Tech Death Thursday: Rivers of Nihil – The Work

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How are we all doing today? Feeling awake, feeling good? Let’s change all that.

Let this work go on and on
‘Til the day is won
‘Til another setting sun

Rivers of Nihil is a band that needs little introduction, and rightly so. They have made a name for themselves in the progressive death metal world with a combination of unique, forward-thinking composition and relentless riffing style defined by their ridiculously low tuning and Jacob Dieffenbach’s vicious barked vocals. On top of that, they haven’t been content to simply take the “more songs” approach to their albums; each of the now four records is defined by a season, and the music and lyrics shift to thematically tie to that, from the vibrant spring tones of Conscious Seed of Light to the arid, smoldering Monarchy summer to Where Owls Know My Name‘s introspective autumn. And beneath all this change, all these stylistic shifts, has been work.

A lot of work.

That all-important work, as you have probably surmised, is at the core of the band’s new album, the winter capstone to their seasonal cycle. Let’s not mince words here; this is not an uplifting album, not something you throw on to just jam out to some sweet icy riffs. It’s also not dark and wintry in a puerile stereotypical black metal “grim and frostbitten” kind of way; it’s much more nuanced than that. No, this is an album that dwells on addiction, on demand, on the work that we do day after day, those days turning into weeks into months into years, the work that defines our life and our being until it’s all that we are.

Sit right here
‘Cuz baby we can’t take all year

I know you see it
‘Cuz I see it too
All of our dreams might never come true

Let’s focus on the elephant in the room: musically, this is a very different album from its predecessors. It’s overall a quieter, slower experience than their prior output- listening to “Focus,” one might almost get the impression it’s a more mainstream effort. While a few songs might indeed be lighter than what you might expect from the band, leaning more into the “progressive” part of the genre than the “death metal” bit, this is very much not easy listening, the occasional pretty melody notwithstanding. The band does not shy away from getting heavy, sometimes devastatingly so, punching through the serene contemplations in a hailstorm of guitar and drums.

While there are a few songs that feel about as archetypal Rivers of Nihil as is possible with this band- “MORE?” and “Dreaming Black Clockwork” will most certainly please the most voracious of riff fiends- the general sound of the album is all over the place. “Wait” and “Maybe One Day” are both full-on ballads, driven by clean guitar and vocals, and “Clean” slows things to a dreary crawl that I feel exemplifies the soul of the album. On a surface level, this is musically the least cohesive of the band’s four albums; per guitarist Brody Uttley, even the band themselves weren’t sure how it would all fit together until the lyrics were finished. (“We didn’t really know if it was all going to connect together in any kind of logical or interesting way. It wasn’t until we got the vocals done that it was clear what we had on our hands: something that actually somehow all worked together.”) Whether that’s to its detriment is in the eye (or ear, as it were) of the beholder.

You can stay and peel the past away
Find a new set of words to say
There’s always a better way
Not now but maybe one day

But winter is itself a complicated season; the weather is harsh, the world feels dead and still, but that stillness and quiet between the storms can be beautiful. Sonically, lyrically, this feels like an all-encompassing winter album. Its foundation is that of a dirge, sorrow and dread and weariness, punctuated by moments of scathing brutality and pure serenity. The disparate sounds come together to something that, if you’re paying attention, ties together quite smoothly.

The Work is, appropriately, an album that will give what you put into it. It’s demanding of its listeners in a way that I don’t feel their previous albums were, requiring of a dedicated listen, preferably with lyrics on hand. It’s a complete experience, one that’s incredibly ambitious, and one that has left me feeling drained at the end of each listen. It closes the book on this four-album cycle in the most appropriate way possible; what’s next is impossible to say right now. All that is certain is that this work isn’t over.

Bury me so I might grow
What’s the use, we’re dying so slow
There’s so much tension in here
But no release is near

The Work releases on September 24th via Metal Blade Records.

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