Having apparently missed the biggest progressive death metal releases of last year, the majority of which came out only a few months ago in September and October, I'm catching up quickly and it does seem that the genre is vibrant and insanely varied. Rivers of Nihil, who hail from Reading in Pennsylvania, have been around since 2009 but really made a splash with their third album, 2018's Where Owls Know My Name. This fourth is a mature release indeed, running just over an hour but channelling all sorts of rock and metal from the past half century. They're varied on their own but it has to be said that they don't remotely show off like First Fragment and they're not remotely as in your face as Archspire. Sure, your run of the mill death metal bands all sound the same but, up here at the top of the heap, that's utterly not the case.
Rivers of Nihil start out hinting at prog rock, The Tower being subdued introspection for over half its running time, with gentle saxophone and soft backing vocals behind the lead's. It does explode into harsh and loud but it's still being held back. There's definitely Pink Floyd here, as there is on a few other songs, especially Maybe One Day, but I honestly think I could suggest Radiohead as well and get away with it. Of course, that's not the case when they ramp up to full on metal, which they do on the next song, Dreaming Black Clockwork.
This one's heavy when it kicks off, with harsh death vocals over blastbeats, but the song moves to an industrial sound before falling away completely, leaving us grooving in an underground cave in the middle of nowhere with an introspective saxophone and vocalist. It's a wild shift indeed, from immersion into isolation, but a good one and the transition back into metal is neatly handled. The song grows in intensity, every shift driven by Jared Klein's drums, until it ends in a dissonant wall of sound finalé that sounds like a horde of demons all screaming at once, only to drop utterly away so Wait can begin with calming piano. This is pristine use of dynamics.
And so we go. Wait isn't metal at all, a mix of rock, prog rock and new wave that builds through an engaging stripped down jazzy guitar trade-off in the second half, which is almost the antithesis of death metal. Focus continues in that vein, before escalating to a more emphatic post-punk vibe, a tasty groove and memories of Paradise Lost's One Second album. Clean adds some neat synths as much as a contrast to the harsh vocal floating around them as neat on their own merit. Again, the feel is multiple genres at once, both the Floydian prog rock and the Paradise Lost new wave flows join to create something new, all wrapped up in death metal.
I like this mix of styles and should emphasise that I've only covered the first half thus far. It keeps going in that mixed vein throughout the second without ever dropping quality. If Focus may be my favourite song from the first half, Episode may be its equivalent from the second. It runs longer, a seven and a half minute piece that really knows how to breathe. It alternates between quiet bits that are a Floydian—lots of Dave Gilmour in the solos— take on that new wave Paradise Lost era, with heavier sections that are much slower than the usual Rivers of Nihil full on death approach, but still very heavy, with a great monotonous beat to make it hypnotic.
And if I stick with Episode as my second half favourite, I have to talk about Terrestria IV: Work in a completely different category. It wraps up the album and it's easily my favourite piece here, even more varied than earlier songs. It starts out like a György Ligeti choral work, finds its sweet spot and starts developing into a true epic. It's easily the longest song here, running eleven and a half minutes, and it's a patient piece that takes its time and builds for most effect. It's death metal often, but it's also contemporary classical, avant-garde jazz, prog rock and a slew of other genres.
It's a great summary of the ambition that drives Rivers of Nihil and why people are paying a heck of a lot of attention. To release an album that sees no problem with placing the relentless death metal assault of MORE? only three songs away from the Floydian alt-prog of Maybe One Day and, in the other direction, the post-punk new wave of Focus, underlines how confident this band is in what they do and how they do it. I'm impressed.