REVIEW: RIVERS OF NIHIL – “The Work”
“Evolution” is a tricky tightrope to walk on in extreme (and every other subgenre) metal. Change too little of the formula and be accused of “rewriting [popular album] for the umpteenth time; change too much and be accused either of “selling out”, “jumping on the latest bandwagon”, or becoming nigh unrecognizable. Reading, Pennsylvania’s Rivers of Nihil have evolved over every one of their records, but the leap taken with 2021’s The Work may be their most polarizing yet.
The Work follows Where Owls Know My Name, the last in their season-themed trilogy. Judging from their shift in direction, this record marks the beginning of the new era of the Rivers of Nihil trilogy. Where Owls Know My Name faced passionate praise and critique for shifting their chosen genre of technical death metal away from “tech death with atmospheric arrangements” (last seen on Monarchy) more towards the progressive side of things, with an emphasis on creating a mood via layers of ambience. The Work takes that shift and pushes it even further away from Monarchy leaning heavily into creating a more cinematic landscape to be experienced on the album-scale, rather than focusing on individual songs.
Opening duo “The Tower” and “Dreaming Black Clockwork” are apt examples of this brave new direction into which Rivers of Nihil are bravely venturing. “The Tower” sets up a somber stage with echo-laden clean vocals and single-key synth arrangements. Too long to be considered merely an ambient intro, “The Tower” sets up a bleak landscape that Rivers of Nihil want us to wade into. This is not the first time that the quintet will lead us to the precipice with a false sense of calm, before pushing us off the cliff into huge chords, before throwing us a rope of more ambience to pull ourselves back up, only to be thrown off again. This duality is a running theme throughout the runtime of The Work. In drastic contrast, “Dreaming Black Clockwork” is sonic quicksand: sludgy and filthy, with lumbering drums and dense rhythms. The stop-chugs backed with dissonant layers wouldn’t be amiss in blackened sludge records. More cliff-pushing and pulling back ensues, with bursts of hectic drums before settling into the sludge. “Dreaming Black Clockwork” ends with a filthy and downright oppressive noise outro which would make even the folks at LLNN and Portal think a bit much. The outro cements The Work’s apocalyptic weight.
The next trio of “Wait”, “Focus”’ and “Clean” taken together is a fifteen-minute journey and is probably the truest representation of what Rivers of Nihil are trying to convey with their modified sound. It would not be completely amiss to label this iteration of the Rivers of Nihil sound as post-technical death metal. The solo on “Wait” has stylings that would paint RoN as “Death Metal’s Pink Floyd”, a tired but not completely inaccurate analogy. “Focus” and “Clean” are the most Owls-esque track on The Work yet and explores many of the same themes with alternating gritty and clean sections. However, while tracks on Where Owls Know My Name felt more cohesive and logical, these same formulae on The Work are more bloated and diluted leading to a poorer product. This isn’t to say that rapid-fire sections on “Clean” aren’t enjoyable, but they are scant and are merely a tiny island in self-aggrandizing bloat. The released single “MORE?” is the closest anyone of us will get to Owls/Monarchy-era Rivers of Nihil on this record, for better or worse. It is the only track with high-octane drums and trademark tech-death riffs.
“The Void from Which No Sound Escapes” being the centerfold of this record is the real curveball. Opening with an electronic-ambient section is surprisingly fresh. The far-away backing cleans and gritty whispers create an expansive piece, before hitting us with “A Home” (from Where Owls My Name) low-register tremolo picking. On The Work, technical death metal riffs have been replaced by more progressive melodies stretched and backed with layered keys. While the rhythm guitars can be accused of lacking anything particularly new, the solos remain fresh, dancing between the smooth melodies of progressive metal, prog rock, and the jagged aggression of tech death. “The Void from Which No Sound Escapes” is also the only track on The Work that features the only self-standing saxophone solo, something that was received with raving praise on Owls. If “The Void…” is a standout track, then “Episode” is the most well-balanced of the old and new versions of Rivers of Nihil. If The Work was filled with tracks akin to “Episode”, we may have had something truly special on our hands. Pensive aggression is the name of the game, and “Episode” is a home run! The chord progressions on “Episode” wink at black metal before stomping us with heavy chugs, and caressing us with more tasty sax lines leading up to my personal favorite section on the record with cavernous growls with a slow-moving melody and lush chords and an “11 on the chorus knob” solo. As a reverse duality to the album-opening duet, “Maybe One Day” is a post-rock song, plain and simple. It is a very enjoyable post-rock song, but its inclusion on a tech-death record is more proof of the “post-technical death metal” label. “Maybe One Day” is a head-scratcher and confuses more than inspires.
No Rivers of Nihil record would be complete without a “Terrestria” track and the album closer “Terrestria IV: Work” is an eleven-and-a-half minute juggernaut. An EP unto itself, it is the most ambitious and cinematic part of the series and highlights the best parts of post-Owls Rivers of Nihil. We are even treated to some cheeky black-metal tremolo-picked riffs and chugs. The frequent tempo changes are grin-inducing. More tracks like this and “Episode” please!
There is much to be said about the change in instrumentation on The Work. Rivers of Nihil have chosen to rely on drawn-out arrangements to make grandiose statements, which when backed with the multitudes of clean vocals, ambient guitars, bluesy solos beat us over the head with how morose this record is supposed to make us feel. Guitarists Brody Uttley and Jon Torpore feel underutilized in terms of what we have come to expect from tech-death-y Rivers of Nihil, but more than carry their own weights with the solos. Exceptions include “MORE?”, “The Void from which No Sound Escapes” and “Episode” are truly standout tracks on the record. Bassist and backing vocalist Adam Biggs is the real champion on this record, with near-universal emphasis on his melodic cleans. His timbre and approach to layering clean vocals serve as a perfect counterweight to vocalists Jake Dieffenbach’s gutturals and whispered cleans. Drummer Jared Klein maintains a solid bass with appropriate drum sections but also feels sorely underused due to the lack of more aggressive sections. Special mention must be made to the saxophone features expertly crafted by Patrick Corona used much more liberally on The Work as a texture in lieu and in tandem with keyboards, with the notable exception of the solo on “The Void…”. The production on any Rivers record has always been rock solid and The Work is no exception. Every instrument, every layer, every hit, and chord rings through and has enough room to breathe and doesn’t feel crushed even in the densest moments of the record.
This is a divisive record, to say the least. Without sounding like an overt gatekeeper, claims of Rivers of Nihil drifting too far away from what gained them fame with preceding records hold their weight. But there are enjoyable sections and tracks as well, albeit amidst deeply filler-sounding sections. In an effort to be genre-bending, The Work comes across as overly self-important, with a lot of fat and gristle and not enough meat to chew on.
Rivers of Nihil may have conjured a new microgenre of post-technical death metal with their newest effort “The Work”; a record different enough to alienate just as many of their longtime fans as bring in new ones. “The Work” is as confusing as it is ambitious, touching many elements yet never fully settling into anyone.