Metal Blade Records
Artistic greatness is often defined by a delicate balance between consistency and risk – a high stakes, high wire act in a circus rigged on short fuses and shorter memories.
In death metal, a subgenre where gatekeeper culture is still alive and well and loyalties tend to be fiercer, the risk is exponential. For established acts expanding their sonic horizons, they are caught between the threat of alienating the faithful, and the desire or necessity for growth. Change threatens many, but is generally anavoidable – the more technically accomplished the musician, the more likely the need to evolve and diversify.
For Rivers Of Nihil, twelve years and four albums in, that change is evident. Fearlessly uncompromising and possessed of total conviction, the Pennsylvania outfit have built up a very credible resume on a signature brand of technical death metal, interspersed by gentler prog-influenced reprieves and even moody saxophone solos. Genre conventions and notions of formula have been utterly eschewed, all in favour of an unrelenting commitment to exploration – of psyche, of self, and the outer limits of musical potential.
That premise is furthered considerably with the arrival of their fourth LPThe Work, a staggering opus that not so much peers into the abyss as embraces it, consuming and consumed in equal measure. It’s a lot to take in: At times, their most direct and streamlined work, deceptive in it’s initial simplicity and shockingly gentle, the album is laden with extended patches of acoustic guitar and clean singing. At others, it is dark, relentless and complex to a level of extremity rarely achieved, be it in metal or any other genre. No mercy, not even for oneself, the dark lens of perception in an evil eye that blinks not once.
There is a mastery of ebb and flow on display here, with full blown excursions into classic prog lulling the listener into a false sense of security. But then the walls cave in, under some of the most punishing demonstrations of technical brutality imaginable. “Dreaming Black Clockwork” sets an ominous tone early on, but “Focus” expresses the same darkness in a surspringly stripped down manner, seductive and malevolent in equal measure.
Where many of their peers either choose to balance heavy verses with clean anthemic choruses, or simply numb the mind with constant blast beats and guttural screaming, RoN balance their dynamics brilliantly over the course of what seems to be a concept album in the great prog tradition, complete with an opening theme and appropriately imaginative artwork.
This is a record for musical purists, not genre elitists, one which could care less about scaring off the harshest tastes with moments of melancholic beauty, nor terrifying the unaccustomed with unyielding brutality. If Where Owls Know My Name was largely a musing on death, then The Work is an unrelenting examination of loss, of life’s toil and it’s costs; a leap of faith with no safety net, taken in full knowledge of consequence.
The record’s centerpiece is undoubtedly “The Void From Which No Sound Escapes”, an epic of absolutely unforgiving nature, shimmering in the dark like a beacon of false hope. Hell may be terrifying to some, but it pales in comparison to the sheer terror of oblivion, and here The Void itself stares back. When is enough? There is no enough.
Where mass culture venerates, technical and conceptual laziness and places pretenders at godhead status, RON emphasize the metal ethos perfectly: A complete disregard for trends and tastemakers, and a violent contempt for egotistical posturing and self-indulgent weakness. It’s rare and refreshing to see a band give so few fucks while being so talented, ceaselessly striving towards greatness as a means and not an end, a monolith of brutal truth in a wasteland of lies.
Great artists doThe Work knowing that it defines their legacy more than their brand, their behaviour or their persona. Those that stand the test of time do so by thinking ahead of the times, many of them knowing time itself is both ceaseless and finite. At such levels of understanding, fear of being misunderstood is irrelevant, and therein the dark, brilliant magic lies. Few have harnessed that power to such a remarkable degree.