(By Kira Schlechter, Guest Contributor/Writer, RiffRelevant.com)
The Reading, PA-based band Rivers Of Nihil are arguably the most exciting, interesting thing to happen to technical death metal in recent years, and their latest album for Metal Blade, the beautifully-titled “Where Owls Know My Name,” cements that claim with little doubt.
Serving as the follow-up to the equally excellent “Monarchy” of 2015, the album continues the band’s arc of works with a seasonal theme – this album representing autumn — but it’s delivered in a very loose, non-conceptual way. There is the theme of death and decay, but there is an undercurrent of rebirth as well.
Singer Jake Dieffenbach, guitarists Brody Uttley and Jon Topore, bassist / singer Adam Biggs (who provides the drifts of clean vocals), and drummer Jared Klein blend death metal with progressive, electronica, and jazz to serve as the soundtrack to an album Biggs describes in a bio as being about “loss, getting older, and reaching a point where death becomes a much more present part of your life.”
The exploration of death is the M.O. of death metal bands, of course, but few do it with as much grace, thought, and depth as Rivers Of Nihil. With them, the topic loses any cartoonish aspect and becomes a much more existential exploration. T hey display an exceptional level of sophistication and maturity and thought well beyond their years.
“The Silent Life” ponders on aging, wasted time, regret, and repeating mistakes — “Strive to complete myself/It seems my work is never truly done,” Dieffenbach roars, mourning “a life, erroneously lead.” “A Home” deals with unease, of discomfort within oneself.
And “Old Nothing” is the idea of death as not an end but a destination, perhaps. They describe it as “a destined view of tranquility within flesh-less fields,” adding, “A casket lowered renders the truth, an existence unveiled.”
Musically, the brilliant, precise drumming and the alternating, dense and airy guitars are often undercut by saxophone, of all things. The instrument in itself is not the jazz element, per se, it’s more how it’s used — it can set a mournful tone, it can go all dissonant, it goes both toward and against the guitars, which is as jazz as it gets. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the tense, foreboding instrumental “Terrestria III: Wither.”
The juxtaposition of the vocal styles, too, from the almost whispered clean singing to the guttural bellowing, almost serves as an instrumental technique as well – while the guttural style dominates, the clean singing establishes mood and further introspection.
The band’s daring really solidifies, musically and lyrically, in tracks like “Hollow.” It’s that effort we all make each day to be better, those times when we ask, “How can I make amends?/Break yourself. Do it again, then you begin.” And it’s when we realize, “Only age and disillusion remain/I face it all the same,” because there’s nothing else to do but soldier on.
“Death Is Real” is almost straightforward in its pretty solid verse/chorus structure and in its theme that faith can’t prevent the inevitable (i.e. death) because we see it with our own eyes.
The title track is definitely one of the more accessible songs on the album. It’s a bit airier and less dense and very melodic in its way, but that’s not a criticism. The band uses the owl — a symbol of wisdom, of solace, of nature – in a beautifully nuanced way, realizing nature might not be a refuge after all, but an isolator. “I brought myself to this place/Where only owls would know me/This reality that I’ve built/Is an empty space,” Dieffenbach cries.
The closing song “Capricorn / Agoratopia” is definitely about loss, specifically maybe survivors’ guilt, of still living when another has passed. It’s haunting and desolate, but almost optimistic, ending with the evocative lines, “When the sun doesn’t rise/And the hope of light fades/Rest these eyes a while/I’ll see your face.”
If Rivers Of Nihil has come this far in just three albums, the thought of where they could go is pretty mind-boggling. Ignore this band at your peril, folks.
Kira spent 11 years at the Associated Press in Philadelphia, and another 11 at the Harrisburg Patriot-News covering music, specifically and frequently heavy metal. She’s been writing about and listening to metal since she was 15. Currently she also freelances for the Reading Eagle newspaper; in the past, she has freelanced for RIP, The World Of Hibernia, and Mademoiselle.