By Luigi Sibona
This is the metal record to beat this year. Having not heard of Rivers of Nihil until they dropped the first single ‘The Silent Life’ which was the most blistering, expansive and disarming slab of progressive death metal to have hit my ears in a very long time. In its 6:34 running time the track moves and swells through devastatingly heavy passages, displays of technical wizardry and ethereal noodling to groovin’ hooks. But that doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of ‘The Silent Life’. Rivers of Nihil, not content with all the above, throw in the sexiest sax solo you will ever hear in a death metal track (if that’s even something you’re likely to hear outside of this album). The ability to pull the rug out from under the listener is something that comes to exemplify the record. I was transfixed by the single on first listen in a way I can scarcely remember.
After devouring their back catalogue and wolfing down the other two singles the band dropped in the lead-up, I was awaiting the release of this record with tempestuous anticipation. To say that ‘Where Owls Know My Name’ lives up to this lofty expectation is an understatement.
The second track ‘A Home’, opens with a deceptively simple riff that stacks on layers of technicality and musicianship so organically, it’s like watching a tree grow in time-lapse. The fact that they manage to fold subtle hooks into the mix in such an off-hand manner showcases the fact that Rivers of Nihil, in their short career thus far, are master songwriters of the very highest calibre.
How the production can keep up with such dense instrumentation is utterly blinding; this record sounds incredible. Nowhere is this better showcased that on the sprawling prog metal epic ‘Subtle Change’. In its 8+ minutes the track plays out on such an operatic scale by the time the lilting acoustic guitar plays the song out, you feel like you’ve heard an entire symphony. The effect is remarkable.
The next track, ‘Terrestrial III: Wither’, a sequel in a trilogy of songs spanning their last two records, is an instrumental cut that pulls from industrial and further flexes the bands cinematic muscles. It’s rare to find an instrumental interlude that you don’t find yourself skipping on repeat spins of the record but ‘Terrestrial III’ sounds so massive it just sits as another album highlight.
The back end of the record kicks off with personal favourite, ‘Hollow’. This cut manages to be relentlessly heavy, with savage blast beats permeating the track, and in a soaring elegance only compatible with French heavyweights Gojira‘s sublime last record, ‘Magma’. The choral refrain being one of the most enrapturing moments of the record and attaining such a sense of ominous spectacle it’s almost frightening. The lead guitar work here is something to behold.
The record never lets up, every second demands your attention but it’s also a work of great patience and restraint. Keeping a track as huge as the eponymous, ‘Where Owls Know My Name’, to the penultimate cut is bold. Opening with a haunting evocative vocal melody courtesy of Black Crown Initiate’s Andy Thomas guesting on the track. This album is just another example of the band’s stellar song writing. I honestly can’t think of another record, let alone what is ostensibly a death metal album, that does so much, so well, without an inch of fat on it.
Final track, ‘Capricorn / Agoratopia’ in its two movements is an ending befitting a record of this magnitude.
It is possible that this review has been hyperbolic, slavering gushing, but the truth is this is a game changer. Progressive death metal doesn’t get better than this, even trying to pigeonhole Rivers of Nihil as prog death seems somewhat redundant when you take in the scale of the accomplishment. This is an instant classic of the genre and if there’s any justice in the world ‘Where Owls Know My Name’ will be held up in the pantheon of progressive metal with the likes of Tool’s ‘Lateralus’, Mastodon’s ‘Crack the Skye’ and Gojira’s ‘From Mars To Sirius’.