Sometimes an album comes along that you know is special before you’ve even heard it. You just get this gut feeling.
I had that gut feeling with Rivers of Nihil’s third full-length album, the surreally titled Where Owls Know My Name, released by Metal Blade on March 16th.
While I had the opportunity to stream the album from Spotify (other streaming services are available) – or even pirate the album – for instant gratification. I didn’t. I wanted to experience Where Owls Know My Name in the right way; on my Hi-Fi and with the album booklet in front of me. So I waited until I could my hands on a physical copy – something that was surprisingly hard to come by in the UK, which is why this review is so late.
So, was my gut right? Was my constant checking the shelves of HMV and stock levels on Amazon worth it? We’ll get to that.
Where Owls Know My Name starts off with a statement, no heavy riffing, no guttural vocals. Rather an eerie clean guitar part that ebbs through the speakers; bringing you into the strange world that the album occupies while vocalist Jake Dieffenbach whispers in your ears ominously about voidal spaces, fear and transformations.
And transform is exactly what Rivers of Nihil have done. Building on a songwriting approach reminiscent of Black Crown Initiate (coincidentally Andy Thomas, vocalist and guitarist of Black Crown Initiate makes a vocal appearance on the albums title track), Rivers of Nihil combine progressive metal, post-metal, electronics, folk and jazz into an eerie, swirling landscape of cinematic death metal that marks a huge step forward from previous releases.
Take tracks such as “The Silent Life”, the first full track on the album, for example. While it launches into what has become the quintessential Rivers of Nihil sound, it quickly becomes obvious that the band have changed, with clean guitar breaks and even a jazz sax solo punctuating the rhythmic aggression. Such things could easily become gimmicks or ideas put into the composition for the sake of being varied, but Rivers of Nihil have successfully made such succinct elements as the aforementioned saxophone and distorted electronics essential parts of the album’s songwriting.
That is not to say, however, that Where Owls Know My Name is too dense or inaccessible to be easily enjoyable. While the album certainly benefits from repeated close listens, there is something immediate about this release, with some sections that are, dare I say, catchy. It’s not all about appreciating the art of a well-placed sax solo, this is still a metal album and Rivers of Nihil have sacrificed none of the immediacies of the genre. The fact that the new elements introduced into the crushing Rivers of Nihil formula don’t distract from the heaviness, is another testament to a skill with which these sounds are included.
Whereas previous releases from Rivers of Nihil – Monarchy and The Conscious Seed of Light – showed the band as a solid and forward-thinking band (as I can attest to from their performance at the Tufnell Park Dome with Beyond Creation, Revocation and Obscura in 2016), Where Owls Know My Name proves them to be one of the best bands in the progressive death metal world right now.
So, was my gut right? Yes, it was. This is an album of the year candidate. You need to hear this album.