(The cover art for the new Rivers of Nihil album, “Where Owls Know My Name”, courtesy of their bandcamp page.)
“Where Owls Know My Name” is a mixed bag. The first half of the album is some of the best technical death metal (tech death) I’ve ever heard and the second half is deeply average at best.
Reviewing an album with high highs and low lows is tricky because the score doesn’t tell the story. The score tends to average out low and hide the real gems the album has. This is the case with “Where Owls Know My Name”, an album worth listening to for the gems on it but ultimately not worth turning over and over again as a whole because of its mediocre parts.
The score also won’t reflect the credit that Rivers of Nihil deserves for making some sweeping changes and taking bold risks. Tech-death definitely has progressive rock in its genes and Rivers of Nihil chose to bring the prog to the forefront of the new album. For metal bands, that can be a dangerous move that can cause many metal fans to furiously disown the band.
Rivers of Nihil makes their identity shift look pretty natural despite making some drastic shifts. Rivers of Nihil even manages to make the saxophone sound natural to progressive metal. The saxophone doesn’t feature too heavily but it comes in at just the right times, bringing a little life and color – usually to the mellower stretches of the album.
In “The Silent Life,” Rivers of Nihil shows a mastery of shifting dynamics and moods and how a saxophone can fit a metal band. “The Silent Life” shifts constantly from slow to quick, smooth to harsh but always sounds cohesive. The transitions are perfect and the track is stunning, one of the best the tech or progressive death songs that will come out this year. The main guitar riff is straight-forward but strong, spearheading the track with a downright catchy lead rhythm.
About mid-way through the song smoothes out and the bass leads instead of the guitar. Here, the saxophone shows how well it can fit, coming in for a brief stint to duel with the bass and make the downtempo section more intricate and interesting. Then, as the song speeds up again Rivers of Nihil brings the bass back, this time relying on the harsh whine the instrument can have to add to the dissonance of a harsh, heavy section of the song. This is an inventive use of an instrument unorthodox to the band’s genre and it’s a big part of what makes progressive genres like technical or progressive death metal special.
Similarly, “Subtle Change” shows what Rivers of Nihil can do working in their newer, proggier style. “Subtle Change” takes on some progressive metal staples like higher pitched backup vocals, smoothed lead vocal sections, synthy keyboards, and so many tonal shifts. “Subtle Change” is Rivers of Nihil at their most proggy and while it can get overdone at points, it mostly works. It’s exciting, interesting, and absolutely wild – – alternating between synths, glam-rock guitar, blast beats, and more saxophone.
“A Home” and “Old Nothing” feel more reminiscent of the band’s last album, “Monarchy”, but still see the band pushing into new territory. In particular, “A Home” is the catchiest song I’ve heard from Rivers of Nihil and maybe any tech death act. I found myself chanting the chorus of “A Home” to myself hours after listening. That’s a good effect to have on a listener. “A Home” has weird breakdowns – a strange, aquatic guitar solo at around 3:05 – but its chorus and its repeated rhythms steal the show, demonstrating how well the band can make iconic lead riffs and powerful choruses.
Then, the second half of the album comes around and Rivers of Nihil turns into an average band. The decline shows right as “Subtle Change” doesn’t transition into “Terrestria III: Wither.” There isn’t a rough, unfriendly transition that ultimately fits, there is no transition at all between two vastly different songs. An acoustic guitar cuts off mid-note and falls into a “Stranger Things” synth line. It sounds terrible and it’s baffling from a band that previously managed most tonal shifts and transitions seamlessly.
Most of the tracks on the second half are fine but unmemorable. They don’t have big failures but they don’t have any big successes either. “Terrestria III: Wither” has a pretty cool sound, but it doesn’t fit that well on the wider album, being too synthetic and also totally shattering the end of “Subtle Change.”
“Hollow” opens interestingly but it feels uninventive overall. It relies too much on blast beasts and most of the guitar work lacks the interesting, heavy style Rivers of Nihil usually has. The same goes for “Death is Real”, which does have some incredible bass segments but lacks the dynamic movement inside earlier tracks. “Where Owls Know My Name” and “Capricorn/Agrotopia” have better and more interesting compositions but stretch on for too long.
“Where Owls Know My Name” contains masterpieces and mediocrity and the masterpieces make it harder to forgive the mediocrity. The album shows promising growth and change and a lot of great ideas. It adds awesome new sounds and fleshes out the band’s identity but the stark difference between its tremendous tracks and its average ones significantly weakens it as an album.
The masterpieces: 9.5/10
The album: 7/10