How bands find balance in the spectrum of emotion can be interesting to observe. Many choose to narrowly focus on a narrow band of this space of possibilities, emphasizing heaviness, anger, misanthropy. Especially, given the nature of death metal, it’seasy to pigeonhole a group like Rivers of Nihil into that niche. To be fair, they’ve flexed their muscles before. Even on their debut, The Conscious Seed of Light, they’ve aimed for something a bit more. In Monarchy they really shot high with these ambitions, yet it didn’t always land. The Pennsylvanian quintet have been tweaking the formula for years now, but it’s always felt like they didn’t have the depth to fully achieve the sound they wanted. Where Owls Know My Name changes that in a magnificent way. This is a complex, intricate, beautiful album that not only plays with the paradigm shift Fallujah introduced to the genre years ago, but goes even further beyond that. All the while being uncompromisingly heavy and intense. If this sounds too good to be true, well time to strap in.
The different approach is pretty apparent from the start. The intro track, which is usually the moment of “please let me get to the real music”, is actually quite compelling. Clean vocals, retro synths and heavy atmospherics, it sets an ominous and layered tone. Rivers of Nihil are no strangers to ambient intro tracks, and they’ve always been very good at them, but “Cancer (Moonspeak)” is on a whole different level. Of course, characteristically, it goes into a crushingly heavy riff that is unmistakably RoN. Over just a few albums, the band have carved out a death metal sound that is unique to them while remaining conventional.
When bands add more outside-of-metal influences to their mix, they usually do it at the expense of the heaviness, but that’s definitely not the case here. The guitars are just as intense, the drumming just as fast and the vocals just as ferocious as ever. But as the first song, “The Silent Life”, progresses, it’s clear that something more is afoot here. The band slowly transitions into a jazz break, with smooth guitars, and even a saxophone solo (that’s actually quite well done). Of course, right after, the song hits its heaviest moment, which creates a crescendo so powerful that one cannot help but feel the need to express the physical sense of empowerment it causes.
As the album goes further, they keep adding more and more into the mix. More singing (which is quite well done), ballads, ambient elements, and even some electronica. On paper this might sound like a chaotic mess, but it’s all so expertly interweaved that instead it’s awe-inducing. The instrumental track “Terrestria III: Wither”, which is now a staple of each of their albums, is simply exquisite. Motifs are established and called back to throughout the album, creating a holistic sense of satisfaction.
With Where Owls Know My Name, we see an already-good band reaching for the moon, and actually hitting the mark to become an excellent band. This is definitely Rivers of Nihil’s magnum opus, and one of the best progressive death metal albums in years. Proving that one does not have to sacrifice ferocity for introspection and depth, they show that “mature” doesn’t have to mean “milquetoast”. Full of clever tricks, great moments and a lot of variety, this album is an absolute must-listen.
Where Owls Know My Name will be released on March 13th via Metal Blade Records. You can pre-order it from the band’s Bandcamp above and you really, really should. It will blow you away.