(Andy Synn sits down to do “the work” with the new album from Rivers of Nihil, scheduled for release on September 24)
There’s a certain type of person – hell, for all I know it may just be the same individual over and over again – who responds to any article about Rivers of Nihil with the cut-and-paste comment “Death Metal’s Pink Floyd!”.
And while I can appreciate their enthusiasm (to a point) not only is it getting a bit tiresome (and also suggests that the commenter(s) in question don’t really know much about Pink Floyd) but it totally misunderstands what the band are trying to do.
Because the Pennsylvania quintet aren’t trying to be “Death Metal’s Pink Floyd”, or even “Death Metal’s King Crimson” (which would, arguably, be slightly more accurate, though still not right).
They’re just trying to be Rivers of Nihil. And each and every album they create is another opportunity for them to further define, refine, and redefine, exactly what that means.
As someone who has been following the band since (almost) the beginning, from the early promise and proto-form potential of The Conscious Seed of Light, through the crushingly atmospheric strains of Monarchy (still, in my opinion, their best work, although I know that’s controversial in some quarters), to the band’s big breakthrough moment with 2018’s proggy-yet-accessible Where Owls Know My Name, I like to think I’ve developed a pretty good sense of what the group are trying to say, and what they’re trying to achieve, with each release.
However, my writing hasn’t always been received with open arms (or an open mind) by the band’s fanbase – many of whom seem to treat even the slightest hint of criticism as a capital crime – especially in regards to their last album, whose catchier and more crowd-pleasing elements helped make it the group’s most popular release yet, but at the cost of some of the focus and consistency which made its predecessor such a comprehensive and self-contained piece of work.
So I’d best let you know, right up front, that The Work isn’t perfect – it goes on for a little too long, and features a couple of tracks which don’t quite fit the overarching mood of the record as a whole – but it is, without a doubt, the band’s most artistically ambitious album yet, one which (with a few exceptions) takes the proggier proclivities they’ve developed over the course of their career thus far and pushes them in an even more introspective and mood-drenched direction than before.
Both opener “The Tower” and humongous early highlight “Dreaming Black Clockwork” quickly showcase how the album’s more tightly-woven blend of atmosphere, ambience, and aggression makes for a fundamentally darker and more demanding, yet also deeper and more rewarding, listen than its predecessor.
The former provides an early taste of the album’s more cinematic scope, while also hinting at the record’s bleaker and more brooding tone, while the latter – which sits at a fascinating point somewhere between latter-day Gorguts and …Blank Planet period Porcupine Tree – serves as a potent reminder that the band’s progressive ambitions haven’t robbed them of their inherent heaviness (it might, in fact, be one of the heaviest things they’ve ever written).
Similarly, the absolutely massive middle-run of the record, from the hypnotising “Post-” Death Metal of “Focus” and the multi-layered, richly textured twists and turns of “Clean”, to the swirling sonic kaleidoscope of “The Void From Which No Sound Escapes” (the song most likely to appeal to those who’re looking for something more in line with …Owls…) and the tumultuous technical assault of “MORE?”, collectively demonstrates how Rivers of Nihil have expanded both the scope and the scale of their sound, without sacrificing their sense of self.
There are, as I’ve mentioned, a few exceptions to this rule, of course. Most notably the Devin Townsend-esque “Wait” and the proggy balladry of “Maybe One Day”, which represent the most accessible and “user-friendly” version of the band we’ve heard yet,
Neither is a bad song by any means (in fact I’d be very interested to hear an entire album that trends in this sort of direction, something I suspect RoN may be moving towards in the near future) but they definitely stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, and I’d argue that The Work would ultimately be stronger without them.
Now I know that will probably be controversial (quite a few people seem to just assume that being more listenable/accessible makes a song/album “better”, and I can already hear them sharpening their pitchforks and getting ready to call me out for “gatekeeping”), but this seems to me like one of those occasions where a little less would actually be more, especially since the group’s more laid-back and luminously melodic side is already well-served by the wealth of captivating clean vocals and creative guitar leads which permeate the entire album.
But, still, it speaks volumes about the inherent strength and impressive ambition underpinning this record that it’s only real flaw is perhaps being slightly too ambitious, and overshooting the mark slightly, and there’s no denying that when it all comes together – such as during the stunningly dynamic strains of “Episode” – the band are truly operating on an entirely different level to their peers.
Of course it wouldn’t be a Rivers of Nihil album without a “Terrestria”, and so the record climaxes with the brooding belligerence and bombastic beauty of “Terrestria IV” – quite possibly the best song on the entire album – whose striking blend of moody atmospherics, progressively-inclined melodies, and massive, biomechanical riffs, not only finishes the album on a soaring high but also serves to cleverly close off an entire phase of the band’s existence with a subtle nod back towards the very beginning.
So where exactly does that leave them (and us) now?
To my mind it should be clear – even to the most jaded and cynical among us (so, you know, me) – that Rivers of Nihil have built up quite a formidable legacy for themselves over the course of these first/last four albums.
And while Monarchy is still the group’s most focussed and concentrated effort, and …Owls… their most proggily melodic and paradoxically approachable (with …Seed… remaining, as always, the lovably scrappy underdog) it’s clear to me, as I hope it will be to you in time, that The Work is indeed, despite a few minor missteps in structure and sequencing, the band’s best work yet, one which serves both as the ending of one era and, perhaps, the beginning of another.