Unmaking Ourselves: Rivers of Nihil - The Work Review

Three years later, a new progressive evolution has taken hold of the Pennsylvanian outfit.

Photograph by Mike Truehart

Words by Jake Sanders (@themetalscholar):


Any listeners that were fortunate enough to catch the phenomenal Behind The Cover in July featuring Adam Biggs, and Dan Seagrave, know exactly what sort of long-winded, ultimately cerebral project audiences are in for today.


Seasonally, this is the fourth quarter, and the boys from Reading have appeared three years later with a new lease on life, a new outlook, and a new beginning. The Work, an eleven track opus that takes a ‘tabula rasa’ approach to the next generation of their sound, comes with a new logo, a new Seagrave cover, and a new era for the quintet from the Northeast.


Examining a stunning career in retrospect has led listeners to expect only greatness, and a daring campaign to uncover the depths of what is alienating, challenging to one's comforting nostalgia, and audibly unfamiliar to the pillars of creation already set in stone.


This is The Work.

Not dissimilar from the autumnal chapter that was Where Owls Know My Name (2018), this foray into the dead of Winter takes a peaceful departure from the shores of time, ambiently shoving off with a deep melodic prelude that tastes palatable, even to those new to the sound that makes up Rivers of Nihil's present catalogue. It's a highly cloying icebreaker of a first track that samples the smallest particles of what audiences know and love, and sets it free like a dove on the wind.


Satisfying tropical bends in the background, the sounds of keyboard ivories being gracefully fingered, and a jumping midsection that haunts listeners with an audio-ducked saxophone that lingers from one season to the next make cameo appearances in what is an active appeal to people who love sound loyalty from one release to the next.


Dreaming Black Clockwork severs the familiar connection with a dissonant, bombastic machine gun rhythm that is jarring, and preposterously over-the-top for just a second stop. It's an uneven, stomach-wrenching cacophony of discordant tones and wall of sound immersion that lyrically questions the waking reality of what this critic can only assume is the continual protagonist caught in a fever dream during the WOKMN storyline.


All of this insanity builds louder, and more unsettlingly to an inevitable conclusion in a seamless transition to Wait, a soft melodic interlude that thrusts the listener from one dramatic extreme to the next, voluminously bottoming out in an ethereal sound of wafting through a cosmic miasma of atmosphere, and melodic ease. Echoing background vocals take a backseat, a familiar undertone that completely breaks away into a bluesy solo that etches its way across genres to the past, the influential, the forefathers of decades past; all of this stands as a testament, and an homage to the progressive legends whose shadows stand tall over the domain of death metal that RoN inhabits. Children of two genres, and acutely aware that they couldn't exist without a mutual overlap, The Work takes a highwire walk over every domain they occupy, but never strays too far from one side to the other. The balance is delicate, deliberate, and conscious of their own past, as well as the path they've followed to get here.


A repeating tactic that has never strayed too far from the catalogue of this group is their constant use of chanted choruses that outfit a variety of voices layered upon one another, a pendulum of vocal potency that makes this album, as well as the rest of them highly addictive, repeatable on a whim, and utterly annoying when one can't remove the verses from one's head. It's doubly unfair that such verbal grandstanding should be so habit-forming, considering the boys have violated the cardinal of rhyming a word with the exact same word, a trope that does absolutely nothing to quell the intensity behind the passages.


My body, my pride, my radiant insight
I figured all this focus, had just been given to me
So set in self derision, as I feel my vision slipping away
I figured I was worthless, destined to wither away

The arsenal of tricks that Rivers of Nihil wields while laying waste to any remaining image listeners had of them, still rests in alleyways of their most well-traveled roadmap of trickery. Tremolo that came in handy in a pinch at the end of their third album makes an outstanding appearance on its own at the build to The Void From Which No Sound Escapes, as well as harshly muffled atmospheric measures that last half the song or more, a calculated effort to displace themselves from their own catalogue that belongs closer to the Insomnium discography, than their own. It's a welcome addition to an already full deck of cards that makes their sound diversity a pinnacle of celebration on this album.


Accessibility, a solemn sound that thematically lines up with the despair, and imagery of a dying earth prepared to be reborn make up the B-side of The Work. It's an uncharacteristically mellow egress from the archetypically stacked pacing of the band's previous works that makes this one stand out as a true evolution of sound. It's a capable step towards the frontrunners of the scene that shows both organic growth, and unimaginable stress, both of which tend to happen when one's consistent touring lifestyle, and continual stream of income are sliced to ribbons during a time of great sickness, and few opportunities.


Maybe One Day and Terrestria IV: Work close out this album in a spectacularly dualistic fashion for the Pennsylvanian bards. The former is a heart-wrenching curve ball of acoustic proportions that paints them into a corner they've never come face-to-face with before: the arena of ballads. This is the clear winner of the album, bearing a flag of urgency that proudly proclaims this group has grown up, and whether audiences wanted it or not, they've come out the other side of the pandemic with some soul beneath their wings. Not a single harsh note on the track, it's a soaring trek through the void that takes a more optimistic outlook on a road lined with death and taxing events. Motivating, moving, melting, it quite literally fades into the wind of the closing track, the fourth part on a seasonal adventure to the edges of time and space.


The conclusion is, for lack of a better word, adrenalized. It's the finest structured death metal this group has brought to the composition, and though it's intermittently notched by caveats of abrupt blast beats and climactic measures, they pull out all the stops at once — never once questioning if it works well together... but it does. Capped off with a familiar ceremonial halting breath of pause that allows for a brief goodbye to this opus, the exit to this void resonates with the sound of a flowing, speedy solo that screams raw talent and pinpoint precision fretting. It's a geyser of tones in the span of thirty-eight seconds that gets the blood pumping. This critic can't wait to see if an entire playthrough becomes a reality, as the conclusion of this album would be enough to tear entire venues to the ground. The results speak, and are heard resoundingly clear.


The Work does not cooperate with any pragmatic notions of what is ‘traditionally’ considered the Rivers of Nihil sound. It dispels and illusions that the group wants to hold on to the crown they've been wearing since 2018. It does little to coax die-hards into it, but it's not trying to sell itself. Its inherent value comes from knowing that this group is entering a competitive field with each other where the finest individual efforts are a carousel of dancing temporarily in the spotlight until the next exceptional measure takes hold of the audience. It will make year-end lists, and it won't apologize for what it forsook in the meantime. This is the way forward, and they're traveling without looking back.


They did the work, and are now now waist deep in the fields of their pandemic harvest.

The Work is out now, courtesy of Metal Blade Records! Surrender to the call of winter and get your copy today!

Cover Art by Dan Seagrave