Behind the Cover: Rivers of Nihil - The Work

Dissecting the interconnectedness of Seagrave's works ahead of the cosmic new venture.

Preface by Jake Sanders (@themetalscholar), Interview by Luis (@luis.hoa):


Something eldritch and primeval ascends from murky depths and ancient peaks, all constructed under the watchful eyes, and hands, of Dan Seagrave. His art — which has graced the covers of extreme music albums since the late eighties — continues to reign supreme as one of the most iconic aspects of death metal. Often depicting desolate and alien worlds, the blueprint of his unique style of chaotic landscapes and cataclysmic events have painted both a figurative and literal backdrop for the auditory hell that listeners across the genre have become accustomed to. Painting a legacy of meticulous detail and lyrical consanguinity into much of the work, Dan captures the essence of the projects he chooses to embrace, solidifying a foundation of color, shape, and words into the face and facade of every listeners' introductory glance.


In Dan's approach to Rivers of Nihil, a vast world where we gain moments of panorama has emerged as a visual encyclopedia to the grimness behind the Pennsylvania outfit's lore of psychological torment, isolation, and descent into an uncomfortable, and at times, cloying insanity. Deliberately incongruent, the group's sound evolution has crafted a world that ranges from a panic attack, to anxiety, to mortal despair, and finally a peaceful acceptance. A sharp spire stands pointing to the sky, surrounded by pale waters and a hollow canyon that severs its presence from its own environment. Sun-scorched pyramidion structures mingle with Mesopotamian architecture shrouded by a dense canopy. Sinister archways bridge the gap to a sprawling tower with venous hieroglyphics and an Insectoid ornamental figurehead that claws at the sun with malice. A bone-dry mire lays hollow and rotting as a bramble of thorns and deadwood stand at attention, settled in the foreground of a toxic miasma of juniper that seeps into a sea of desiccated trees, lingering in the distance, directly overneath. Come September 24th, Metal Blade Records will give way to The Work, marking the end of the band's conceptual narrative and giving way to a new era worth basking in.


We go Behind the Cover of The Work with bassist/vocalist Adam Biggs and Dan Seagrave to unpack what makes their near decade long partnership a modern marvel in audiovisual excellence:

‘The Work’ has seen the light and the release cycle is now underway. Like all of the previous Rivers of Nihil full-lengths, it sports a brilliant Seagrave cover that personally stands as one of the most unique offerings this year. What can you comment about the visual identity you’ve built together over the years? It has surely evolved over the last decade.


Seagrave: It's been great to be a part of that, and see where the band would go next with the narrative connectivity and storytelling aspect. So, getting word each time to be involved in the latest stage of that narrative has been very cool. The 'Owls' record took the sound to some new creative level, and I was surprised and impressed by the evolution in the music. It's clear they were not holding back on allowing different sounds and elements into the creative pool on that album.

Cover art by Dan Seagrave

My part comes in afterwards of course, so I get to be involved as an early spectator, previewing the tracks and trying to dissect the theme to hopefully generate a decent visual juxtaposition. I guess there is an element of understanding with the band. They know what I can do, and I'm pleased they trust me to have a go with their albums visual form. I haven't met the band. They invited me to see a show when 'Owls' came out, but I couldn't make it, though I did go see them in Toronto on the 1st album tour. Great show.


Biggs: It’s been an interesting relationship to have because we started this with him out of an admiration for what he does as an old school death metal artist. He’s worked with Morbid Angel, Gorguts, and all of these older bands that we grew up loving, so getting a Seagrave cover done for us was always kind of a dream when we were first starting out. When we signed to Metal Blade, it became a possibility. As we’ve gone along, we’ve seemed to push the ideas a little further every time. He’s the master of the death metal landscape and we’ve always been trying to play with that formula a little bit here and there. It’s in the same spirit of our music where it is death metal but we’re pushing it past the basic violence and death angle. That’s what shows in the artwork as well.


Definitely, and each one has a unique identity. Touching further on collaboration, some artists prefer detailed direction when taking on a project while others prefer vagueness to allow for more creative expression. How would you describe the collaborative process with Seagrave and how has that evolved over the four full-lengths? You mention that you push it a little bit more on each subsequent release.


Biggs: The guy is a legend in the art field, so I wouldn’t want to impose too many strict restrictions. He’s a consistent professional with years of experience under his belt. In one sense, I really want him to call the shots at the end of the day. On the other hand, the music that we make and the accompanying lyrical aspects are nuanced and a bit specific. I have an image in my head and I give him as much of it as I feel that I can give to him, explanation wise. Ultimately, I let him roll with it, especially when it comes to the overall composition of the piece. I’m not a visual artist, but a lot of the time, I think of these covers long before we have to get them started. It’s been a range over the four covers that we’ve done with him how close that vision has matched, but that’s another topic entirely. Essentially, I want the best Dan Seagrave I can get. If that means giving him the freedom to do what he wants, that’s what I want too.


That’s such an integral part of the entire process, especially as you see these ideas slowly but surely take form. Seeing as he’s played such a significant visual role throughout the band’s existence, would you say that Dan is essentially an honorary member of Rivers at this point?


Biggs: Definitely. For this seasonal concept that we’ve done over the past four records, he’s definitely achieved what we were looking for. I know it’s my band, but I feel that those covers he’s drawn for us are some of the most iconic work in the past however many years that we’ve been playing death metal. How many years is that? 10 years old now?

seagrave
Cover art by Dan Seagrave

A little over that, yeah.


Biggs: Yeah, but I don’t know. I see a lot of covers and obviously I’m biased, but every time he puts out a new cover for us, I’m shocked at how cool it is and that I can slap it onto our work.


It’s something to be proud of, for sure. His work is the face of Rivers of Nihil. Talking specifically about ‘The Work’, what did you look for when approaching Seagrave this time around? It’s another atmospheric masterpiece.


Biggs: I actually had the idea for this cover a long time ago, pre-dating any music we’ve written for the record. Ultimately, I had an idea of where this seasonal concept would end up and the themes I wanted to touch on for the end of it. As apocalyptic as the landscape may seem on ‘Owls’, you’d think there’s nothing past that. I wanted something that was a complete deconstruction of existence. It’s past your usual ideas of life and death and embodies a feeling of ego death. It’s basically the first album cover. We’re back where we started, but things have just evolved to an extreme extent that our space is beneath us and everything is frozen over. It’s so deconstructed that it’s almost surreal.

seagrave
Cover art by Dan Seagrave

There’s much to dissect from it and quite frankly open to several interpretations. I’m looking at it now and it’s beyond the plane of existence. There’s a wreck of things going on.


Biggs: Definitely. When we worked together on ‘The Conscious Seed’ record, he showed me a list of stuff that he had done and I saw a lot of work that I’ve never seen before. He had this whole private collection of surrealist art that I didn’t know existed. He didn’t do it for any bands or anything, it was just part of his own private collection. It reminded me of stuff along the lines M.C. Escher or Salvador Dalí. I thought that it was really cool and I was pushing for a touch of that on this record. In a lot of ways, his surrealism is present on this.


I know exactly the works you’re talking about, and it’s neat to see this different side of his work. When you think of Seagrave, you think of those creatures present on the Suffocation covers or the Gorguts covers, but the paintings he’s done for Rivers are distinct to that and you really bring out another element of his work. You mention the plane of existence and ego death, but where do you feel that the cover for ‘The Work’ coincides with the album’s larger themes and lyricism?


Biggs: In a way, you can say that ‘Owls’ was the end of the narrative conclusion of what we’ve been building with everything else. Not to give too much away, but ‘The Work’ takes a meta approach to the universe that we’ve created within the music, and how it ends. When I break it down, it ends with us. A lot of the record is self referential when it comes down to it. It has a lot to do with feeling the push of the years and doing what we’ve been doing. It’s got a lot to do with art and the expectations that are put on artists, and really this sort of transfer of intention. It can feel sort of bleak. There’s only so much that any one person or group of people can give in an artistic sense in their lifetime before it sorts of eats them. That’s what I feel the cover represents, a confluence of all these different ideas deteriorating through constant reinterpretation.

Sketch by Dan Seagrave

As Adam mentions, there’s an interconnectedness to the records, which of course began with ‘The Conscious Seed Of Light’. Upon learning of the band’s thematic continuity, was there something you looked to achieve, Dan?


Seagrave: With each previous record, I wasn't sure if they were looking to continue with my art, so it's been interesting to revisit each time and observe the evolution in the band, and their ideas. The initial 1st cover puts the viewer in some past civilization setting and suggests with the figure in the pod a past life or earlier preserved civilization, and from there it has taken us through vast ages into an unknown future. In terms of a narrative timeline, that seems nebulous and fluid. Sometimes, it seems that 1000s of years have passed between the pictured narrative, but I think that time is being played with here on a level that is not ordinary and trips into larger waves of placement. I like the time distortion aspect. It's the one thing every human experiences in unique ways. The older you are, the more time experienced, we become time travelers in our memories. I think the art and maybe the music plays with this uncontrollable force of nature that destroys and offers new life all at once.

Sketch by Dan Seagrave

Then in the artworks, there comes a mystical element, as with the 'Owls' album where a figure has wandered these plains of time and traversed the changes in the terrain, taking on the burdens that slowly forge the figure into an almost living fossil, in my mind. The previous cover to that, ‘Monarchy’, had shown a more direct change from the 1st cover. They all take place in essentially the same location. 'Monarchy' is the same valley but with repurposed architecture, years of terrain alterations, mud slides, etc. I based this one on memories of Mont Saint Michel in France, which has an alarming tidal shift around it. Each cover tends to be on the one hand a response to the commission brief, but also my personal filtering, how I see it or what I naturally feel it to be. It's a sort of companion narrative that is not usually verbally unpacked, but just visual.

Sketch by Dan Seagrave

He mentions that he’s a fan of your non-music related artwork, specifically the more surreal elements of your exhibition work, which he wanted to see incorporated into this new cover. What direction were you looking to take for this one seeing as the cover itself is quite distinct from your signature death metal landscapes?


Seagrave: That's cool. I can't recall if he mentioned those artworks to me. I think this is referring to some of my looser style of paintings. I'm glad he likes those. I love painting loose and pulling figures and faces out of my mind onto a canvas, as those are. Those works are quite different to the meticulous detailed art I am usually making. With this latest album, Adam had the idea of the art being more abstracted, or weird, and surreal in some way that had a certain aspect beyond reality, sort of retaining the visual setting of the 1st record. So, I had a bit of a challenge in handling what would be a realistic visual representation, but also abstracted. They also considered the art to be a mirror reflection / vertical flip from the 1st cover, but in the end we stuck with the same essential dimension as it may get too unfamiliar. The idea partially is that people will recognize that it's the same viewpoint ‘sort of’, but far from it at the same time, and with the seasonal point being a winter setting. What followed was a number of sketches which all seemed to lean more towards representational, so the surreal side was winning over abstracted forms.

Sketches by Dan Seagrave

Did the overall direction for the cover change much throughout the creative process or was the idea cemented pretty early on? The sketches do a great job of highlighting that evolution.


Seagrave: The main change was not to reverse the art horizontally, but to keep that familiarity, without actually making it so obvious that it's the same location as the 1st cover with the large tower in the place of the former ruins and mega tree. In an early sketch, I literally took my design from the 1st cover and redrew over that on a light table to keep the same dimensions and rework a scene around that, so that they would match up when put together. It looked kind of static and there were dimension issues with the scale of the cabin compared with the scale of the omnisavior tomb containing a figure from the 1st record. What felt right was to just redraw, as I did many times with the general character of that 1st cover to capture something in the shapes that was also new, and factored in the shifting glacial elements of the landscape over time. Adam wanted a pure cold black emptiness of space, at a point where the landscape abruptly ends, as if cracked off leaving us with a shard of the Earth. Later, that changed that to more of a cosmos effect with the reds adding some dramatic feeling.

Sketches by Dan Seagrave

Amazing to see how it evolved over the months. There are neat nods to the lyrics and concepts throughout the cover, all of which come complemented by a truly astounding use of color. Though some may deem the color palette to be more of a decorative or marketing element, where do you feel it coincides with the overall messages being conveyed here?


Seagrave: I got a lyric sheet with the brief as well, and also all the recordings to listen to, which were great and helped a lot with evoking a psychological atmosphere. The essential colours were presented to me, so in some ways, this is one of the most tightly described commissions. Sticking to those colours turns things a certain way that's interesting. If left to my pure personal direction, this would look different to the actual outcome for sure. So, this is more of a collaboration piece than I'm used to doing these days.


Beyond the brief, this is my personal interpretation of what I feel this painting could be. With each album, large passages of time encompass and connect the narrative, and now with the new record, we acknowledge time space. I see the winter view as being like a ghostly mirage made up of light and particles visible from many perspectives in the cosmos. Just as we view stars as they once were millions of years ago, the light arrives to us on Earth. This scene is similarly made of these elements, but as if looking through some impossible optics from a different perspective in the galaxy, an optic that allows a million years of winters to collide and condense into one image. Somewhere within those layers is the impression of the last known layer of humanity, the topsoil layer as we know it, yet it is still long over. It's the only visible memento of refuge for a person to cling on to, a civilization that has folded into history yet exists in the galaxy preserved in light.

Sketches by Dan Seagrave

The reality of where that phantom light originates may be an even emptier dark void of an Earth that is unrecognizable. The image is both illusionary and misleading as it cannot represent the unknown reality of its physical origin in our current time. The cabin, and whatever is in there, seems to exist as an imposed element within a landscape where it doesn't necessarily belong. If we’re dealing with fragmented moments. It exists like a false memory to supplant or conceal something, or represent someone's delusion or denial of their fate or predicament, the magnitude of nature being too much to endure. It's both a sanctuary and a prison.


Fascinating breakdown here, Dan. Your impact on death metal is profound and to this day, you continue to deliver tenfold in the cover art arena. In all honesty, ‘The Work’ particularly struck me as one of your best in recent years because it illustrates your wide artistic range. As great as your death metal leaning works are, is there ever a sense of excitement or really an interest in working with bands like Rivers of Nihil that encourage experimentation outside of the expected norms of the genre?


Seagrave: Thanks. I'm certainly still interested in working with bands and anything that also has a different angle to it, or even different genre. I don't have an issue with stepping out of the genre or playing with what are perhaps expectations of what my art is and where it usually appears. juxtaposing that with something that goes against the grain can be rewarding creatively. It really comes down to working on my personal creative art outside records that is the grounding for all of it. That's where I can do things that perhaps won't be asked for in album art, so the experimentation is essentially just my own creative projects for the most part, where I do whatever I want, and I'm not trying to appeal or please anyone. A lot of my art, some of the loose figurative work for example, is really quite unappealing to some, which is great because I don't care if anyone wants it. It's not why I make those paintings.

Sketch by Dan Seagrave

With commissions, there are ideas and certain directions that bring my knowledge to a place that it may not otherwise have gone to. So, I kind of see all my album art as being one giant ongoing collection of work that exists in its own place.


The elements and vibrant colors used within it are really open to interpretation. It’s essentially a world waiting to be explored, akin to that of the music of Rivers of Nihil. From the galactic backgrounds to the inhabited, snow capped home split from the other half of land, is there an intended reaction you wish to provoke upon viewers of the painting? Perhaps one of awe or one of curiosity that encourages further immersion?


Seagrave: I can't expect anyone to react to the art in any particular way. All I can do is create the painting and feel that it's complete and it somehow works in my mind, but beyond that, it's cool that anyone would get to see the art. I think if people like it, and love the music, it's a very special combination and somewhere between those things is someone experiencing it in their personal way. I know for certain that art and music is an incredible thing when it manages to be not just what you see and hear, but inspires imagination and generates ideas in people. The best art does that, in music and film and so on. Now that I gave my interpretation of the artwork, does it decrease any possible enigma? Quite possibly, but it's still open to interpretation. The band have their own ideas too. So, I guess that's what I mean by there being a place in between where someone can imagine something beyond the music and imagery. Plus, ideas are so fluid. I change my ideas all the time, if i'm writing a short story for example. What I like in an artwork is it can have a lot of bandwidth for interpretation.


Absolutely, it's really what makes art in general such an inviting medium of discussion. Let's touch back a bit on the record's themes, Adam, It’s definitely a commentary on the contemporary state of the music industry. Streaming and the internet in general brought forth a new arena of expectations for bands and artists where there’s a constant need for touring, musical output, and activity on social media. If you did something special on the previous record, the fandom expects something bigger or twice as good on the follow-up. It’s an endless cycle.


Biggs: It might be unrealistic, it might not be. It just sort of is. They’ve never not going to expect more from you if you do something well. The whole world operates on the sort of “What have you done for me lately?” mentality. You see it a lot. I thought a lot about bands who have fallen out of favor in our scene because they put out a record that fans didn’t agree with. Morbid Angel, for example, tried to branch out once later in their career and were made a display of. They were just trying to do something that they felt was honest to their creative vision at the time. That to me is kind of sad, whether or not you think that record is a joke. Somebody put in the time and effort and put themselves on the line for it. I’m not saying whether it paid off or it didn’t, but I’ve seen this happen to a lot of bands and it’s hard not to think about these expectations that just naturally mount when you have an audience.


That becomes more prevalent when you reach a certain stage in the band’s existence where you have more eyes on you. The pressure definitely gets a little greater. Like you mention, it definitely affects a band’s comfort level in sonic exploration. This differs from band to band, but because you have to put food on the table and you want to please the audience that has supported you over the years, you’re inclined to release something familiar that is appealing to the fandom. In a sense, it conflicts greatly with wanting to put out something that you’re personally satisfied with as a musician. It’s an interesting dynamic to see.


Biggs: In over the decade or more that your band exists, how do you not change as a person? How do you continue to be satisfied with the same things you were satisfied with as a teenager? You see a lot of metal bands survive for decades on the same sound and more power to them. I don’t think that I’m the same person that I was when the band started and I don’t think anyone else here is unfazed by what we’ve gone through. Naturally, we’re going to change what we do as a band and as artists.

Sketch by Dan Seagrave

That’s just the nature of life really. For some this may appear insignificant, but your logo was reimagined for ‘The Work’. Was that also Seagrave’s work? Maybe I’m looking too into it, but is it representative of a new era for the band?


Biggs: Yeah and as far as the new logo, we were making the album’s material and I sat there looking at our existing logo thinking, “Something about this doesn’t line up anymore.” I’m thinking it was time everything grew up a bit more. The logo isn’t Seagrave’s work actually. For this particular section of our career, this is the way we want our name to look. It’s not like we’re going to completely abandon our old logo. It’ll still be around. I don’t see any real reason to stick to one particular font for our band name. I know it’s supposed to be your calling card or whatever, but why not change it up from time to time? No protest was brought my way when changing it, so we went and changed the thing.


It’s a welcome change. Many bands like to diversify their output and employ new artistic talents for every album cycle. Rivers evolves musically but remains consistent on the visual end, building upon a solid foundation. What keeps you all coming back to Seagrave?


Biggs: At the very least for the seasonal concept of the records, we wanted to keep those all uniform as far as the look goes, so it always made sense to come back to Dan. Since he was already on board from the beginning, why change it up? We like what he’s doing for us and it makes everything feel much more cohesive. As long as he’s available for it, which thankfully he was all four times, we’re up for it. In the future, we’ll have some decisions to make on whether we change up the visual style for whatever, but that’s far too soon to speculate.

Sketch by Dan Seagrave

Let’s enjoy this release cycle first before we get to that.


Biggs: Yes, definitely.


From the grandiose nature of ‘Monarchy’ (2015) to the vivid detail of ‘Where Owls Know My Name’ (2018), there’s much to love from Rivers of Nihil’s album cover selection. In looking back at your partnership with the band, which album cover stands as your favorite? And why?


Seagrave: Maybe 'Monarchy'. If you visit Mont Saint Michel, you'll be close to stepping in to what partially inspired that, but they all have their own character. I know 'Owls' is a favorite of many people because that's the feedback that I see. It might even be my most popular cover from an audience perspective. It's certainly different from most covers I've made. This latest one is also a step away from the others and has a space oddity to it that makes it stand out.


Biggs: I do like ‘The Work’ quite a bit. It’s way up there. It’s interesting because as I said, there’s always this image in my head of what I think an album cover should look like before it gets made. There’s been varying levels of how close each one has come and ‘The Work’ has come the closest to what I pictured in my head, so that gets major points from me. Ultimately though, my favorite is still ‘The Conscious Seed of Light’. It’s such a dazzling landscape. It’s visually interesting and had the least creative direction from me. Dan took our record, listened to it, read the concepts I laid out for him, and that’s what he came up with. It painted the album in a new image for me. It doesn’t hurt that our manager has it hugely blown up on his office wall. I’ve sat there and lost myself in that landscape, so that one’s probably my favorite. ‘Owls’ is great too and has just kind of become an iconic album cover for us. What I’m trying to say here is that it’s very tough to choose.


Great choices, and I'd agree that it's quite hard. In closing, Adam, we’ve touched on this several times already but this is a new era for the band. You're much more mature, more concentrated, and you’re much more intentional about the way you craft every aspect of the release. In looking back at your debut and where the band was creatively at the time, where do you see yourself and Rivers of Nihil now and moving forward?


Biggs: At this point, I’m hoping we can do this all the proper amount of justice. We’re excited to get back on the road. It’s been since February of 2020 that we last played music together on a stage. Adding new material on top of that feels like a lot of pressure, but it’s also very exciting. First and foremost, we have to get back on the horse here and do ‘The Work’, as they say. After that, who knows.

The Work arrives on September 24th via Metal Blade Records. Pre-order your copy of the record HERE and experience the lead single Clean below.

rivers of nihil dan seagrave
Cover art by Dan Seagrave