Rivers of Nihil have gone from strength to strength with each of their previous releases, culminating in 2018’s runaway AOTY Where Owls Know My Name. Part of what made Owls so striking was just how unexpected it was. The band’s first two records, The Conscious Seeds of Light (2013) and Monarchy (2015), were and remain both great records. The leap in quality to Owls, however, was undeniable, with the many progressive elements suddenly added to the band’s sound on that release only adding it its singularity in their discography. And so The Work became first truly anticipated Rivers of Nihil record, charged with one of the most celebrated and arguably definitive death metal records of the current era. Rather than change tack yet again, this time around the band have decided to lean even further into the progressive sounds of the previous album. Yet, while the results often remain impressive, the push has also caused a tipping of the balance, which has perhaps left the Pennsylvanian quintet teetering on the edge of good taste.

The term “progressive” gets bandied about a lot these days, to the point where its become a largely amorphous term to imply a general and often modern-sounding tone and aesthetic as much as any structural or instrumental experimentation. When describing The Work as a “progressive: death metal album, however, we’re talking old-school, classic, ’70s style prog rock. Rather than a barrage of brutality, what greets the listener upon beginning The Work is some lush acoustic strumming and a clean-sung refrain of “la-di-da-di-da” of all things. The deceptively soft intro track is nothing new, nor particularly “progressive,” and the sudden-if-belated transition into “Dreaming Black Clockwork” proves Rivers of Nihil still pack plenty of punch. Yet “The Tower” is not merely an overlong intro track but, as it’s parenthetical subtitle states, a “theme” for the record, elements of which recur frequently throughout its excessive sixty-four minute run-time, in the form of refrains like the minute-long “Tower 2” and longer, fully fledged “dad-prog” numbers like “Wait” and “Maybe one Day”. There’s a definite retro style to these numbers that often recalls the tonality of mid-period  Yes and Pink Floyd in their more whimsical moments but without capturing any of their substance. Add in The Work‘s two underwhelming lead singles, “Focus” and “Clean” – the latter of which sounds like something off one of the last Fit For an Autopsy albums without the urgency, while the latter is built around a pulsing bass line reminiscent of Static X‘s “Cold” – and we’re of to a pretty uninspiring start.

Then, around half-way through the album, Rivers of Nihil suddenly decide to remind everyone how truly great they are. The Work‘s sixth (of eleven) track(s), “The Void from Which No Sound Escapes” is a darker, electronic infused offering that perfectly captures and builds upon everything that made Where Owls Made My Name so remarkable. It’s an instant highlight that immediately grabs and holds your attention, reminding you of just how far ahead of their peers Rivers of Nihil can be at times, but it also brings into stark contrast just how flat and flabby the album has felt up until this point. “MORE?” continues the trend, genuinely breaking new ground, interrupting the odd “one more song!” refrain that ends “The Void from Which No Sound Escapes” with a Slipknot-style nu metal riff, culminating an almost dub-step-like pulsing breakdown at the end, after transitioning through a ravenous, Carnival is Forever-esque, tech-death mid section. The one-two of these tracks is an utter revelation for the record, which seems to finally be kicking into top gear after about half-an-hour. Following the brief refrain of “Tower 2,” Rivers of Nihil final hit the classic prog nail on the head with “Episode,” which bears more than a bit of resemblance to Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” in its opening bass notes and epic closing solo set to an ominous chant of “do the work!” Eleven-and-a-half-minute closer “Terrestria IV: Work” is another stunner that manages to strike a balance between Rivers of Nihil’s brutal beginnings and their progressive inclinations. Unfortunately the far too earnest “Maybe One Day” (which comes way too close to becoming death metal’s “African Child” for comfort) slows proceedings to a grating halt, reminding you of just how much time has been invested for relatively little return and rendering the remaining twelve minutes or so a fairly daunting prospect.

Taken as offered, what we have in The Work is somewhat of a reverse Fortitude situation in that it provides an almost perfect second half, following a somewhat lackluster A-side. Yet, while the album’s individual highlights might eclipse those of Gojira‘s most recent opus, The Work‘s excessive length and devastating inclusion of “Maybe One Day” perhaps renders it a less effective outing overall. Not being able to shake the nagging itch of the record’s stronger material, however, I set myself to reorganising it into a more consistent and cohesive arrangement. Those uninterested in such tampering can stop reading now, and take the above as my conclusive statement on the album as presented. Conversely, those who also feel like they should be getting more out of this record than they seem to be getting would do well to try the out the following alternative track arrangement:

1. Terrestria IV: Work
2. Dreaming Black Clockwork
3. Tower 2
4. The Void From Which No Sound Escapes
5. MORE?
6. Focus
7. Wait
8. Episode
9. The Tower
10. Clean
11. Maybe One Day

This arrangement not only foregrounds some of The Work‘s stronger and more immediate material, but (I think) smooths out a lot of its transitions, so that it builds more convincingly toward a cathartic conclusion, rather than wallowing in rampant melancholy punctuated by odd bouts of ill-fitting elation. “Maybe One Day” still isn’t good, but it works as a “light at the end of the tunnel sort of thing” far better than it does as an impromptu, penultimate frolic. This is, of course, done at the sacrifice of the record’s obvious if not entirely clear narrative, which apparently ties into some kind of ongoing seasonal concept. Then again, no one cared about this concept on Rivers of Nihil’s previous records, so I don’t think it really matters.

The Work might just be your granddaddy’s progressive death metal record, but it doesn’t have to be. There are moments of undeniable brilliance scattered throughout Rivers of Nihil’s newest outing, along with a general sense of tonal competence and instrumental prowess that hints at something greater, buried beneath its icy tundras, rather than a full-on jumping of the progressive shark. Whether through re-structuring or plain old perseverance, there is greatness to be had here; to bring it out though, you might have to do a bit of work.

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