Written by Kep
Rivers of Nihil – The Work
Progressive death metal from Pennsylvania, USA
Releasing September 24 via Metal Blade Records
Not long ago I tweeted my thoughts about Rivers of Nihil’s discography:
That’s the elephant in the room. They put out what is widely considered one of the best albums of the last decade in 2019 with their third LP Where Owls Know My Name. It’s a progressive death metal masterpiece, blending punchy riffs and outstanding technical performances with meandering, jazzy prog and some of the most meaningful, gut-punchingly honest and profound lyrics you’ll ever hear. It’s the kind of opus that’s nearly impossible to follow up in a satisfactory manner; the standard has been set so damn high that even a very good album will feel just okay in comparison. No place is this better demonstrated than in looking at their first two albums. The Conscious Seed of Light is a very good record: thoughtful yet aggressive, but rough around the edges. Monarchy was a huge stride forward, successfully embracing the proggier ideas they’d hinted at without really smoothing any of those rough edges. Both excellent listening experiences, but both pale in comparison to Owls.
And now, two years later, they’ve returned with The Work. The question, then, is this: how can they follow up a modern classic?
Essentially what Rivers of Nihil have done here is taken what made Owls special and multiplied it exponentially. Bassist/clean vocalist Adam Biggs‘ voice is all over this record in a clearly featured role, not just in a few strategic places, though harsh vocalist Jake Dieffenbach is still front and center. Drummer Jared Klein, whose addition to the group in 2017 was an important spark of their explosion to prominence, contributes a more subdued approach that’s full of heady finesse. Zach Strouse of Burial in the Sky returns to lay down some excellently-placed saxophone, but the band has also added a number of synth and keyboard effects and a healthily increased dose of atmospherics. For every calm meditative passage on Owls, there’s at least two on The Work. The lyrics are every bit as introspective and openly address the kind of personal struggles that metal for a long time didn’t talk about in such a thoughtful way. Essentially, if you thought Owls struck the perfect balance between inventive, crushing death medal and psychedelic prog elements, you might think The Work has ruined that balance. But if you were excited to see how much farther they could push those ideas, this album will be a fascinating, wonderful listen.
It’s a long album, and it’s the kind of thing that’s meant to be heard as a package deal. There’s no question that its length is challenging, but the musical and thematic journey from opener “The Tower (Theme from ‘The Work’)” all the way through to the final sounds of nature that close towering ultimate track “Terrestrial IV: Work” is enthralling and it’s held my attention on every listen. Part of that is due to the pacing: more subdued songs like “Wait” and “Tower 2” alternate with heavier numbers like “Dreaming Black Clockwork” and “Focus” instead of being bunched together, and the runtime leads satisfyingly to that 11+ minute final track. The rest is entirely due to the theme tying convincingly through and the songwriting being generally excellent. Guitarists Brody Uttley and Jon Topore can take simple musical ideas, like the stately riff of “Clean”, and stretch and play with them to keep them interesting.
This is a work of notable maturity from a band that was already more mature than most. It feels distinctly thoughtful and cohesive in the way that it combines its elements together as a seamless whole. For example, the saxophone: instead of showing up only for solos, it more often than not sneaks in as simply another layer, adding to the whole of the soundscape. Guitar solos like the two in standout track “Episode” feel as organic to the song’s material and mood as any solo ever has. Beautiful clean vocal numbers like “Wait” and “Maybe One Day” are breaths of fresh air and feel like emotionally earned moments.
That being said, there are a few things that I don’t think work as well as the band might have hoped. For example, the synth solo in lead single “Clean”: it feels like a sort of palette swap of some of the sax work on Owls (which is odd, because the sax on The Work is so great). There are a few too many dreamy passages with muffled screamed or spoken lyrics, which start to feel trope-y by the time the record is over. The album might have its length issue solved if they toned down the amount of atmospheric intro/outro time on a number of tracks. And if you pressed me on it, I’d probably also say that I’m not in love with all of the clean vocal melodies; most are good, but in a couple spots (“Dreaming Black Clockwork”, “Wait”) they can be static and a bit uninteresting.
The cool thing about The Work, though, is that it doesn’t feel quite like anything else. When they go for galloping, gutpunching hostility in songs like “MORE?” it works as well as anything from their early catalogue. Then when they want to blend that beastly aggression with wobbly psychedelic guitars or acoustics and soft cleans they do it so naturally that there are no awkward transitions or headscratching shifts. I feel pretty strongly that public opinions on this newest offering will vary greatly based on nothing but how boldly Rivers of Nihil has embraced being different. I hear it as a very good album that continues their trend as a band on the cutting edge of what metal can be, but it doesn’t hit me with as much emotional weight and depth as Where Owls Know My Name did. That’s the curse of creating a seminal work: everything that comes after is judged against it. The Work is a damn good album, though maybe not as excellent as we may all have been hoping.
Favorite track: Episode