There are few better things in life than when a band you write off as just not being in your wheelhouse surprises the hell out of you. On their first two releases Rivers of Nihil crafted technical if slightly detached death metal. Everything rang true and sounded great, and nothing stuck out. With Where Owls Know My Name the band rips its sound wide open, laying bare exposed nerve endings that mesh with a sense of exploration to craft my favorite death metal release so far this year. This pushing forward may come at some cost. The precision and rigid lines of both 2013’s The Conscious Seed of Light and 2015’s Monarchy showed a band executing modern death metal flawlessly. Songs like “Rain Eater” and “Soil and Seed” showed there was no fear when it came to intricate guitar lines and shifts in dynamics and tempo, but rather than break from the mold it simply hardened it. And that’s fine: this is a sound that folks go nuts for, and if you can do something really well, refining it to its essence seems a worthwhile cause.
Monarchy moves a little way toward breaking that mold a bit: the sense of space and ringing melodic lines on “Terrestria II: Thrive” couples with an always moving bass line to show the band’s capability of branching out into the cosmos. “Sand Baptism” is another highlight where you see Rivers of Nihil struggling to just let loose with their freakiness, only to couch it back safely in the modern down-tuned death that guarantees acceptance with the kids. Some of this is due to the production, which stays tight and slightly claustrophobic, refusing to allow the more progressive moments of something like “Circles in the Sky” to take flight with its stellar drumming and bass work.
All constraints are lifted on Where Owls Know My Name and it almost feels like a different band, one completely in tune with its identity and embracing whatever direction their muse takes them. Continuing the seasonal theme from the previous albums, Where Owls explores the decay and solitude of age, using the narrative background established previously to get more personal with the lyrics. Adding guitarist Jon Topore and drummer Jared Klein to the core unit of guitarist Brody Uttley, bassist/lyricist Adam Biggs, and vocalist Jake Dieffenbach the opening intro “Cancer/Moonspeak” instantly sets a different tone, injecting a mournful isolation that explodes with “Silent Life.” It’s amazing that production duties are again handled by Carson Slovak, because the sound is massive and open compared to the more restrained sonics on Monarchy. This is a case of everyone knowing they had something special on their hands, and upping their games exponentially.
“Silent Life” acts as an invitation: exploring every avenue the band finds, there’s sax solos, gorgeous ambient passages, slinking basslines and of course enough metal to rip your face off. But this time the molds of modern levels that are split appear according to the needs of the music, signalling a maturity and arrival only hinted at before. The guitar tone that opens “A Home” is chunky and gnarled in an almost indie rock fashion before spilling into a tight percussive attack that is reinforced with keyboards and a sense of adventure paralleled by the latest from Between the Buried and Me. But here, Rivers of Nihil set the song in a darker and pained foundation, and it anchors the track with an emotional heft I’ve never heard from them before. “Old Nothing” is pulverizing, but backed with a sadness that instantly sets it apart from what the band’s peers are doing.
The halfway mark highlights how far the band has come. “Subtle Change (Including the Forest of Transition and Dissatisfaction Dance)” is a bit of a mouthful, but it’s here Rivers of Nihil go full-on Dream Theater prog. The song embraces its shifts, and instead of being a mess it’s beautiful, again featuring saxophone and Dieffenbach’s clean vocals. There are even hints of Kansas’s “Carry on My Wayward Son” embedded in the song’s DNA. From there things continue on a steady course of ambition. “Terrestria III: Wither” carries the tradition with a sparse, ambient track that eventually evolves into dark electronics. “Hollow” and “Death is Real” carry the tradition of the earlier albums, except with a new-found strength of purpose.
By the time of the title track and closer “Capricorn/Agoratopia” we’ve hit another level of growth where the band stretch to show how much you can do within a genre too often tied down by conformity. Simply put, Where Owls Know My Name is a revelation, a complete reinvention of Rivers of Nihil that firmly moves them out of the crowd of peers and into a spotlight of bands pushing harder and further to demonstrate the elasticity and passion that metal can achieve. Anyone else looking to enter this arena had better be prepared.