There’s no arguing that 2018’s seminal release, Where Owls Know My Name, shot Pennsylvania progressive metallers Rivers of Nihil to the very pinnacle of the genre’s scene, as well as standing up as one of the finest albums the heavier end of progressive music has ever seen. With writing for follow-up The Work starting whilst touring that prior release, it faces an unenviable task of living up to what’s pretty much a perfect album. One need only look at the investment put into the September 24 release by the band and Metal Blade Records, though to see the confidence they have that Rivers of Nihil have pulled off the nigh-on impossible.
Within the first two tracks, a demonstration of the band’s staggering range is brought with an almost theatrical opening of “The Tower” contrasting wonderfully with more obscure avant-garde moments in “Dreaming Black Clockwork,” descending from ominous riffing and vocal trades between Jake Dieffenbach on screams and cleans from bassist and lyricist Adam Biggs. The ending of the track drags the listening into almost Fantomas-esque noise, before giving way to a comparative ballad with “Wait.” Rivers of Nihil have always transcended true classification within just one genre, but they really stretch their legs across this trio of openers.
Such is the range found throughout the length of The Work it’s challenging to comment on listening without calling out each track for its individual qualities; the irresistible lumbering headbanger in “Focus” with its industrial feel, the epically building (and album strong point) “The Void From Which No Sound Escapes” with its textural sax (from prior collaborator Zach Strouse again) leading straight into the techdeath and vitriolic “MORE?”; throughout the album, there’s what feels an initially chaotic bouncing between styles that only settles slightly on multiple listens. A progressive metal album taking its time to digest and unpick the layers within is no bad thing though.
With that said, it’d be untrue to say that The Work hits as hard on first listen as Owls did; whereas its predecessor flows like one organic mass from start to conclusion, The Work feels more like a performance in several acts taking multiple listens to unravel and truly appreciate. Each track individually is not overly difficult to digest, but as a whole, the disparity of style from song to song does mean the album will be one that takes time to fully absorb and understand – not something I can pretend to have done fully across only a couple of weeks with the record.
When the (now four-album & four-track) motif feeds into the ending of “Terrestria IV: Work” the sense of familiarity this brings is a welcome resolution and a reward for those longer-term fans seeking a thematic link within the band’s back catalogue and Terrestria series. It feels like Rivers of Nihil have gone from birthing a beloved concept album to creating something more experimental and personal in nature, and this experimentation has beaten down any confinements of a genre that could previously have been held around the band. Field recordings add greater texture and a raw edge to the album, with mixing all brought masterfully together by Carson Slovak and Grant McFarland – yet another stellar release under their belts in 2021 alone.
As the dust settles at the closing of The Work there’s an impression of a greater sense of the whole on each listen; like an image gradually coming into focus, the chaos starting to form part of the puzzle the entire album represents, but it’s a picture not yet fully formed after even a dozen or so experiences. Individual moments shine and stick with the listener – the ebb and flow of “Void…,” the singles released thus far, and the evolution of “Focus” from jazz club to crushingly ominous and back again – yet the album still doesn’t sit quite right as a singular body.
Perhaps this is the intent of The Work – to leave the listener feeling slightly uncomfortable with what has been witnessed – or perhaps the work itself is investing oneself into unpicking and understanding the occasionally disparate parts of the album. With a central concept confirmed by lyricist Biggs, there is something to be found connecting this far-reaching array of styles, and if finding it means continuing to listen to one of progressive metal’s finest artists in Rivers of Nihil then that is the work which must be done.
The Work Track Listing:
1. The Tower (Theme From “The Work”)
2. Dreaming Black Clockwork
6. The Void From Which No Sound Escapes
8. Tower 2
10. Maybe One Day
11. Terrestria IV: Work
Run Time: 64:29
Record Label: Metal Blade Records
Release Date: September 24, 2021