and a piano section which can be described only as “haunting”), and is definitely the best of the three instrumentals of the trilogy. The second one, which is also the closing track, is the darkest song on the album, called Before. Starting in a very minimalistic way, with nearly whispered vocals, it slowly progresses and becomes heavier, leading into the dramatic riff ending the album. Although, in fact, it's not really the riff that ends the album – it's something else. Certainly memorable.
What has to be noted is that with the slightly more technical direction and more emphasis on heaviness, the band has also obviously progressed in terms of technical skills. Piotr Grudziński had already proved his amazing ability at playing emotional, melodic solos on Out of Myself, but this time he can also come up with many great riffs, making the whole album more riff-oriented, although there's still plenty of solos. The rhythm section has also got more force and character this time, standing out more than before, and particularly the bass is great, hardly ever doing the standard guitar-doubling and coming up with many interesting, unusual basslines. The major change, though, are the keyboards. After a rather mysterious split-up with the previous keyboardist, Michał Łapaj marks his first appearance on a full-length Riverside album here (and from a 2010 perspective, there's no doubt that he was an excellent choice), and the difference is rather obvious. This times the keyboards are used less to just add sound effects and soundscapes – there's much more piano used throughout the album, and sometimes he actually goes intro straightforward, more progressive metal keyboard solos (like in Dance With The Shadow, where his performance is simply great).
It's really interesting to see the progression this band made in just two years – starting with a very interesting, atmospheric and well-written debut that, however, lacked a bit in originality, the second album is much more daring, far more experimental, and shows a very significant change of style. There are some weaknesses I could possibly find, but these are truly minor details that have a really small importance for the music. Second Life Syndrome is excellent from start to finish, and the musical maturity shown by such a young band here is really remarkable. If you enjoy diversity, atmosphere and progressive music, you won't be disappointed (unless you also expect skull-crushing technical extreme progmetal here like the reviewer below).
And the most impressive thing is that this still isn't the best part of the trilogy...