Rivermaya never got rejected by record labels because their songs weren’t “pop enough.” They never experienced selling tickets only so they could play in Club Dredd. If there’s anything naysayers had to say about Rivermaya, it’s that they were manufactured (they were the brainchild of Chito Roño and Liza Nakpil), they never toiled the underground and thus lacks street cred when compared to Club Dredd and Mayric’s alums like Alamid, Yano, Teeth & Eraserheads. In that sense, they were more like the Introvoyz, only they’re better than Introvoyz at everything.
Rivermaya is also known for their perpetually shifting line-up. First, Perf de Castro was gone, then Bamboo. Then, the band made what I consider two of the best rock albums from our shore. Then, Nathan Azarcon left and three new members came in. During the ’90s, Rivermaya was the de facto number two band behind the Eraserheads. After Eheads’ “graduation time” in 2002, Rivermaya were finally the numero uno. But Rico Blanco & Co.’s reign was rather short as “Noypi” announced the return of Bamboo, which features two former bandmates Nathan and Bamboo. Needless to say, by the mid-aughts, Bamboo was just more popular than Rivermaya 2.0.
Like the Eraserheads, Rivermaya never made a bad album—that is, until Rico Blanco left the group. Unlike the Eheads, they are still around. Though I wish that they just move on like the former Eheads did.
And so without further ado—with the exception of Remixed and You’ll Be Safe Here (Asian Edition), which are compilation albums—here’s every album Rivermaya released from 1994 to 2017, ranked from worst to best.
Closest Thing To Heaven (2009) Was hoping this would be better, that this would be more cohesive than Buhay, rather than a work of a band still trying to figure out their sound. Rivermaya, with CTTH, ticks off that cohesive checkbox, with Japs Sergio and Mike Elgar leading the band to a more aggressive sound. Better? If only they haven’t forgot to bring in the songs this time around. At best, the songs sound like proto-Peso Movement (Sergio’s riff-tastic then-future band) dressed in Rivermaya clothing. At worst, one song perfectly sums it up: “Ambotsa”—as in “ambot sa imo”. Which is to say, Closest Thing To Heaven, is possibly the closest thing to Rivermaya catalog-hell. (Sergio/Escueta/Elgar/Fernandez)
Sa Kabila Ng Lahat (2017) Title says it all. They may be “Banda Ng Bayan” no more, but still, they soldiered on. And made this album. No matter what. In spite of it all. One time bassist/singer Norby David may or may not be the whole reason Panatang Makabanda has its share of goodies. With him gone and with Rivermaya’s former/original bassist back in the fold, we should expect something more. Or not. The resulting songs either sounds like Bamboo without Bamboo (i.e., Hijo) or B-level Rivermaya sans Rico Blanco. (Azarcon/Escueta/Elgar/Peralta)
Buhay (2008) The word “maskara” had a bad reputation of signalling an upcoming downward spiral. Eraserheads went down that road a year after releasing “Maskara”, the first single off Carbon Stereoxide, their last LP. Rivermaya was more or less on the same route already after Rico Blanco left, but Bagong Liwanag was such a beacon, that I somehow expected them to go on despite the “rockstar excesses” that followed. Like Carbon Stereoxide, Buhay is kind of disjointed, split in different directions. Only unlike the ‘Heads, these Maya sound like they’re actually having fun. “Maskara”, the unlikely second single, represents the overall scattered feel of the album. That said, Buhay is decent collection, if a LOT less focused than the last EP. The band seem to have interesting sound ideas they couldn’t just mix into a cohesive whole, or string them into few memorable singles that made Rivermaya’s early albums such huge sellers. A few tracks worth of notice: A-side “Sugal Ng Kapalaran”, and B-sides “Nice To”, “Closer”, “All For You”, and “Kemikal Reaction”, with the latter echoing the same sentiments that fueled “Sayang”, Japs Sergio’s heartfelt plea to the fans. (Sergio/Escueta/Elgar/Fernandez)
Isang Ugat, Isang Dugo (2006) In no way is this lesser than Panatang Makabanda or less consistent than Trip. It’s not. The only reason this is lower on the list is that this is mainly a covers album. And I’d rather recommend the band’s originals than their version of 10 of Another Kind. Dean’s December, Silos, Ethnic Faces, Violent Playground—if you haven’t read about or heard of them, why bother?
The only track here that isn’t a cover is still being played on ABS-CBN’s late night news. Music-wise, it’s by-the-numbers Rivermaya, and understandably so—it’s one of Rico Blanco’s last songs before he left the group. Still one has to give props to Blanco for this line alone: Hindi alamat hindi konsepto ang bayanihang minana mo. The rest of the album is a recreated time capsule, almost exact carbon copies of the originals down to the old magnetic tape hiccups. It plays like a mixtape recorded on your uncle’s two-deck cassette stereo, but with hi-fi quality.
And while it’s imperative to check their other—especially earlier—albums first, highlights such as the Rico Blanco-Kitchie Nadal duet in “Ilog”, the Wuds’ punk-rock classic (oxymoron?) “Inosente Lang ang Nagtataka”, the faithful renditions of “Never the Bright Lights” and Identity Crisis’ two minor hits, and the one that ends with “ang tatay mong kalbo”, are not to be missed. (Blanco/Sergio/Escueta/Elgar)
Panatang Makabanda (2013) The opening track and first single “Pilipinas…”, is as potent as any of Maya’s previous surging anthems, like “Liwanag Sa Dilim” or perhaps, Bamboo’s “Noypi”, if only the times aren’t seemingly cyclical, and more cynical now than before. “Tayo Lang Dalawa”, like “Malayang Magmahal”, is a actually better on the radio (or Spotify) than on TV, where it’s easier to imagine Marian Rivera’s still single and free. Where you don’t get to see her in the song’s music video, which by featuring the famous and best looking couple in the TV industry and recreating some of the most iconic scenes from famous movies, takes away some of the song’s magic and relatability. The album’s solid, with less skip-worthy tracks than Buhay. And with songs like “Can’t Hide Anymore” and “The Better One”, recalling the loose fun deeper cuts of the older Rivermaya albums, I’d put this ahead of Buhay by a pube or few, but not ahead of the EP Bagong Liwanag, which is still the band’s best album overall, post-Rico Blanco. (David/Escueta/Elgar/Peralta)
Bagong Liwanag (2007) This has to be the most perfect album Rivermaya have ever put out. That is, if one only considers x number of good to great songs over y, the total songs in the album. If that’s the case, this five out of five. There are only five cuts and all of them are good/great (ten actually, if you count all the minus-one versions, which you won’t have any use for, unless you once dreamed of filling in Rico Blanco’s shoes).
More than just a transition album between the previous and the post-Rico Blanco era, Bagong Liwanag is like Tuloy Ang Ligaya II, a bright new start, a brand new day. It’s an EP full of A-sides, which is rare—with the band fully recognizing what they lost (“Sayang”, “Olats”) yet still quite optimistic and excited about their rock n’ roll dreams (“Sumigaw”, “Banda Ng Bayan”), like they could actually do it forever. It’s a flawless record which I initially ranked higher than their less consistent albums (i.e., Trip, BTSAW). And features two of the band’s greatest singles (“Sayang”, “Banda Ng Bayan”). (Sergio/Escueta/Elgar)
Between the Stars and Waves (2003) This has two of the loveliest Rivermaya ballads/love songs ever written by–not Rico Blanco. I’m referring to Japs Sergio’s “Table for Two” and Mike Elgar’s “She” (She’s so fine it’s just amazing/ I can’t help but just keep staring). Fans and critics likened the album’s sound to Coldplay’s, which became an inside joke among former label-mates Itchyworms (they would refer to Rico or Rivermaya as Coldplay during radio guestings and interviews), which I would say is unfair to both Sergio and Elgar, who filled up more than two-thirds of the album and whose contributions hardly sounds like Coldplay. That said, they were also responsible for a number forgettable songs and fillers.
That’s OK. In the age of compact discs and MP3’s, skipping song(s) is easy unlike with tapes where one has to master the art of “fast-forwarding”. Let’s just pretend this album ends with “She”, then skip back to the first track and shower in the lush soundscapes of “Sunday Driving” (The sun blinks between the trees), get your heart trampled with “241” (I want to be near you but somebody owns you now), and fall in love all over again with “Balisong” (Never in my life have I ever been more sure/ So come on up to me and close the door/ Nobody’s made me feel this way be—fo-oh-oore/ You’re everything I wanted and moooooooooooore). (Blanco/Legazpi/Sergio/Escueta/Elgar)
Trip (1996) Verse. Chorus. Verse. Chorus. Good Solo. Bad Solo. Chorus. Coda. For most of Trip’s 56 minutes, Rivermaya followed this formula to a tee. And with most songs clocking at more than four minutes and with the drummer seemingly stuck at a fixed BPM most of the time, there are parts where Trip drags, becomes repetitive and somewhat predictable.
But Rico Blanco and Co. delivers hooks after hooks after hooks, catchy choruses after catchy choruses. Trip may have been formulaic, but the formula—slow quiet verse, followed by the punchy catchy chorus—works for the most part. And there’s a number of tracks to head-trip on: the upbeat opener “Princess of Disguise”, to the crazy creepy “Hilo” (Sa panaginip lang ako nakakatulog) the magical “Monopoly”, the poignant song about death (“Flowers”), and the epic folk finale “Panahon Na Naman”, which was also included the centennial compilation 1896: Ang Pagsilang. Then, you also have “Himala”, the album’s biggest hit, and “Kisapmata”, the first radio single.
Well, there are also stinkers: “Sunog”, the “heaviest” song in the album is both half-assed and overlong and “Is It Sunny Where You Are?” quite possibly the most irritating Maya song of all, with its fake crowd noise, fake sounding guitar, on top of a really mediocre song. (Bamboo/Blanco/Azarcon/Escueta)
Live & Acoustic (2002) Not sure if Dobol Trobol: Acoustic Rampage was just a short concert, with an 11-song setlist. Or if there were other songs which were not released. Ten of those songs are in Live & Acoustic, seven by Rivermaya (five of which, their own, and two covers: Slapshock’s “Evil Clown” and Coldplay’s “Shiver”) and three by Slapshock. The eleventh song (“214”), can be found on YouTube, and previously, exclusively on Myx. Why? Two words: copyrights conflict.
Truncated or not, with “214” or not, Live & Acoustic is still a remarkable record, simply for housing great live and alternate versions of Rivermaya’s “lesser” known hits. From the earnest and uplifting “Umaaraw, Umuulan”, to Kakoi Legaspi and Mike Elgar’s electrifying guitar solos on “Imposible”, to the jazzy and epic “Alab Ng Puso”, which Blanco bookends with riffs from Queen and The Cure, to the cha-cha version of “Faithless”, Side A’s already packed to the gills before Slapshock closes it with the now ironically funny “Madapaka”. Sure, Slapshock’s brand of rap-metal definitely sounds dated now but their distortion-free version of “Slap vs. Freak” and “Agent Orange” (the one with the “dot-matrix printer” sound effects), both live and rare, are definitely for keeps.
Side B opens with the aforementioned covers (“Evil Clown”, “Shiver”) then Rivermaya followed them with the cute “Wag Na Init Ulo Baby”, and closes the concert with the help of a few human trumpets. Then the album makes up for the concert’s lack of distortion, with three solid bonus tracks: rare live version of “Basketbol” (from Pulp Summer Slam), previously unreleased cover of Hot Dogs’ “Perslab”, which is wrapped in face-melting fuzz, and the studio version of “Alab Ng Puso” which closes the album with an epic bang. (Blanco/Legazpi/Sergio/Escueta/Elgar)
Tuloy Ang Ligaya (2001) Probably their most underrated album, Tuloy Ang Ligaya marks Rivermaya’s fourth lineup change. After Nathan Azarcon and Jay John Valencia left, the band was on the brink of breaking up. Then comes the reboot, Rivermaya 2.0, with Kakoi Legazpi, Mike Elgar, and Japs Sergio joining Mark and Rico.
The resulting album continues the guitar-oriented sound of their previous two albums. After the groundbreaking Free, Tuloy Ang Ligaya comes off as a low-key, more laid back follow-up. Imagine Trip with more guitars, more upbeat, and not formulaic. Or imagine Radiohead’s The Bends, but less depressing and with all-Tagalog lyrics. Contrary to its bright yellow album cover, Tuloy Ang Ligaya isn’t all bright and sunny; the backside of the inlay features a dark blue artwork. The cheery first track “Gising Na”, the misleading and optimistic “Imposible”, and the endearing “Wag Na Init Ulo Baby” present the album’s brighter and lighter side, while the acerbic “Kagat Ng Lamok”, the self-deprecating “Bochog” and a whirlwind romance in “Ipo-Ipo” gives it darker counterpoints.
In between, there’s the brilliant ode to addiction in “Basketbol”, a song about “first time” in “Karayom” (Natusok ka ng isang karayom, na ginagamit mong pantahi ng butas na palda mo) and “Umaaraw, Umuulan”, which sums up the album’s theme with “Bukas sisikat din muli ang araw, ngunit para lang sa may tyagang—maghintay.”
Umaaraw, umuulan. That’s true. But the worsening traffic, it seems, is forever. Good thing, there’s this Rivermaya record to lift you up, make you smile, and remind you of the good old times. (Blanco/Legazpi/Sergio/Escueta/Elgar)
RiverMaya (1994) Aside from the hits, this eponymous debut, gave fans what they couldn’t get from Eraserheads: a pop-rock band with considerable skills and rockstar looks and feels. They got a rockstar vocalist with an angel’s voice and range, a kick-ass bassist, a geeky songwriter on keyboards, and a drummer who’s last name recalls the same province where the Heads’ drummer hails from.
And the deciding factor it seems, since the Eraserheads sucked live, was the addition of a virtuoso guitarist, the incidental fifth member whose contributions, including iconic guitar solos in “214” and “Awit Ng Kabataan” were never incidental. That is, Perf de Castro puts the “original” in the original Rivermaya.
It’s hard to underrate an album that houses “214”, “Bring Me Down”, and “Awit Ng Kabataan”, but when one compares RiverMaya with other debut albums at the time (Teeth, Album Na Walang Pamagat, Ultraelectromagneticpop), it’s more like five different things coming at you than a knockout punch. Outside of Bamboo’s voice and irresistible charisma, the band’s signature sound is that they don’t have one. RiverMaya is split between a band album and a really good bar band’s album (“Gravity” is well-played but says next to nothing when compared with Eheads’ “Shake Yer Head”).
RiverMaya is split between new wave, grunge, and blues. But the band gelled really well, played really well. And the production’s really good, which gave the songs a pinch of flow, made it easier to let the album grow on you even if the riffs are just OK (“Revolution”), the boogie almost generic (“Halik Sa Araw”) and the lyrics, outside of the hits, are kind of cliche (“Ground”)—if not downright cheesy: Daanin mo na lang sa konting rock n’ roll. (Eww!) Which is to say, the passable songs are passable, because they’re interspersed with the hits: after “Revolution” comes “Bring Me Down”, after “Ground”, “20 Million”, and so on. (Bamboo/Blanco/Azarcon/Escueta/de Castro)
Atomic Bomb (1997) Took me a long while to fully appreciate Rivermaya’s third album. Yes, the title’s cliche and the album’s more obtuse than a solid bang, but that’s not it. Only lately did I realize what hindered me from really enjoying this album. It’s the track sequence. And those who owned this album in cassette must had a great deal patience because between “Elesi” and “Hinahanap-hanap Kita”, and between the latter and “Kung Ayaw Mo, Huwag Mo”, feels like a great deal of fillers.
The culprit? Two-minute plus jazz interlude “Inst. 1: Spike the Mayo” and the overlong (6:46) three-part “Hangman (I Shot the Walrus)”, an obvious Beatles call-out featuring Bamboo and Rico Blanco on vocals. Those two tracks, together with “Sunny Days”, another instrumental and “Saturday (Bakit Ako?)” slow down Side A considerably. They take away the excitement, break the momentum. No, these instrumental tracks do not make the album any more cohesive, but rather distracted.
Tweaking Atomic Bomb‘s track sequence, placing “Wild Angel Candy”, “Hinahanap-hanap Kita” earlier, right after “Sunny Days”, putting “Hangman” near the end, and taking out the entirety of “Inst 1: Spike the Mayo”, solved my problem. With this new sequence, almost every song shines, even the B-sides (the goofy “Tea for Two”, the sultry “Ballroom Dancing”, The Kink-ish “Sunny Days”).
Well, Atomic Bomb boasts a number of terrific singles. “Hinahanap-hanap Kita”, with its funky riffs and super-awesome basslines, is easily one of Rivermaya’s finest. There’s also the post-rock-ish “Mabuhay”, the guitar-propelled “Elesi” and folk number “Luha”. The album sounds eclectic if distracted at times, with traces of psychedelia, The Beatles, and Pet Sounds. If only the songs were sequenced better. A-Bomb? More like Ab-Bomb. Or A-minus Bomb. As it is, Side A feels stunted, the whole album, drawn-out and “Hangman” is a bore. (Bamboo/Blanco/Azarcon/Escueta)
Free (2000) Years before leaking albums online became a trend, a few before online file sharing became the norm, and seven years before Radiohead sold their then new record In Rainbows thru pay-as-you-want at £ 0.00 minimum, Rivermaya self-produced and gave away their fifth album, aptly titled Free, not just online, not just digitally, but also in CD format, given to loyal fans thru mail and at their gigs. Yes, Rivermaya fucking did it first.
Free was released in “The Year Piracy Broke” and mainstream interest in local rock music reached ground zero. Again. Thus, you’d most likely learn about Free on the internet, than catch “Faithless” or “Ambulansya” on the radio—unless by radio, you mean NU107. And just in case you haven’t heard the album yet, do yourself a favor and check “Faithless” and “Ambulansya” on YouTube. The former is driven by Mark Escueta’s pounding rhythm and punctuated by Rico Blanco’s raspy, Kurt Cobain-like scream in the chorus. The latter is a piano-laden dirge about being caught in a causality loop of road accident and traffic jam (“Hindi na tayo gagalaw, hindi na tayo aabante,” Blanco sings on top of a looped ambulance siren).
Outside all the hype (or whether you consider it gimmick, commercial suicide or publicity stunt), Free is an exceptional rock record. It’s really good and by really good, I mean better than any of the first three Rivermaya albums. Imagine taking the best of late ’80s and ’90s guitar-rock (i.e., Nirvana, Pixies, Silkworm), Radiohead’s Kid A, some Chuck Palaniuk and mix them with the solid songwriting of Rico Blanco and Nathan Azarcon. That is, Rivermaya never rocked harder than with “Faithless”, “Serious Offender” and “Again” and they’ve never been as “out there” weird than in “Ambulansya” and “Steady” (Steady/ parang slowly/ na medyo relax/ pero hindi// Parang/ lumang free throw/ ni Bogs Adornado/ noong uso pa ang Afro… Ang gadget/ sarap tapakan/ ang chorus ay tubig/ delay kalangitan… Steady/ ang barbero/ may labahang bago’t/ kamay na pasmado).
Free‘s odd combination of the abrasive/aggressive and weird electronic psychedelia might have been Rivermaya’s response to the burgeoning new metal scene of the late ’90s (i.e., Greyhounds, Slapshock). Only, instead of adding a DJ to the line-up, they went deeper and turn the distortion and weirdness knobs to eleven. The result is more post-hardcore than post-grunge, more rock than hybrid metal.
Or maybe, this is just the natural progression from their last album, which “humanized” the guitar noise more than any of their peers (Eraserheads, Sandwich, Parokya Ni Edgar) were doing at the time. Either way, Free contains songs that perfectly captures the raw power of late ’80s early ’90s rock in a bottle and mixed them with some of Radiohead’s early aughts electronic flavors without emulating Pixies or Nirvana or sounding like a Kid A-wannabe. (Blanco/Azarcon/Escueta)
It’s Not Easy Being Green (1999) The Rivermaya-Bamboo breakup in ’98 was such a bummer, it was a heartbreaker, that the band’s fourth LP, It’s Not Easy Being Green, features some of Rivermaya’s most personal songs—some about breakup, some about moving on. The album title itself is a reference to a specific song lamenting the state of “being green”, of being ordinary, of disappearing into the background—that without the rockstar vocalist, they’re just these three regular guys.
There’s “Shattered Like” implicitly referencing Bamboo leaving the group, the country-folk “May Kasalanan”, about being left behind, “Bagong Taon”, where Blanco compares his love life to an assortment of fireworks (baby rocket, trumpilyo, lucis), and “Never Been Better”, a song about having moved on or feigning it. All four highlight the album in varying level of cathartic phlebotomy before “Homecoming” closes the album with a teary-eyed “Lover come home, lover come home.”
But Rivermaya (this time just Mark, Nathan and Rico), bemoans “being green” much less than they embrace it. And totally embrace being green they did. As if the band said “Fuck it! We’ll just do what we want to do”, Rivermaya delivered their darnedest best with this album. Never before did a Rivermaya album sound this focused, this consistent. The songs just flow, fly and soar from start to end. Less of that faux experimental shit that littered their previous album (i.e., Atomic Bomb).
While the sad songs hit the sad notes where they need to, stompers like “Grounded Ang Girlfriend Ko”, “Nerbyoso”, and “Sorry” totally rocks. The epic “Bagong Taon”, with guitar pyrotechnics that reminds me of Radiohead’s “Creep” and Bush’s “Swallowed”, is as great as any of the best tracks from Free, Atomic Bomb or Trip.
Then, there’s “Rodeo”, a song about “a song about true love”, with Blanco’s perfectly faux cowboy twang, country-folk beat and honky keys, it’s just perfect. Most likely inspired by Beck’s Odelay (both are mentioned in the lyrics), “Rodeo” is album’s ultimate equalizer, balancing the heartbreak and sad songs, with bawdy humor and glee (What sweeter thing could happen to a boy and a girl/ we gotta do it like mechanical rabbits from hell, yeah).
Is this better than Free? Well, actually I won’t mind putting either ahead of the other. Free is more left-of-the-dial, more like In Utero than Nevermind while It’s Not Easy Being Green is more varied, more expansive. It covers more area, it’s more complete, from A to Z. And to these impaired ears, it’s the quintessential Rivermaya record.(Blanco/Azarcon/Escueta)