Supergroups are so common in today’s metal market that it’s hard for me to get excited about them. Sure, every once in a blue moon I’ll stumble upon something like Vhol which arguably outshines its impressive pedigree, but one is far more likely to find a group that’s merely “okay.” This isn’t surprising; great bands are defined by a cohesive unit, and there’s little guarantee that a new joining of previously successful yet disparate musicians will yield something as special as its members’ origins. River Black, a new project featuring members of Revocation, Municipal Waste, and the long-defunct Burnt by the Sun, doesn’t feel like an attempt at outclassing those bands so much as spruced up recordings of jam session spitballing. It’s not a sophisticated approach, but RB’s self-titled debut is a decently fun. Yet like many supergroups, it’s just that: decent.
River Black is an interesting concoction in that it possesses traces of every genre relatable to its members’ respective histories, yet doesn’t really sound like any of their specific bands. Stylistically speaking, River Black is a tough record to nail down; there’s a heavy dose of stomping, macho hardcore riffs as well as an injection of thrash and down-tuned death metal viciousness, all wrapped in a grooving, largely mid-paced package. There are a lot of elements at work to be sure, and River Black’s greatest strength lies in their ability to compile these influences into a simple, identifiable sound without coming across as overstuffed. Their focus is refreshingly straightforward as well, showcasing an impressive diligence towards stuffing as many riffs into each concise composition as possible. The final product is knuckleheaded to be sure, but there’s something charming about River Black’s singular approach that leaves me relatively warm towards repeated listens.
Those return listens, however, quickly reveal the cracks in River Black’s foundation, especially in their songwriting chops. The band’s riff playbook is certainly impressive in sheer number and execution, but leave little room for pesky nuances such as complex constructions or subtle instrumentation. Sure, that’s kinda the whole point of River Black, but for a band that relies so heavily on heavy, grooving riffs, they can never quite get an infectious rhythm going. Drummer Dave Witte (Burnt by the Sun, Municipal Waste) is undeniably talented, but his chops aren’t properly utilized, the guitars leaving his routine patterns in the dust whenever he’s not performing at full throttle. Indeed, all extraneous elements fall by the wayside in the name of the Riff God, and this means that the song structures suffer as well. Tracks like “#Victim” start strong yet quickly veer into slower territory that feels strangely disconnected from what came before. While this is certainly a worst case scenario, most songs play out like a collection of guitar ideas that don’t feel arranged in a logical order.
The only instances where River Black displays genuine regard towards song construction are in the one-two punch of the string quartet interlude “River Black” and follow-up “South x South,” with the latter anchoring itself on the melody of the former, and the clean vocals (courtesy of Mastodon’s Brann Dailor) and Amorphis-esque leads in the mid-section of “Haunt.” These are uncharacteristically thoughtful additions to the record, but for the first few spins, at least, it’s difficult to care about compositional inconsistencies through the riff onslaught. River Black derives a respectable level of fretboard mileage from their largely low-end approach, tinkering with unconventional note progressions and light prog touches in impressive riffcraft that’s almost always interesting to listen to. The production sure makes the listening process difficult at times, though; it’s overly loud, yes, but even more concerning is the way the guitars and vocals push the snare and bass drums down in the mix while the cymbals remain strangely afloat. I can’t shake the feeling that punchier drum presence could have greatly bolstered River Black’s simple rhythms.
River Black displays an impressive dedication to riffs which provide the creative muscle expected from a band of its pedigree, but aside from the guitar work, there’s not much to say for it. It’s a fun, testosterone-driven listen on a purely surface level, but its lack of proper song structuring and rhythms that provide consistent momentum will make it a hard sell to many listeners, especially as it doesn’t fully cater to fans of any of the genres it explores. If you love its members’ main projects, go ahead and give River Black a go – just know that it traverses murkier waters.