After exploding onto the North American metal scene in 2012 and being crowned Best New Death Metal Band of the Year by MetalSucks – Reading, PA’s Rivers of Nihil have been methodically building their reputation as top-tier practitioners with a tendency to push their genre to the limit. While their debut LP, The Conscious Seed of Light (2013) and sophomore follow-up Monarchy (2015) both reached the instant-classic status in many underground circles, the band seems poised to outdo themselves with their third full-length, Where Owls Know My Name. Released on March 15th through Metal Blade Records, it is quite simply a masterclass in progressive metal with sheer power, brutality, and the innovative use of rarely featured off-genre soundscapes.
First and foremost, the musicianship exhibited on this record is exceptional – a group of consummate players working together to create a beautifully destructive machine that revs and muses in unison. The mood is unnervingly dark and brooding but with inflexions of almost-pop-sensibility, marking a clear evolution in the band’s growth. These guys have continued to push the envelope in every facet and somehow manage to blend the outright carnage of Monarchy with a fresh exuberance that feels right. Their most recent offering weaves jazz, electronic, and industrial influences with the crushingly-heavy doom that listeners have come to expect from this powerhouse five-piece.
Guitarists Brody Uttley and Jon Topore are in their finest form here, moving effortlessly from math-metal riffing to gorgeous melodic leadwork to sombre and expressive clean passages. Making his debut on this recording, drummer Jared Klein is an absolute monster; he destroys with articulate double-kick patterns and blinding blast-beat sections, while his rhythmic nuance and occasionally understated grooving lets the band move in a way that elevates WOKMY over their previous releases. They’ve deliberately set their sights on a new aesthetic and execute their battle plans with virtuosic gusto.
Beginning with the introductory “Cancer/Moonspeak”, the album wades through a sparse, haunting collection of spoken word samples and synth textures that are immediately captivating. The listener is lulled into a sense of false insecurity before the arrangement dies away, replaced by the jarring guitars of “The Silent Life.” The pace quickens before resolving itself in a technical riff reminiscent of Between the Buried and Me, but with more personality. Vocalist Jake Dieffenbach casts his signature dissent over the passage with a lamenting, “Strive to complete myself; it seems my work is never truly done.” At a wholly unexpected turn, the bridge devolves into a call-and-response motif featuring 80’s influenced guitar leads and some of the smoothest sax playing I’ve ever heard. You read that correctly – a jazz-drenched sax feature sandwiched in the middle of a death-metal ripper. Fuck yes.
While every song on the record is a mini-masterpiece, “Old Nothing,” “Death is Real,” and the title track are particularly strong; each offering their own combination of innocuous intro riffing, superb production value, and impossibly aggressive, punishing death metal. The most obvious divergence from previous Rivers of Nihil albums is the addition of many clean vocal sections, which are all but absent from earlier material. Although I suspect some purists will turn a deaf ear to their inclusion, these passages serve as a break from the madness and are expertly crafted. Their songwriting is well-considered, overtly intentional, and unapologetic in every way.
There is so much depth and vision to the album that a written analysis can’t hope to capture the essence of this record. For fans of all metal sub-genres, Where Owls Know My Name is a must-listen experience and, undoubtedly, one of the strongest heavy releases of 2018.
Written by Mickey Ellsworth
*edited by Mike Milito