Artist: Rivers Of Nihil
Album Title: Where Owls Know My Name
Label: Metal Blade Records
Date Of Release: 16 March 2018
I have been meaning to get around to reviewing this record for some time. I missed it completely when the promo was sent in advance of its release due to pressures with work and the fact that I was already behind with my reviews, having been faced with an extremely busy Spring release schedule. However, I knew that I had to come back to it at some point, because it is simply too good to miss out on the Man of Much Metal treatment, be that a good or a bad thing. I’ll let you decide.
Prior to this release, I knew literally nothing about Rivers Of Nihil. I like just about every non-core genre of metal, but it has to be something special for me to deliberately seek out new death metal bands as it isn’t at the top of my list of sub-genres. Having said that, if any of the Pennsylvanian band’s previous releases are anywhere near as good as this one, I’m surprised they passed me by for so long.
‘Where Owls Know My Name’ is the third full-length album from the American technical death metal band, having formed in 2009 and it is genuinely something to behold. I’m thinking that maybe some of my reticence to actually compose my review stems from the fact that, subconsciously, I find myself a little intimidated by this record. It is a beast, that’s for sure and it is hard to articulate the music satisfactorily in words.
What I think this record does so well, is it combines a complex, tightly-honed and uncompromising form of modern djent-inspired death metal, with something altogether more organic, inviting and esoteric. If the relentless bludgeoning of warp-speed blast beats and riffs can come across as slightly cold, these passages are interspersed with music that is much warmer, more tactile, more human. For my tastes, this is a magnetic combination.
What makes this album even more amazing is that these breaks in the extremity are almost entirely coloured by strong melodies and are then bathed in lush atmosphere. Clearly the Americans have been inspired by the likes of Pink Floyd and King Crimson in this regard, which is no bad thing. And then, they add in an element of strings and brass to further push the envelope. I’m not going to get into a debate here about my general apathy towards instruments like the trumpet or the saxophone because that’s a meaningless and fruitless discussion on this occasion. On ‘Where Owls Know My Name’, they sound perfectly at home and actually add something to the compositions that I like. Now there’s a turn up for the books.
You might be reading this thinking that it is all very well for Rivers of Nihil to merge the brutal with the beautiful, but it depends entirely on how these two seemingly disparate elements are fused. Well, on that score, let me assure you that there is minimal clumsiness or friction in this regard; there are times when the juxtaposition is quite stark, but that’s usually done deliberately by the band. Generally however, the transitions are undertaken with care and precision, meaning that the songs don’t sound clunky or contrived. In fact, there are times when you don’t even realise that the song has changed tack so dramatically.
In fact, as I listen more, I have realised that the dichotomy between all-out extremity and the quieter, more melodic passages are not quite as distinct as I first thought. Many of the brutal passages actually benefit from being underpinned by layers of atmospheric synths and inviting sounds. And, in some cases, they carry with them a certain groove or melody of their own – it’s not all chug, chug, growl here.
For example, ‘The Silent Life’ is carried away on a wonderfully groovy guitar riff from Brody Uttley and Jon Topore, whilst drummer Jared Klein batters his skins with alarming speed and precision. As the intensity drops away, it is replaced by soulful, bluesy guitar notes, complimented by a resonant saxophone which toys around the edges of jazz. Underneath, the bass of Adam Biggs dances playfully and exuberantly.
Then there’s ‘A Home’, which is actually just as melodic and enticing whilst attempting to blow your ears off. The opening lone guitar is dirty but instantly enjoyable but it isn’t long until the bludgeoning technicality begins and we’re swept up in something thoroughly bruising but incredibly epic-sounding. That said, there are some exquisite quieter passages that cleverly enlist the use of an acoustic guitar, intriguing tones and clean vocals.
And that’s another aspect of Rivers Of Nihil that I really like – the variety within the vocals on this record. Everything from ravaged screams, to guttural growls, to a deep clean timbre are deployed for maximum effect at various points within the album. For this, Jake Dieffenbach requires a lot of credit, even if bassist Biggs is also involved to assist behind the microphone.
There are great compositions throughout this record, from ‘Old Nothing’ where Klein engages his hyperdrive button to his drumkit, to ‘Terrestria III: Wither’, an theatrical, filmscore-esque instrumental that blends man-made electronic sounds with more authentic instrumentation to create something that is quite ethereal at points and heavy, uncomfortable and dystopian-sounding at others.
The ending section of ‘Hollow’, with a flamboyant and melodic lead guitar solo is fantastic, as is ‘Subtle Change (Including The Forest Of Transition)’, which lets go in carefree fashion and indulges in pure, all-out 70s prog-rock worship, complete with traditional keyboard effects, not to mention an extended wistful saxophone solo that straddles the quieter and heavier passages rather skilfully.
However, my favourite moments of ‘Where Owls Know My Name’ come towards the very end, courtesy of the title track and closer, ‘Capricorn/Agoratopia’.
The former begins with a demonstrably solemn, dark and broody Katatonia vibe before heading for more extreme sonic climes. However, the brutality plays more of a supporting role, allowing the sense of suffocating atmosphere and dark melody to take the lead. The short-lived layered vocals that appear at the 3:39 mark are extremely beguiling, as is the serene outro.
‘Capricorn/Agoratopia’ on the other hand, is a very different proposition, but is the perfect way to end such an impressive record. As with the title track, it starts off quietly, deliberately building the suspense and sense of anticipation, teasing us as it goes through the gears before finally pummelling the listener with a final bout or two of extremity. And then, at the five-minute point, everything goes quiet for a few seconds before the song returns with an epic, rousing and spine-tingling crescendo that I only wish lasted longer before closing gently and majestically. As powerful as the music is, it is only enhanced by the sense of hope and positivity that courses through it – it’s a heady conclusion to an intense album, one that has impressed me no end every time I listen to it. I might be a little early to say, but ‘Where Owls Know My Name’ will almost certainly claim a spot in my end-of-year ‘best of’ list. Indeed, from where I’m sitting right now, it has a fighting chance of being crowned my favourite death metal album of 2018.
The Score Of Much Metal: 9.5
If you’ve enjoyed this review, you can check out my others from 2018 and from previous years right here:
Halcyon Way – Bloody But Unbowed
Michael Romeo – War Of The Worlds, Part 1
Redemption – Long Night’s Journey Into Day
Distorted Harmony – A Way Out
Tomorrow’s Eve – Mirror of Creation III – Project Ikaros
Atrocity – Okkult II
Lux Terminus – The Courage To Be
Kataklysm – Meditations
Marduk – Viktoria
Midas Fall – Evaporate
The Sea Within – The Sea Within
Haken – L-1VE
Follow The Cipher – Follow The Cipher
Spock’s Beard – Noise Floor
Ihsahn – Amr
The Fierce And The Dead – The Euphoric
Millennial Reign – The Great Divide
Subsignal – La Muerta
At The Gates – To Drink From The Night Itself
Dimmu Borgir – Eonian
Hekz – Invicta
Widow’s Peak – Graceless EP
Ivar Bjørnson and Einar Selvik – Hugsjá
Frequency Drift – Letters to Maro
Æpoch – Awakening Inception
Crematory – Oblivion
Wallachia – Monumental Heresy
Skeletal Remains – Devouring Mortality
MØL – Jord
Aesthesys – Achromata
Kamelot – The Shadow Theory
Barren Earth – A Complex of Cages
Memoriam – The Silent Vigil
Kino – Radio Voltaire
Borealis – The Offering
W.E.T. – Earthrage
Auri – Auri
Purest of Pain – Solipsis
Susperia – The Lyricist
Structural Disorder – …And The Cage Crumbles In the Final Scene
Necrophobic – Mark of the Necrogram
Divine Realm – Nordicity
Oceans of Slumber – The Banished Heart
Poem – Unique
Gleb Kolyadin – Gleb Kolyadin
Apathy Noir – Black Soil
Deathwhite – For A Black Tomorrow
Conjurer – Mire
Jukub Zytecki – Feather Bed/Ladder Head
Lione/Conti – Lione/Conti
Usurpress – Interregnum
Kælling – Lacuna
Vinide – Reveal
Armored Dawn – Barbarians In Black
Long Distance Calling – Boundless
In Vain – Currents
Harakiri For The Sky – Arson
Orphaned Land – Unsung Prophets And Dead Messiahs
Tribulation – Down Below
Machine Head – Catharsis
Bjorn Riis – Coming Home EP
Twilight’s Embrace – Penance EP
Bloodshot Dawn – Reanimation
Rise of Avernus – Eigengrau
Arch Echo – Arch Echo
Asenblut – Legenden
Bleeding Gods – Dodekathlon
Watain – Trident Wolf Eclipse