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Rivers of Nihil Goes Full Dam-Buster on “Where Owls Know My Name”


Technical death metal bands work hard to protect their brand and aesthetic. They want you to associate their sound (and its artful minutia) with as many non-sound things as possible. It all must be fully distinctive, associative, and relatable. The more popular a band is, the more this logic actually matters, and the harder it is to accomplish the end goal: commercial success. Or, rather, this end goal seemingly accomplishes itself while artists pursue more authentic ends; the audience, then, asserts its own influence through selection. The technique is to find a certain resonance with your sound, and then maintain it while slowly upping its amplitude. You develop a style, but you never completely deviate. Experimentation tends to be image-upsetting, though: breaking the boundaries and reinventing yourself, so to speak, destroys a former self despite any and all preservation efforts. The vibration of your very own creation keeps you locked in — commercial success and its royalties certainly not helping loosen the grip — and the harder you resist, the stronger its waveforms keep you static and, ultimately, dull.

With up-and-coming bands, you get this fizzy feeling of excitement for new material. This is because, deep down, you truly want to see someone succeed in an awesome way. Success, in our environment at least, is measured largely by popularity — for better or for worse (that discussion can go on ad infinitum), it’s the nature of our beast. But, popularity doesn’t always kill the goat, despite having already killed quite a few. Some bands merely survive their self-made gauntlet; others, even fewer, completely destroy it. Enter Rivers of Nihil‘s upcoming third full-length Where Owls Know My Name.

The band’s path has been linear thus far. Their first album The Conscious Seed of Light (2013) was a successful exercise in hyper-modernizing death metal for the masses, imbuing technicality and delicate songwriting without curtailing the genre’s trademark groove and heft. This debut was particularly strong not because it tried to reinvent the genre (it didn’t); rather, it set out to execute on existing tropes with as much keen engineering as possible. Their second album Monarchy (2015) was, in more ways than not, a continuation of its predecessor’s work and likewise successful — it utilized the same formulas which proved fruitful on the debut, further solidifying the band’s branded sound in the minds of listeners. Rivers of Nihil had a winning formula figured out (having newly become a staple modern death metal band), and the safest bet would have been to execute on that formula as accurately as their talents and knowledge would allow. To wit, nobody would have been disappointed if Where Owls Know My Name was more like Monarchy 2.0.

Instead, Rivers of Nihil has taken an absolutely behemoth risk, putting their entire image, sound, and reputation on the line. Where Owls Know My Name introduces numerous new or entirely reimagined elements — things like sampling, clean vocals, saxophone, denser atmospheric layering, lengthier tracks, prog influences, and beefier guitar solos — all in the service of experimentation (sheer curiosity). Up close, it’s a dizzying array of finely tuned gears and switches clicking in complex operation; stand back, and Where Owls Know My Name‘s details blend into a focused image, revealing detailed brushstrokes, tremendous climaxes, and entrenched, darkened lows. There’s really no vantage point without a maximally stimulating view: this album is starkly forthright (e.g. the profoundly heavy chug moments) and chock full of gusto (e.g. the dizzying, effects-saturated guitar solos).

Where Owls Know My Name boldly proclaims its beauty: balladic saxophone melodies emerge from nowhere, then combine to reinforce a grander, more dramatic narrative structure which unfolds consistently throughout its ten songs. The warmth and shimmer of brass juxtaposes the hollowed-out, bass-tightened guitars at tactical moments, but creates no discordance or feelings of instrumental mismatch. Even more, momentous swaths of blast beats follow an incomprehensible quantum logic in their ephemeral emergence; structurally, they support the guitar/bass/vocal trifecta’s ascents toward mind/body-separating precipices. Rivers of Nihil have always had a handle on hard content (technical bits and songwriting essentials); now, they have command over their raw ether, or that which fills the infinite staging room created in your mind during periods of intense, music-assisted focus. Where Owls Know My Name lives only in that vivid presence; ferociously forceful, it pile-drives you into a heightened state of mind.

Instrumentally, Rivers of Nihil have written a veritable festival of esoteric delights: each song is a bespoke arrangement of varied vocals (guttural bellows to cliff-edge shrieks), pirouetting guitars (dancing effortlessly, methodical but fluid), and unhinged drumming (fills upon fills upon fills; also, strategic blasts). Omniscient melodies act as the thread weaving distinct guitar-led passages together; Where Owls Know My Name contains a glut of ideas, but everything’s situated in a well-sutured and fully functional architecture. The album presents no puzzles, though, acting more like piece of visual art which doesn’t affect you until after deeper reflection and study. Then again, that’s not to call the album indecipherable, or even hard. Let’s call the effect subtle — and for a band so ludicrously goddamn aggressive at times, executing on a level of subtly is an achievement indeed.

“Nuance” is the word, and so is “texture.” Rivers of Nihil didn’t lack these elements on their first two albums per se, but they weren’t the focus. Those earlier efforts were more grounded, established within themselves. This time, the band embraces drama and atmosphere, the overwhelming feeling of triumph, and the deafening pang of defeat. Where Owls Know My Name bleeds crimson red, gripping attentions with confident melodies and heretofore unseen mightiness, refusing to release until the most dramatically opportune moment. Maintaining coherence over so many sudden shifts, vocal variations, and disparate influences spells doom for most bands who decide to destroy all reservations and go wild. This album, though, solidifies as one sound formed from many, and it’s undeniably and distinctly Rivers of Nihil. To change so much but still retain your core identity seems impossible; defeating those odds imbues this music with a special magic.

Where Owls Know My Name even contains a gem. The magnum opus “Subtle Change (Including the Forest of Transition and Dissatisfaction Dance)” dazzles with explosive guitar, saxophone, and organ solos alongside moments of torrential pummeling. The song blossoms carefully and elegantly only to morph suddenly into diamond-hard death metal savagery. An overarching sense of melodic theater encapsulates these variances, transforming mere demonstration into an artful presentation. Pained, orange-hoisting vocals help convey the human weight of such intense metal; the dynamically thunderous drum performance darkens the skies and imbues an anxious sense of anticipation. This all-important tension derives from the choreographed instrumental battle at the forefront of the song, devilishly synchronous and massively brutal like death’s very own clockwork.

Where Owls Know My Name will almost certainly grace year-end lists, and rightfully so. It’s a behemoth accomplishment from an already accomplished band. Not only does it prove that modern death metal is infinitely expansive — that popularity doesn’t always ruin bands — it demonstrates that we’re collectively championing the truly special, the ones who by the edge of their talents and the grit in their guts create something universally interesting but also undeniably peculiar and multifaceted. It’s that exact balance that Where Owls Know My Name nails flawlessly. Risking it all, Rivers of Nihil might just become the new hottest thing in modern death metal, and they’d be even better because of it.

Where Owls Know My Name releases Friday via Metal Blade.

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