There are a million-and-one different things that you and your drunken band mates probably never even considered would come around to give you the ol’ slap of reality upside the melon when you formed whatever band you’re in at the moment, despite your having been at it for a good number of years now. Displaying a fierce sense of independence, Reading, PA-based outfit Rivers of Nihil worked hard doing the modern technical death metal thing to get to the point they were at when Metal Blade came sniffing around, looking for them to sign in blood on their dotted line three or so years ago.
This was after a couple years and a couple self-released EP releases. After finding a home on one of metal’s oldest and most respected labels, the band’s debut, The Conscious Seed of Light followed. As guitarist Brody Uttley details in the interview below, the progression has been upward and onward since, but hasn’t been without learning opportunities, hiccups and a shit-ton of rookie mistakes. The experiences of the last couple of years since their debut has resulted in a more realized and personal work, the band’s second album, Monarchy.
Shortly after this interview was conducted, Rivers of Nihil were announced as openers for the first leg of Hate Eternal’s Infernus tour – Hate Eternal being the band of The Conscious Seed of Light producer Erik Rutan. Read for some insight on how unexpectedly tough it can be playing metal these days.
Check out the song “Perpetual Growth Machine” here.
In having Erik Rutan produce your previous album, then doing much of the new one yourselves, what lessons do you feel you learned from him that were transferred to the recording of Monarchy? Did you find yourselves consciously, or even subconsciously, employing anything from the first record onto the second?
Uttley: We definitely learned more than we ever could have hoped for through recording our first album with Erik. Everything you hear about Erik is true; he is a no nonsense kind of guy when it comes to recording an album. First and foremost, Erik taught us the importance of being well rehearsed before going into the studio. On the first album we definitely rehearsed a lot, but NOWHERE NEAR as much as we should have. We were all so dumbfounded and excited by the fact that we were going down to Florida to record at the legendary Mana Studios that I think we slipped a little bit when it came to preparedness. Recording an album is always going to be work, but there are definitely ways to make it easier on yourself, like rehearsing your ass off. Erik also taught us the importance of REALLY being in tune. He taught us all about proper intonation and using a strobe tuner. I never really knew much about how important this stuff was until he showed me how many bands end up releasing out of tune albums. This knowledge definitely helped us out a lot on this new record.
Another more obvious lesson that we learned from Erik is that you shouldn’t be drinking in the studio, especially when you are tracking your parts. That’s just a no-brainer. During the recording of The Conscious Seed of Light we were all pretty excited to be out of our home State for the first time and I think we may have overdone it in the drinking department. There were several times when I could tell that Erik was probably wondering what he had gotten himself into. Ultimately, Erik showed us that recording a death metal album is not the party that everyone thinks it is. It can still be fun, but if you want to make this into a long-term thing, you have to act like a professional and take your shit seriously. Practice your instruments, don’t party in the studio, and have a good ear for what you are doing. These lessons helped us out immensely during the recording of the new album. Erik is an amazing producer, musician, and now a good friend of ours. He really is the genre of death metal if it took human form.
Was there anything that you did differently in the writing process of Monarchy? Did you have any particular goals set out for yourselves this time around?
Uttley: There was a lot that changed during the writing process for this album. First off, we had two member changes since the last album. Our guitarist and our drummer that had been in the band since its inception both left the band. We brought in our new drummer, Alan Balamut and guitarist Jon Topore to fill the empty slots. They both live in New York, about three hours from here, so 90% of the writing took place at my home studio here in Reading, PA since we live too far apart to get together every week and write as a group. Basically, what would happen is I would write a song, email it to everyone, they would learn it, then we would get together once or twice a month and rehearse everything at once. Our drummer Alan wrote all of his own drum parts for the songs, our bassist Adam Biggs wrote most of the lyrics for the album with the exception of a few that were written by our singer Jake [Dieffenbach], and our new guitarist Jon wrote the song “Reign of Dreams.”
On the last album, we wrote more as a group, so things definitely changed this time around but I feel like everyone still had the chance to contribute to Monarchy. While the writing process for this album seemed much smoother than on the last since I wrote most of the music this time, it was definitely super-depressing. There is just something missing when your only writing companion is a blue screen illuminating a dark room. It sucks. I really miss the human touch of getting together with my friends and jamming out new tunes. There is a section in the Sound City documentary where Dave Grohl talks about this exact phenomenon. However, all of my whining and complaining aside I really think that we made a great record with awesome contributions from every member.
We all set out with our own goals on this record. I know our vocalist really wanted to focus on his pronunciation. Erik Rutan really helped him with this on the last record, so I know he wanted to implement the lessons that he learned on The Conscious Seed of Light. Adam really did an amazing job with his parts on Monarchy. On the first record, he really went crazy with his bass playing and was kind of “shredding” over everything. With Monarchy, he really focused on sitting back and getting “in the pocket” when he needed to and turning up the heat when it was called for. I feel like the bass playing on this album really helps to tie everything together. As for me, I know I really wanted to focus more on my lead playing. On the last record, the leads were somewhat of an afterthought, so this time around I wanted to make sure that I gave them the time that they deserved.
Were there any lessons you learned from playing live that inspired how you approached this new record?
Uttley: Again, this is where the whole “well rehearsed” thing comes into play. We toured with a lot of bands that we look up to over the last 18 months and learned a lot of lessons. When we first started touring as a signed band we thought that we were super-tight and on top of our game since in our local scene we were considered to be “the tightest band around.” When you tour with bands like Whitechapel, Revocation, or Dying Fetus and get your ass handed to you every night you start to re-think the way you see your band. We realized that we didn’t have our shit together and that we really needed to focus more on being well rehearsed. This translated over to the new record by making us all spend a lot more time with our parts before recording them.
Our drummer took an entire month off from work just to rehearse his parts for the album. Since our guitarist Jon and I both have studio setups at our homes, it made it much easier for us to practice through the songs to a metronome and make sure that everything was air tight. Overall, I think that these new songs will translate live much better because we all spent so much time individually working on our parts. Another thing that we started doing as a result of touring is playing live to a metronome. This is probably the biggest improvement that we could have made as a band. It is very easy to stay in sync if everyone is playing to the same thing. The new songs were written with this in mind, so on this album we were able to try some more difficult stuff that we might not have done in the past. Also, getting to tour with so many amazing musicians drove us all to get better at our instruments. All good stuff!
When I interviewed you for the last album, you mentioned Reading’s bleakness as an inadvertent inspiration for your chosen style and sound? Would you say home remains an influence or has it changed with being able to see other parts of the country whilst on the road?
Uttley: I wouldn’t say that where we live had any true influence on the music for this album. Being able to tour and see different parts of the country is definitely a cool experience but again, I don’t think that it influenced the music that much this time around. Since I don’t write any of the lyrics I can’t really speak from that angle, but I do know that the musical side of this album had a lot to do with what was going on in my personal life. I lost several of my good friends over the last few years and this really drove me to put all of my good, bad, and ugly energy into the writing of these songs. I felt like there was a lot that had been left unsaid between these friends and I so I wanted to make sure that I could say those things with the music on Monarchy.
On the last album we all had a lot of excitement and pent up adolescent energy that we poured out into those older songs. Don’t get me wrong, those old songs are great and I love them, but these new tracks inspire this nauseating feeling of anger, depression, and hopefulness all at the same time. It’s a fairly confusing blend of emotions to feel at once, but it’s definitely how I was feeling during the writing of Monarchy.
Another thing that really had a big impact on the writing of these songs was my growing knowledge of the use of my home studio setup. On The Conscious Seed of Light I didn’t really know a whole lot about the processes that go into the use of studio equipment. Since then, I have been able to get much better at the production side of things, thus allowing us to try things that we may not have tried before. I could spend a lot more time tweaking individual parts, layers, and textures to make each song have its own story. There is absolutely no way we could have done this before because I really had no idea what I was doing. Learning the basics of using studio equipment is something that I would encourage every musician to do, especially nowadays with how the industry is shifting from a more macro scale into a smaller and more self-sufficient industry.
Check out the song “Sand Baptism” here.
The bio provided by Metal Blade makes it seem like you tracked guitars first, then drums. Is this so? If so, doesn’t that do against the grain of conventional studio/audio recording processes?
Uttley: That is exactly what we did. Think of it this way: when a band goes into the studio to record they usually start with recording scratch guitars to a click track so that their drummer has something to play along with as he is recording his parts, then later they go back and re-record the final guitar tracks after the drums are completed. We did this exact same thing except instead of scratch guitars, our drummer tracked his parts to an already completed set of guitar tracks that I had recorded at my home studio. At my house, we recorded and edited the guitar and bass tracks and then took them to Atrium Audio to be re-amped.
Basically, what this means is that I recorded a clean guitar and bass signal at my house to a click track so that it would be perfectly in time, then at the “big” studio, we ran that clean signal through real guitar amplifiers to achieve what you can now hear on the final product. Since we only recorded drums and vocals in the studio we ended up saving about $3,000. Fallujah, The Ocean, and Conquering Dystopia (to name a few) are all bands that use this same technique of pre-recording their guitar and bass tracks before entering the studio. I think that as a small and relatively unknown band, it just makes sense for us to do things this way. Our studio budgets are small so we want to do as much as we can with what we have.
If we were getting 30-40k to do a record then I would absolutely record guitars and bass in the studio because let’s face it: there is nothing cooler than a wall of cabinets screaming in your face. Until then we will save our money and do the very most we can with what we have. I think more people are starting to realize that it is no longer necessary to pay for something that you can do on your own with a little bit of reading. I like to think that the industry as a whole is starting to move towards a more self sufficient mindset. Less cooks in the kitchen often leads to a product that is closer to the original source of inspiration. That’s what we all want, right?
What does the title of the album refer to? Is there any specific story or concept involved and what would you say inspired the themes of the record?
Biggs: The record is indeed a concept album. It picks up after the events of The Conscious Seed of Light, and is the second part of a four album concept series based loosely on the seasons, making this one the “summer” piece. A monarchy, in its most basic form, is one elite group being held above everyone else. They’re being perceived as closer to “god.” The album follows the struggles of a race of beings that are much like us, as they deal with the dawning of these concepts in their own fledgling society.
In the time leading up to the writing of the record, a whole lot of social issues really started to gain some noteworthy attention. Things like the Arab Spring, and growing demand for equal rights for the LGBT population had me thinking a lot about what it was that makes oppression of certain groups, societies and cultures possible in the first place. The answer I keep arriving at is that there are these old, staunchly elite groups of people in governments and religious sectors that are so afraid of ways of life different than their own that they can’t help but do whatever they can to suppress them, to separate people from who and what they are in order to maintain some perceived normalcy. The record deals with these issues in its own way, as it explores the growth, reign and ultimate dissolve of this fictional “monarchy.” It’s also worth noting that our debut, self-released EP was titled Hierarchy and it also had something of a social commentary slant to the lyrics and with this being the debut of our new lineup, I felt like the title was appropriate.
Check out the song “Mechanical Trees” here.
How would you, being on the creative inside, characterise the two albums when stacking them side-by-side?
Uttley: I think that The Conscious Seed of Light is the sound of five kids that were “real stoked” on being a newly-signed metal band. We hadn’t ever done anything outside of some regional touring and larger local shows so we really didn’t have any serious experience as a band. It’s a good album with some cool songs but I don’t feel like it represents us as a band or as individuals anymore. Monarchy is a logical progression for us as a band. It borrows ideas from all of the stuff that we grew up listening to while still preserving a familiar sound of our own.
I guess in general I would say that Monarchy is a much more cohesive piece of music. The album tells a story from start to finish not only lyrically but also musically. The first track begins with a very barren and bleak sounding sonic landscape then progresses into some of the heaviest and most chaotic sounding stuff that we have done to date. By the end of the album, you have three pieces of music (“Terrestrial II: Thrive,” “Circles in the Sky,” and “Untold”) that all run into one another and create this super-emotional climax/ending to the album.
I think it’s cool how the album basically goes from heavy and mad to “progressive” and sad. That last sentence basically tells our story as a band. We started this group as five kids that were pissed off, excited and full of energy and changed into these dudes that now see how difficult it actually is to keep a band afloat once you start encountering issues such as member changes, long distance band members, and financial problems. I guess everything I just said could be summed up by this: on the last album we were young and naive and hadn’t learned any lessons as a band, then a bunch of stuff happened and we wrote Monarchy.
I often hear a good number of death metal “insiders” complain about the erosion of the scene and the audience for the sound. Yet, more bands are on tour and putting out records that ever before. What do you feel are the most pressing concerns facing death metal these days and how would you address them?
Uttley: I don’t really think that anyone should be complaining about anything. The internet has made it so much easier bands and fans alike. Instead of having to mail a cassette tape across the country you can now simply log on to your computer and look up as many bands as you want. Also, booking DIY tours and shows has become way easier with the invention of Facebook and other social media. You no longer need to be signed to a record label to book a successful tour or to have a successful album.
As I said before, the whole industry is moving from a “macro” mindset to a “micro” mindset. Bands are recording their own albums, releasing them without a label, and touring on those albums without the help of a label, agent, or manager. These things could never happen without the use of the internet. Bands, and fans of the music, are becoming more self-sufficient and educated. The only real “threat” to the genre are those that are unwilling to move forward with the logical progression of the industry.
What’s next for you once the album is out and available?
Uttley: Once Monarchy is out the plan is to tour as much as we can and begin writing for the next album. We will be doing a full U.S. and Canadian tour in October-November with some really sick bands that we look up to.