Rivermaya looks back as landmark 'indie' album 'Free' turns 20

Rick Olivares

Posted at Oct 01 2020 08:02 PM

The year 2000 started out with the the Y2K bug scare where there was a fear that computer software would misread the transition from 1999 to 2000 and instead reset to 1900.

Then there was another software controversy when heavy metal band Metallica sued file sharing device Napster for illegal downloads. The legal battle ended nine months later in March 2001 with Metallica receiving tens of millions of dollars in damages. 

Then in August 30 of that year, Rivermaya released their fifth album, "Free." It was their first outside their label BMG, an independent release with the compact disc given away -- literally for free during gigs with downloads available as well on the internet.

It stirred controversy at that time and was a defiant step for a band that was on a continuous ascent despite the departure of key members. 

“I don’t recall that the album had anything to do with the Napster issue,” clarified Mark Escueta who is the longest serving member of the band and who played drums and guitar before returning to the kit once more. “Maybe there is that impression because 'Free' was available in MP3 format and we encouraged people to share it with their friends.”

In true DIY ethic, the first few hundred copies of "Free" were assembled by the band themselves with the help of their crew. Recalled Escueta: “We attached the labels on the compact discs and put them in packaging that we folded ourselves and placed in plastic sleeves.” 

These copies were mailed individually and sent out to all parts of the country.

Later on, the album was pressed in proper form. 

As for the music, it was markedly different. The trio – vocalist, guitarist and keyboardist Rico Blanco, bassist Nathan Azarcon, and drummer Escueta – were in a Brit Rock phase although Escueta contends that it was Blanco’s idea. “Rico has always and will always be part-British,” he laughed. 

“I love ‘Trip’ (Rivermaya’s second album), but ‘Free’ is my favorite album,” stressed Azarcon. “We left the break-up songs of our first few albums and had more mature songs like ‘Ambulansya’ and ‘Imbecillisque” and, of course, ‘Faithless’ that I feel is the Rivermaya song for me.”

The new sound – with traces of Radiohead, Coldplay, and Mogwai to name a few -- continued all the way to the next albums "Tuloy ang Ligaya" and "Between the Stars and Waves." 

The lead single off "Free," “Faithless,” was a scorching rocker that saw Blanco wailing away and channeling U2’s Bono in the live version of “Bullet the Blue Sky’ on "Rattle and Hum." 

Whether it was an introspective song that saw them question “so-called friends” and a “so-called career” that during that time was formulaic given industry standards, the song encapsulated Rivermaya’s being at the crossroads. 

The title “Free” was also a reference to their newfound independence from their former label. They were free to chart their own path – at least for the album as they signed with Viva afterwards -- Rivermaya marched to the beat of their own drum. 

“Nathan does an incredible job singing ‘Faithless,’” said Escueta of his bandmate as the song remains a staple of the band’s live shows.

“As I said, it is my song although it was written by Rico,” added Azarcon.

"Serious Offender" was a Pixies-like rocker, while “Imbecillesque” showed the band’s love for the oddity of Radiohead.

“Ambulansya” is the band’s answer to the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” -- a painful dirge of a song. 

“The album is nothing like the band recorded before or since,” noted Azarcon like a proud daddy. “We knew we had good songs on the album and we really couldn’t wait to record them. It was also different because we were in our mid-20s at the time of its recording. So there’s a level of maturity to us and we weren’t wide-eyed kids no more.”

And "Free" was recognized by its peers. 

The album beat out "Gulong Itlog Gulong" by Parokya ni Edgar, "I Was A Teenage Tree" by Teeth, "4th Degree Burn" by Slapshock, and Battery’s self-titled debut for the NU Rock Awards’ Album of the Year. Blanco was also named Producer of the Year for his work on "Free."

Today, 20 years after the album’s release, the band is once more a trio. Escueta is once more behind the drum kit following Ryan Peralta’s departure after the band’s last album, "Sa Kabila Ng Lahat," in 2017. Azarcon has returned to bass duties while sharing vocals with Escueta, and guitarist Mike Elgar who has been with Rivermaya since 2001 and the "Tuloy ang Ligaya" album. 

“Today, if you have ‘Free’ parang astig ka kasi konti lang 'yan,” summed up Azarcon. “It’s hard to believe that the album is 20 years old. To know that is resonates well with fans today means that we did something right. And that’s cool.”