“I believe that this is the penultimate album,” says Duda of the project he launched in 2008 and has steered in parallel with his higher-profile job as frontman and driving force behind Polish heavyweights Riverside ever since. “It should be eight albums only. I’m not sure if I’ll return to Lunatic Soul after that.”
“This” is Through Shaded Woods, Lunatic Soul’s seventh album and the latest left turn on a path defined by left turns. Lunatic Soul were conceived as the introspective, inverse reflection of Riverside’s grand-standing modern prog, only to abruptly mutate midway through the last decade into a vehicle for their founder’s lifelong love of electronic music.
Through Shaded Woods is another metamorphosis, one that’s even more startling than the last. Its six evocative tracks make few concessions to modernity, preferring instead to draw inspiration from folk music, nature and Scandinavian and Slavic folklore. It feels centuries old and timeless simultaneously. “I wanted to create dance-in-the-forest songs,” he says, only half joking.
Duda is speaking via Skype from the spare bedroom of his home in Warsaw. Like pretty much every musician on the planet, he’s been grounded for most of 2020. But he’s used this enforced downtime constructively, releasing a series of spontaneous electronic compositions under his own name via Bandcamp.
Through Shaded Woods is different. This is far from spontaneous, as illustrated by the relationship between its cover – a ghostly green photograph of trees in a wood – and the music he’s made for it. Every LS album sleeve has a different colour: black (Lunatic Soul I), white (LSII), grey (Impressions), blue (Walking On A Flashlight Beam) and red (Fractured and its companion album Under The Fragmented Sky). Putting the aesthetic cart before the horse, he settled on the colour of his next album’s sleeve before he’d even written it. “I decided that now it was time for green,” he says. “Green equals ‘forest’. So I said, ‘Okay, maybe it’s time for this medieval, woodsy, foresty stuff.’”
The woods of the title are literal. Duda has lived in Warsaw since 2000, but he spent the first 25 years of his life in Wegorzewo, a small town in northeastern Poland nestled among forests and lakes (“Carefree, calm, quiet, touristy, beautiful, gorgeous,” is his Tripadvisor-worthy summary). It was in those forests that Duda would lose himself as a child and also as an adult. “To find the balance inside my head,” he explains. “I could take a deep breath there when I needed to think of something important. They were the places I could hide.”
The environment that surrounded him dovetailed with the music he listened to. As a kid, he immersed himself in Tangerine Dream and Mike Oldfield, before graduating to the otherworldly chorales of Dead Can Dance, Clannad’s celtic mysticism and Swedish folk changelings Hedningarna. “I really liked this dark folk, with a trance and a pulse,” he says. “It was always somewhere in the shadows, even when I wasn’t writing music that sounded like it.”
Through Shaded Woods has that same trance-like quality, from the hypnotic rhythms and wordless vocals of Navvie to Summoning Dance’s ritualistic abandon. The title track explicitly evokes the sylvan landscapes of Duda’s youth, right down to the sound of footsteps crunching on leaves that ends it.
But the arboreal imagery is metaphorical too. The shaded woods of the title refer to what the singer describes as “fighting with your own traumas and fears”, a concept that lies at the core of the album.
“I wanted to tell a simple story about hurting, because everybody hurts at some time in their life and everyone is struggling right now,” he says. “But hurting doesn’t mean you should just lie on the couch and do nothing. The reward is on the other side of the room. Just get up and go there. Take those first steps.”
It’s not hard to read the album’s overarching theme as a mirror of Duda’s own life. In recent years, he has endured the sudden and unexpected losses of both his father and Riverside bandmate Piotr Grudzinski. But the themes of perseverance in the face of personal pain run deeper and stretch back further.
“The whole Lunatic Soul thing came about mostly because I’m a person who suffers, from time to time, with some sort of depression,” he says. “I have these dark moments, these days full of sorrow. Doing these albums is therapy for me. I don’t need pills, I just need music. It’s just a continuation of my story. The Lunatic Soul story – that’s my personal background.”
When Duda talks about a story, he means it literally. A narrative thread has gradually materialised across the seven albums he’s made so far under that name, albeit one that’s complex and heavy with symbolism, He’s unwilling to lay it out in intricate detail, but it’s there for anyone who cares to delve deep.
“There’s a plot,” he says. “The Lunatic Soul albums are connected with the circle of life and death. The main protagonist is dying; after he dies he’s wandering somewhere in the afterlife. And then he gets the chance to return, to revive, to go back to life.”
The story follows a circular chronology, rather than a sequential one. Duda divides Lunatic Soul’s albums so far into two camps: those on the ‘death’ side and those on the ‘life’ side. Lunatic Soul I and II, and the instrumental third album, Impressions, sit in the former category. In the latter are Walking On A Flashlight Beam (“The prequel – about someone who lives, before he crosses to the other side”), Fractured and its companion album Under The Fragmented Sky. There are other clues, too: the colour of the sleeves (black, white and grey = death, blue and red = life); the Lunatic Soul ‘snake’ logo is whole on ‘death’ albums’ and shattered on ‘life’ albums (“Because life is broken,” says Duda). Even the sound of each album is significant: ‘death’ albums feature organic instruments; ‘life’ albums have always been electronic.
Through Shaded Woods sits on the ‘death’ side, although it’s far from bleak. “This particular album is about coming back to life,” he says. “It’s the opposite to Walking On A Flashlight Beam. This is about crossing that line, but from death into life. For the first time in Lunatic Soul, I did something that is more bright than dark.”
What changed in his life to prompt this? “Life changed,” he replies. “Time healed the wounds. I found myself in a new place. I have a new family, no more feeling like I’m alone or depressed, I wanted to do something positive. It’s like, ‘Let’s do something positive, let’s fight.’”
If he’s sticking to his eight-albums-and-out plan, there’s one more to come after Through Shaded Woods. Four albums on the ‘death’ side, three on the ‘life’ side. That means the final Lunatic Soul album will be…
“It will be about life chaos and something that forces the protagonist to close himself within,” he says, implicitly referencing the circle of life and death he spoke of earlier. “Musically, I will do something crazy.”
That craziness extends to considering live shows – something he’s resisted so far. “The first Lunatic Soul albums are hard to play on the acoustic guitar,” says. “This, I can play from beginning to end. When I’ve finished the whole concept, I will definitely do that. Maybe one tour, maybe just one show.”
That’s all in the future – a future that seems a long way off. But Mariusz Duda can wait. For now, the forests are calling.
This article originally appeared in issue 115 of Prog Magazine.