There certainly hasn’t been a lack of impressive and challenging death metal in the past few years. Now practically thirty years since its inception, heavy metal’s most savage subgenre hasn’t seemed to have lost any of its steam or desire to push the limits of their instruments (and sometimes recording techniques) to previously unexplored avenues. But with any style whose primary focus is extremity, bad habits can easily develop. At this point in the style’s history, how many more lightning-speed sweeps over a trash can snare do we really need to listen to? Luckily, many death metal bands in the past few years have put a much heavier emphasis on atmosphere, dynamics and emotionality which has helped provide a much needed contrast to the typical assault of gore and horror. Make no mistake, Rivers of Nihil is as penetrating as they come on Monarchy, but it’s the band’s knack for twists and incredible songwriting ability that make this sophomore release one of the most instantly-classic albums out there right now.
Now with their debut album and a few national tours under their belt, Rivers of Nihil has returned with ten of the most perfectly organized, frighteningly technical and deceptively catchy songs death metal has gotten this year. The most apparent and needed change for the band would be the much slicker production than was heard on The Conscious Seed of Light. You’d be hard pressed to find a thicker and meaner scrunch tone than what’s delivered during the band’s chug-laden assault in “Reign of Dreams” and “Suntold,” as well as plenty of soaring and delay-heavy leads that sound as though they’re coming at you from miles away. The fact that it’s accentuated with a much louder drum mix and a dominating bass performance from Adam Biggs only makes the payoff even greater. While the production that was achieved in the past with Erik Rutan was maybe a bit more unique, Monarchy’s inclusion of thick layering and dense orchestration calls for something much more polished, and that’s precisely what’s delivered here.
While Monarchy does have a more progressive slant than before, this album wastes absolutely no time bulldozing through the speakers with a deluge of dizzying riffs, meaty grooves and show-stopping solos, all accompanied by warp-speed drumming. The album’s first half or so falls much more in line with The Conscious Seed of Light, never forgetting to remind the listener why bands like Decapitated, Behemoth and Gorguts are revered within the underground. But even though the album has no putting its influences right out in front, it’s synthesized in such a fresh and exciting way. Rivers of Nihil have now become the masters of never staying in the same rhythmic feel or stylistic approach for too long, but while never deviating from the initial goal of delivering insanely brutal music. The title track may be the album’s single finest example, which seamlessly interweaves angular clean guitars, Brody Uttley’s trippy shredding and a polymetric breakdown that could put most deathcore groups out there to shame. The most impressive facet about this “Frankenstein’s monster” approach to songwriting is that things never too cluttered or too busy. “Sand Baptism,” for example, puts the weight of the song’s shoulders of vocalist Jake Dieffenbach, whose monstrous bellows of “I am the sun” are simply begging to be shouted back by a horde of rabid fans. It’s as close as the band has come to a single to date, and it’s that much more awesome for doing so.
The last three songs are where things really start expanding and experimenting, closing out with a three song suite that spans over 20 minutes and may be the best thing heavy music fans get in 2015. Following up the intro track on The Conscious Seed of Light, “Terrestria II: Thrive” finds the band channeling an instrumental take on Between the Buried and Me, only filtered through a much more extreme lens. It’s the most melodic and structurally adventurous the band has been to date, which places just as much emphasis on soaring, melodic leads as it does hyperdrive tremolo picking and warped time signatures. Both “Circles in the Sky” and “Suntold” definitely keep a strong melodic background throughout, but also merge together the band’s twisted riffscapes with Dieffenbach’s most varied and passionate vocals cut to tape. Just when you’d think that the album’s brutal tendencies would start to wear most listeners out, the band changes gears at exactly the right time. Monarchy’s song placement is as crucial to the album’s enjoyment as any lyric or musical idea.
To be blunt, there is no real reason for you to not get this album. Monarchy is the gold standard for extreme, technical, progressive, and passionate death metal right now, and it probably won’t change any time soon. This album showcases exactly what the genre needs right now: a relatively young group that understands and appreciates the genre’s greats, all while crafting a sound that’s also hooky as hell and completely identifiable. The album title couldn’t be more appropriate, because no one else is wielding supreme power quite like Rivers of Nihil is right now.