The first time I ever encountered Rivers of Nihil was a few years ago back in 2014. The band was touring with Death D.T.A. on their Swamp Leper Stomp tour, and this was a year after their debut album. Having not heard of them before, I thought they were pretty damn good after watching them live, giving me the technical death metal fix that desperately filled the hole left by the wait for any new material from The Faceless. Their 2nd album came out just a year later, and I thought it was just as good as their first one. When news came of their third album dropping in March, I was interested and kept an eye out as news and singles dropped from the record, and while I was expected something on par with their prior releases (especially considered The Faceless’ last record was a letdown and I desperately needed some good tech-death), I was not at all prepared for what Rivers of Nihil were set to unleash. Where Owls Know My Name, the group’s latest full-length album, is nothing less than a goddamn masterpiece: a masterful display of experimentation/songwriting talent that sets new highs for further bands in the genre to aspire to.
Right away, the opening of the album sets an unexpected tone for the record, as “Cancer/Moonspeak” greets the listener with an ominous keyboard intro that evokes imagery akin to Twin Peaks and even Blade Runner, building to the first proper track “The Silent Life.” Massive wall-of-sound chord progressions alternate with equally massive low-end technical riffs and furious blastbeats to create an atmosphere that is both oppressive and somewhat melancholic. This proceeds to about the halfway point where the tone changes entirely, switching to a more melodic clean break accentuated by bass riffs and a saxophone solo of all things before the guitars and synths kick back in proper, leading to an intense break of beast-like growls and more janky atonal sax melodies. The standard is set really high with this first song, as the saxophone elements alone add layers to the melodies and show off the leaps and bounds made in songwriting ability since then.
Things just get more and more impressive from there. The following track “A Home” showcases many dynamic shifts between its driving chugging riffs and huge-sounding chord structures, especially with the keys adding layers to the atmosphere as they soar above the chaos along with the lead guitar melodies, and the noodling bass melodies add so much to the assault. It’s an intensely emotive song that’s one of the most addicting on the record, especially when complimented by some really dramatic lyrical content (“The day that you left here, a crown was placed upon me. I was the king of nothing.”). This gets contrasted by “Old Nothing” with its rapid blastbeats, a low-end whirlwind of guitar riffs, and an ominous grooving bridge with dark guitar melodies and dissonant solos. The album veers wildly between various moods and songwriting styles, as the band has seemingly pulled out nearly all the stops to make this record happen.
The longest track on the record, “Subtle Change (Including the Forest of Transition and Dissatisfaction Dance),” demonstrates perfectly everything that makes the album a magnificent experience. A slow moody intro builds up to this huge-sounding half-time metalcore chorus, complete with alternating clean and heavy vocals. It’s a really powerful opening section, and the verses maintain a steady off-kilter guitar/drum groove accentuated by the album’s dynamic production. While the guitars play their overdriven chord progressions, the riffs also incorporate these bursts of syncopated djenty guitar notes that are incredibly accentuated in the mix, helping the song feel full of energy and life. These segments give way to influences of ‘80s glam and ‘70s prog rock with shreddy Van Halen-style guitar solos and Yes-style keyboard runs. The songwriting is impossibly tight as it keeps these disparate elements cohesive and tight, with the balance between melody and heaviness being incredibly reminiscent of the early days of The Contortionist. There’s even some black-metal-esque touches with walls of synths, airy guitars/blastbeats, and viciously howled vocals that disorient the listener before throwing in even more saxophones.
The way the production balances the wildly technical death metal instrumentation against the more melodic progressive and metalcore influences constantly shows itself off. Tracks like “Hollow” and “Death Is Real” create these whirlwinds of thick chugs and blastbeats while the lead melodies glide and soar across the chaos happening underneath. The walls of distortion provide great platforms for all these more melodic tendencies to play off of, especially when the usage of other instruments kick in, such as flutes or the aforementioned saxophones. If there’s another track that should be singled out for its unique songwriting, “Terrestria III: Wither” works in a great deal of synthesized industrial elements. Low rumbling bass synths build up to the most thunderous drums on the record, as the electronic elements give an added heavy boost to each snare hit. The massive weight of each drum hit gives the song a dramatic gravitas akin to a film score, and it goes to show how huge of an album this really is.
There are not enough good things that can be said about Where Owls Know My Name. Not just content with making another pretty good tech-death album, Rivers of Nihil changed the game with their latest release. Reaching to influences of metalcore and post-hardcore seem like natural evolutions for their sound, but from the other influences of jazz fusion and progressive rock on top of the dynamic lively production values, the record sounds like nothing else the genre has produced in recent memory. If you’ve been sleeping on the band up to this point, you owe it to yourselves to check out this masterpiece.
Final verdict: buy it. Don’t be surprised when this ends up on every year-end best of list possible. It deserves all its accolades.