Changing Seasons: Rivers of Nihil Find “A Home”
If you were familiar with Rivers of Nihil before, prepare for an alien encounter. However, if you're new to this Pennsylvania-based quintuplet, here's solid proof that modern, big-budget death metal can still spawn bewildering and forward-thinking content.
Without further ado, below is an exclusive stream of the third track "A Home" from the band's upcoming third full-length Where Owls Know My Name.
The band's prior full-lengths The Conscious Seed of Light (2013) and Monarchy (2015) represent the trademark Rivers of Nihil sound: smoothly aggressive, suavely technical, groovingly dark modern death metal. They were (and still are) unafraid to nail a perfectly timed breakdown or repeat a chorus riff, but all sans flamboyance. This is a band professionally visceral and calmly in charge, now with a wild hair: while Where Owls Know My Name retains the band's groundwork philosophy, it completely upends everything else. Suddenly, there's saxophone, dazzling and emotive keyboard and guitar solos, straight-up prog riffing, thundering electronic noise, and even clean singing.
"A Home" doesn't showcase all of Where Owls Know My Name's many hidden treats and embedded treasures; however, it does check off quite a few boxes. Rivers of Nihil have combined their branded groove with new levels of synthesizer-aided atmosphere to create an overarching theme, a consistent headspace and an identifiable but otherwise dark mood. Then, with unexpected and hyperbolic moments (like the guitar solo at the end of the track), Where Owls Know My Name explodes with ferocity, spraying savage riff after savage riff into the ether like death metal confetti. Both catchy and entertaining, "A Home" and the album as a whole manage to remain devastating and emotionally supercharged.
While you're listening, check out our interview with guitarist Brody Uttley about the new album.
Let's talk about the writing process for the [new] album -- how did it differ from Monarchy and The Conscious Seed of Light? Obviously the new album is a new direction, so maybe you took a different approach to writing it?
Yeah, definitely from the first record, it's totally different. On the first record, we all kind of wrote in a room together, so it had more of a "jam it out" kind of vibe to the songs. On Monarchy and this record, since everybody lives so far apart now, I wrote nine out of the ten songs at my home studio, like sitting in a room by myself. And then, I would pretty much complete an entire song and program rough drum ideas, and then send it out to the guys in the band. They would all add their input and tweak stuff.
On this record in particular, I didn't really feel the need to force any of the technical metal stuff just for the sake of having it. At the very start of writing, I kind of had an internal struggle with myself -- like, "oh, we're this technical death metal band, we gotta retain that whole thing." I had some anxiety about it at first, but once I started writing, I kind of forgot about it and started writing songs that just felt good on my hands. I just let my hands wander on the fretboard, and that's pretty much how this album turned out to be the way that it is.
Would you say that it's you at your most natural -- let's say, your most relaxed?
Everything that's on this record is just what came out -- I didn't really think at any specific point, "damn, I definitely have to make this a sick tech-death part" or whatever. I guess it just came out naturally; I wasn't trying to make specific sections sound like this kind of music, or that kind of music. It was definitely relaxed, I would say. There are certain parts on the record that, if you would have shown them to me [during the time of] our first album, I would've been like, "wow, sounds like he got kind of lazy!" I've learned to appreciate stuff like that [though], because I feel like having parts which sit back and relax, basically, adds to the impact of the heavy parts when they come back in. If you have that brief moment or brief section of relaxation before the iron wall of sound hits, it hits that much harder.
Maybe kind of like the beginning of "A Home," it starts out with that chord progression which feels natural and flowing, then it breaks into rest of the song.
Yeah, exactly -- when we started recording that song, Carson [Slovak, producer] said, "oh, that's like a Foo Fighters song or some shit." I guess it kind of has that "Everlong" sort of vibe to it. We weren't afraid to keep shit civil, you know? We kind of got over our anxiety about what people would think of us who were maybe fans of our more technical stuff.
Speaking of fans and how they view the band and previous albums -- now Rivers of Nihil has saxophone. What led to that decision, who first came up with the idea?
Well, we're all big fans of prog music from the 1970s. I know specifically our drummer Jared [Klein], me, and our bass player [Adam] Biggs -- our dads were all musicians in some form or another and huge fans of prog rock from the 1960s and 1970s. We all grew up listening to bands that had saxophone as part of their sound naturally, like King Crimson, Pink Floyd, early Genesis, and stuff like that. I think that's where the initial seeds for wanting to include that sound in our music came from.
I guess the real catalyst for it was because I record bands locally, and one of the bands I was recording -- their guitar player was going to the university around here to be a saxophone performance major. He's a fan of death metal, he's in a death metal band, but he's this crazy saxophone player. We got talking and sort of joking about, "hey, maybe you should play on the new Rivers record…" It was kind of a joke at first, and then I wrote "The Silent Life" [the new album's second track] which has this big, open middle section before the guitar solo. So, I thought it sounded kind of empty, like "we could have that empty, or we could have a really long guitar solo, or we could try to maybe bring a different instrument in." That's exactly what we did. He came over my house and basically laid down what ended up on the record in one or two takes. After everyone heard that, everyone was like "damn, this actually kind of works!"
You guys were all on board at that point, right?
Yeah, after that -- we didn't want to overdo it, like "yeah, saxophone in every song! We're a sax band now!" I think there's three songs on the record that feature prominent sax parts and a fourth which has more subdued sax parts. It's definitely part of the record -- it's an instrument that we've all grown up [with]. It's been a natural instrument in the bands that we listen to, so it wasn't really something we had to think about too hard, we just didn't know it would sound with our band. As it turns out, we liked how it sounded, so that's pretty much how it ended up on the record.
I love how the saxophone lends a really dark angle to the atmosphere: it's eerie, it screams up high and goes down low, and has a nice raw brass sound to it. It makes the album more dynamic that way, too. As far as the atmosphere goes, did you guys have a focus on it? This album feels a lot more heady than the previous albums. Did you explore that territory as something new?
We always had shoegazey or post-rocky atmospheric guitars going on -- that was always kind of part of our sound. But I recently started messing around with the Mellotron -- that instrument, when you run it through heavy delay and reverb, it's just one of the most terrifying or beautiful sounding instruments that I've ever heard. A large part of that sound you're talking about on this record is due to using the Mellotron, not necessarily in a "kablow, here's a Mellotron!" sense, but in a more spacey kind of way.
But yeah, we definitely came into this record wanting to have that super "bummer vibe" a lot of the time. It's an autumn record, and it's about regret -- things dying and changing and all that. We figured that having a more melancholy sort of thing both lyrically and sonically was something we wanted to go for. Using the Mellotron, saxophone, and all the other weird instruments that we used on this record -- I think it all contributed to what the record is.
One track in particular that really stuck with me is "Subtle Change (Including the Forest of Transition)." To me, it's the behemoth of the album: it's the longest track, carries the most weight, and feels like it's the most complex. How did that one come together?
Honestly, that was basically a last-minute Hail Mary kind of thing. We were at the very end of the writing process (I think we were going to start recording guitars in two weeks maybe), and Biggs and I were talking, "why don't we just write a super ridiculous, long-ass prog anthem that everybody's probably going to hate… but let's just do it anyway." Like King Crimson -- they have In the Court of the Crimson King -- we're big fans of that kind of songwriting. Usually when we write, we try to follow some basic guidelines for song structure and tempo changes, but on that song, we threw all that out the window. We did basically whatever we wanted to do -- it's definitely one of my favorite songs on the record, if not my favorite.
I've heard from some guys who've heard the new record that they're either totally confused by that song or that they're totally in love with it. It's funny, a couple of my friends who are big prog dudes -- they heard it but were like "yeah, I don't know, I didn't really get it." But then people who I wouldn't expect to like it have really loved it. That song, though, was us really going "hey, let's write an obnoxious prog song and see what happens... and why not throw a Hammond organ into it as well." I think it came out really cool, and the sax solo on that song is definitely my favorite sax moment on the entire record.
What came after it [the song] I didn't expect at all: that heavy, dark electronic part. How did you guys do that?
That was the song called "Terrestria III: Wither" -- that one, we got an old Moog Sub Phatty synthesizer to do that pulsing sort of thing. Then, we had my friend play trumpet on it -- like a muted trumpet, so it has that old Miles Davis sad Chicago jazz vibe to it, but then there's also some weird Nine Inch Nails industrial-type stuff going on. On that song, then again, we were like, "let's just make a song that would be soundtracky, like a song in a Resident Evil movie or some shit." Those two songs are probably the biggest removals from our traditional sound, but I think they're two of my favorite tracks.
It's almost like an intermission in a way, because it gets heavy again in the following couple tracks. It's great that you guys introduced all these new elements to your sound -- but what interests me is that you [still] sound like Rivers of Nihil. The new album is undeniably Rivers of Nihil: different from Monarchy in so many ways, but still so identifiable.
I think a risk a lot of bands take when they do large-scale changes like this -- a lot of bands end up losing their identity because they're swallowed by this huge thing that they're trying. But, we definitely wanted to make sure that we were still clearly Rivers of Nihil while trying to see where we could go with some of this stuff.
Do you guys feel like this is the moment for Rivers of Nihil?
Yeah, I think so. I think that the band is happier than we've ever been, which is hilarious because the record is such a bummer mood-wise. Member-wise, this is the best lineup that we've ever had, both talent-wise and personality-wise. Jared, he was recommended to us by some of the guys in Revocation as a great drummer. Usually, you go off recommendations with a bit of caution, like "ah, let's see what this dude's about." But when he came into the band, this whole dark, heavy, blanket that's been over the band for a while kind of came off -- now we all just have fun together, we all get along and everyone's on top of their game. I feel like, at this point, the Rivers of Nihil "machine" is firing on all cylinders for the first time ever. I think this record is "our moment," as you said -- I think there's a lot of stuff on this record that I haven't heard many bands doing, an odd combination of things. I think it makes sense that we're the ones to do it, because we've always been a bit difficult to classify: we've never been a full-blown tech band, never been a full-blown old school death metal band. I feel like with this record we found our footing -- being weird, but in our own unique kind of way.
The popularity the new album might bring… have you guys encountered any problems or challenges with a lot of opinions flying around, people's anticipation, and stuff like that?
Everyone in the band, we're all very observant of the personalities in the other bands we tour with. I think a lot of us have seen other bands feed way too far into what people are saying -- for example, if a band drops an earth-shattering record and all of a sudden shit changes for them and they're on every sick tour, I've seen dudes buy too far into that. It's an embarrassing thing to see, and it's not a look that any of us want to be associated with. Honestly, I know it probably sounds silly, and every band says this, but we still just consider ourselves five dudes that get together and play music. If people like it, that's sick, if they don't, then that's fine too. But if they like it enough to take this band to the next level, we're still going to be the same way we've always been: grateful for any things people have to say about us, but we're not going to let it rule our lives. We're just people, you know?