Rivers of Nihil – The Work Review

Following Kronos’ law of increasing hippietude, Rivers of Nihil have slowly softened their deathcore- and djent- influenced progressive death metal in order to embrace their more sensitive side. Their last record, Where Owls Know My Name, saw this softening succeed, the band now not too far removed from prog metal standbys Between the Buried and Me, sans the hyperactivity. Owls twined the band’s inherited heft and emotional valence into a few very strong songs and a respectable album, proof that the hippiefication process is not all bad. The Work takes it one puff further, balancing every moment of death metal intensity with one or two of chill prog. The result is the band’s most diverse yet cohesive record to date, but not without its flaws.

As before, Rivers of Nihil demonstrate their creativity in sequencing rather than during any one musical event. The basic building blocks of their sound are atmospheric tremolo leads, careful guitar arpeggios, blissful prog-rock sequences, and late-2000s deathcore riffs. The Work triumphs in their admixture, as late-album tracks like “Episode” demonstrate. A warm and plaintive introduction explodes into a fiery pit chorus, lulling again for a quick solo section before the band pulls a few Ingested riffs off the shelf to transition into a climactic second half. The follow-up “Maybe One Day” goes full hippie, never losing its backing acoustic strumming and ending on a fading theremin lead. The interest present in these songs, and in the album as a whole, doesn’t come from their particular melodies or rhythms, but in how the band sequence musical textures.

It’s when Rivers of Nihil lean on one texture too long that The Work shows its seams. Built around the repetition of an uninteresting musical figure, “Dreaming Black Clockwork” is only good when departing from its central theme, and its placement on the record halts The Work’s early momentum. As a heavy track, the later “MORE?” works much better, and provides a good follow up to the Fallujah-influenced “The Void From Which No Sound Escapes,” and that song’s surprising ending. “Void” does stretch itself a bit, but not as much as the saccharine “Maybe One Day,” which would have been a smart textural piece at two or three minutes but is an absolute drag at seven. These off songs don’t much damage the record, but they’re missed opportunities for more judicious editing that would have made them more impactful. It’s also within and around these stretched textures I’m most ambivalent to the solos from Brody Uttley and guest saxophonist Zach Strouse (Burial in the Sky). Some of Uttley’s work is heavily indebted to classic rock and just sounds out-of-place between odes to Fallujah and Ingested, whereas Strouse’s solos are often more notable for the texture of the saxophone than any particularly interesting ideas.

The Work’s themes of reflection and relationship-building are far more interesting than those of Owls, which focused on more typical themes of alienation and death. At times, the record is a bit heavy handed, but that’s hardly a distinguishing feature for prog lyrics. On my first spin through the record I was piqued by the seemingly constant repetition of the record’s title over the B-side, but on subsequent listens I lost my annoyance and enjoyed the record’s clarity of purpose. It doesn’t hurt that clarity that the band prioritize important lyrical snippets, delivered intelligibly by Adam Biggs as both roars and croons.

The Work is a genuinely impressive piece of arrangement, and Rivers of Nihil have never produced a more cohesive and interesting bunch of songs. At its best (“Episode”) the record’s careful arrangements propel its impassioned lyrics at full force and transition between moods with true grace. But the record is so much more than the sum of its parts that the parts themselves are inadequate. What’s more, The Work’s somewhat sterile production doesn’t highlight any particularly interesting performances from the band, and Rivers of Nihil still hobble with the crutch of quarter-note strumming to produce the record’s most intense moments. Yet imperfect as it is, I still have to recommend The Work for its ambition and success as a record. Hippiefied death metal bands have sounded better, but this one in particular has not, and I can only hope they build on this record’s success for their next, even flowerier record.

Rating: 3.0/5.0
DR: 6 | Format Reviewed: 320kbps mp3
Label: Metal Blade Records
Websites: facebook.com/riversofnihil | riversofnihil.com
Releases Worldwide: September 24th, 2021

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