How do you follow one of the most revered metal albums of the 2010s? It’s a question the members of River of Nihil pondered for the last eighteen months after the touring cycle for 2018’s Where Owls Know My Name ended in 2020. Banger TV viewers voted it in the top ten albums of the last decade, and every other publication praised it as a modern Blackwater Park. The sensible thing would be to write Where Owls Know My Name, Part II, but Rivers of Nihil know that the best art follows no logic, nor does it try to guess what the listener wants. Art is about pushing yourself into new realms and challenging your own understanding of what is possible. The Work will surprise people by how different it is from its predecessor. If you thought the last one was prog, this one is prog with a capital ‘P’ and far more receptive to non-metal influences. It might even shock those that worship the band’s technical death metal roots.
Lyricist and bassist, Adam Biggs, retains a wise amount of ambiguity when asked about the concept of The Work, but this record feels like an Operation Mindcrime with a central storyline. These songs tell the stories of people fighting the twin evils of low-wage labour and the inevitability of an innocuous existence. They describe men who slave down mines and put their bodies through hell to make the rent at the end of the month; they talk of women who help to put bread on the table and fight to keep a family alive and functional; they even bring to life restless innovators who work their way up from the sweat of the factory floor to the apex of the boardroom. Using Dickensian imagery and John Steinbeck’s trademark pathos is no easy task for a metal band, but you soon get a feel for the story with album opener, ‘The Tower (Theme from “The Work”)’. Jake Dieffenbach’s new-found range now includes a George Michael voice made for the late-night radio of the 1980s – it’s suave yet emotive and sounds like he’s smoked five cigars to get that shaky baritone ready to croon at any moment. The simple piano notes and pondering bass scales will remind you of the way Nine Inch Nails incorporated Pink Floyd’s The Wall into their masterful 1999 double album, The Fragile. But in this instance, we get a sporadic metallic roar at the three-minute mark before things settle down for an introspective musing of saxophone.
Dieffenbach’s characteristic muscular growl comes to the fore on the first real epic of the record with ‘Dreaming Back Clockwork’. Now this is Rivers of Nihil at their heaviest and most vicious. Brody Uttley’s seven-string riffs are as crushing as Frontierer and Car Bomb. Every palm-muted downstroke sounds like the jolt on the overhead cable of a train whizzing past at 160 miles per hour. Yet the six minutes and thirty-nine seconds avoid the chaos of earlier records and understand that you don’t need a million notes to make a heavy song, not when you’ve got Jared Klein’s double-kick patterns accenting the riffs. The crunch of the syncopated rhythms at the end makes them a danger to your earphones, just as the harsh static noise for the last thirty seconds are a threat to your collar bone. It’s a belter that gives way to the sorrowful piano and sample percussion of ‘Wait’. Clearly, the boys went through their Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins records for inspiration here. This is emotive alt-rock of the highest calibre that relies on the power of voice and the poignancy of the lyrics to connect with the listener. “With all of this air in the room?/ Let’s turn it all to smoke/ While we wait for our certain doom,” implores Dieffenbach like an anti-hero from an Émile Zola novel.
The biggest risk of this record is the way it abandons the speed and intensity of the band’s technical death metal roots and stakes everything on carrying the listener through the linear narrative of hope and despair. As Biggs warned fans: you’ll even find moments of warmth buried among the rubble and filth. Songs like ‘Maybe One Day’ visit the same vibrant places as Devin Townsend’s Empath record and match the heaviest moments on that album with just as much zeal. The mid-section is what makes The Work a success. Here the bass-heavy crawl of ‘Focus’ ruminates like Tool and illuminates like Dream Theater; ‘Clean’ works into a slow Neurosis rage, but with heavy harmoniser pedals on the bottom strings and slow guitar leads to release the tension. Dieffenbach is at his best here, showcasing the full spectrum of his voice with a mixture of reflective whispers and howling roars. ‘The Void from Which No Sound Escapes’ references ‘Terrestria III: Wither’ from their last record, using the same bubbling synths and rock beats to create a story of back-breaking labour and broken dreams. You can feel the soft mud between your fingers as you clench your hands and tense your shoulders with every twist and turn.
Nowhere is the empathy more powerful than on ‘Episode’, where the album’s core message of “Do the work/ I know it hurts but you have to,” speaks to you like the pep talk from your aging father. He understands your pain and your sacrifices; he did the same thing for four decades of his life and hated every minute of it like you. But you have duties and obligations. You need to salvage pride from the physical suffering. How can any human being work long hours and at a considerable cost to their health if they find no meaning in their harmful exertions? The worker who knows they’re being robbed of their humanity is capable of self-realisation. Brody Utlley’s weeping guitar is supreme here and will help you to identify with the protagonist of the song, like a harrowing charity appeal on prime-time television.
So, if this is no longer progressive death metal, what is it? It’s certainly a metal record and a brutal one at that. Closing track, ‘Terrestria IV: Work’ is a sop to the die-hards with its many chug riffs and key changes at every verse. You can even call this tech-death in its musicianship and execution. But The Work is an album that leaves the primacy of the riff as a background concern in favour of the vocal narrative and the gliding rhythm section of bass and drums. It floats like Pink Floyd, rocks like Dream Theater, and aches like a post-metal opus. This is a record defined by melancholy, sorrow, and shattered dreams. It rages with frustration; it retreats into depression; it dares to see the glass half-full rather than half-empty. But the ending is a tragic one where no God or angel of mercy can scoop up the anti-hero at the end to give him the grace he deserves.
The Work is a reminder that extreme music can articulate a linear narrative with the same efficacy as the prog rock albums of yesteryear. If Where Owls No My Name is an undisputed masterpiece of the last decade, then this one stands every chance of repeating that feat for the 2020s. This is a breath-taking record.
Release Date: 24/09/2021
Record Label: Metal Blade
Standout tracks: Dreaming Back Clockwork, Clean, Episode
Suggested Further Listening: Devin Townsend – Empath (2019), Car Bomb – Mordial (2019), Black Crown Initiate – Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape (2020)