Artist: Rivers Of Nihil
Album Title: The Work
Label: Metal Blade Records
Date of Release: 24 September 2021
I’m back! After a prolonged hiatus to deal with some personal issues about which I won’t bore you, I’m on a mission to catch up with some of the best music that has been released since the beginning of July. Am I up to the task? We shall find out. But I am cocked, locked, and ready to rock!
Today, after some nudges in this direction, I am focusing on the fourth full-length release from American technical death metal band Rivers Of Nihil, ‘The Work’. I was pleasantly surprised by their previous outing, ‘Where Owls Know My Name’. Despite a penchant for some djenty riffing and the insistence of using a saxophone on occasion, the overall experience was fantastic. I enjoyed the clever blend of cold, clinical extremity, with organic warmth and well-placed melody, a combination that I find incredibly appealing and rewarding.
So what of album number four, ‘The Work’? A friend of mine put it very well when he remarked that the album is well-named because you have to work for it. He is correct, because at the outset, I didn’t think much of the album. However, after a few concerted spins, it now makes a lot more sense, and feels a lot more interesting and absorbing.
If ‘Where Owls…’ was a tentative toe into the waters of experimentation, Rivers Of Nihil now find themselves waist deep. ‘The Work’ takes what was started by its predecessor and builds upon it to great effect. Where once the bulk of the American’s material was heavy, pummelling death metal, there is a far greater balance this time around between the extreme metal and a softer, more experimental side. Part progressive rock, part ambient, part gorgeous atmosphere, it works wonderfully, full of that trademark warmth and melodic nous. I still wish that the saxophone would disappear, but I know that I’ll be in the significant minority there as guest Zach Strouse admittedly does as well as he can with the instrument at his disposal.
With a line-up that’s unchanged since ‘Owls…’, the band took 2020 out to focus on continued writing for ‘The Work’, a process that began back in 2018. As it turns out, the songwriting period was well-timed as the world shut up shop, but Rivers Of Nihil beavered away regardless of the pandemic, gradually putting together what I now believe might be their best record to date.
Importantly, despite the gradual movement in their sound, all of the old ingredients remain present and correct to some degree or another. The down tuned djent-like riffs that shake the foundations are still an important feature, as are the savage vocals that pierce much of the material. There’s plenty of technicality to be heard, with each musician ensuring that the end product is tight and well-honed.
But the album actually begins in delicate fashion courtesy of a gentle, surprisingly poignant opening piano melody that kicks off ‘The Tower (Theme From ‘The Work’)’. The title suggests a cinematic bent and with the sound of a train in the background, that’s the feeling I get at the outset. The song ebbs and flows wonderfully too, quiet and introspective one moment, abrasive the next, a microcosm of the album at large.
As a wider example, take a listen to ‘Dreaming Black Clockwork’ and ‘Wait’. The initial juxtaposition could not be starker and more pronounced. The former is a lurching, lumbering, djent-heavy tech death composition, full of brutality, technicality, and not a small amount of groove either. It has moments of calm injected within it, but for the most part, it seeks to crush the listener mercilessly. And, towards the closing stages, it unravels to the point that it descends into a disconcerting dystopian-sounding barrage of evil noise. The latter follows swiftly, bringing with it a delicate breath of fresh air. Once again, gentle piano notes lead the way before the song opens up into a bright and breezy, almost whimsical prog rock number, full of subtle and beautiful melody. I’m reminded of Riverside and Devin Townsend at points throughout, if that helps as a reference.
The best of the album is, in my opinion, saved for the closing trilogy that clocks up an impressive 26 minutes.
‘Episode’ starts it off, in as delicate a fashion as it is humanly possible to achieve. Whispered, ethereal vocals blend with the soft percussion and minimalist guitar notes give voice to a familiar melody, before an explosion of violence abruptly ends the relaxation. The song builds, ebbing and flowing really nicely, the bass of Adam Biggs cutting through with a determined muscle to great effect. However, it is the lead guitar work that catches my ear within this composition, more pronounced than anywhere else of the record, finally letting go completely towards the close in glorious abandonment as overt heaviness gives way to greater melody.
Speaking of melody, ‘Maybe One Day’ is rife with it and has gradually evolved into one of my favourite songs of the year. Acoustic guitars strum at the heart of the piece, alongside fragile clean vocals. There are small bursts of power, but it is a more laid back and epic-sounding composition, relying on the grandiose melodies, layers of vocals, and wailing guitars to drive it forward and burrow its way into my heart.
The final song, ‘Terrestria IV: Work’, could have been trimmed slightly as it stretches beyond the eleven-minute mark. However, there’s no denying that it finishes off the record in style. Building from humble, sedate beginnings, it ends up carrying with it an air of euphoria, of optimism, of positivity. Yes, the riffing still crushes, and there are well-placed injections of speed and technicality. However, once the song hits the seven-and-a-half-minute mark, the clouds seem to part, the guitars come out to play and atop an incessant drum battery, fill me with a sense of warmth and optimism in the only way this kind of music can. Admittedly the outro returns to darker realms, but the sense of positivity remains.
What I also enjoy is the way that certain melodies, ideas and sounds are cleverly but not overly reprised. It gives the album a cohesiveness and flow that grows with every passing listen. It demonstrates the level of thought and care that has been put into creating this record, whilst rewarding those who are prepared to listen more deeply and carefully. Overall, I have to say that Rivers Of Nihil have once again delivered an album that cannot be ignored. Based on the quality of the predecessor, I’m altogether less shocked and surprised by this, but I’m delighted nonetheless that a band with real talent has managed to produce another great album whilst pushing their boundaries a little wider in the process. Even more exiting is the prospect of what may come next.
The Score of Much Metal: 92%
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: