Death metal is more than an aggressive form of music, but a vehicle to explore grim or heavy subjects. It is a confrontational sphere of music, one that seeks to push buttons as much as it asks questions. In the case of River of Nihil’s The Work, the Pennsylvania band takes on a fundamental concept to life—one we may not think about all that often, but is a part of every single human being’s existence.
The title of the album sort of gives the concept away, but The Work is about work. Not your 9-to-5 grinding—though that’s certainly part of it—but in an existential manner. So much of life involves work; it takes work to physically take care of ourselves, it takes work to keep relationships afloat, it takes work to pursue our goals. This concept is the core of the album, as the band explores it from different angles, guiding the listener through each track via arrangements that are heavy, serene and contemplative.
Where Rivers of Nihil were already a musical force to be reckoned with in their earlier days, they ascended to juggernauts of the genre with 2018’s Where Owls Know My Name. Whereas a good chunk of technical death metal bands unload bombardments of labyrinthine instrumentation to show off their musical finesse, Rivers of Nihil stepped it up and gave audiences a technical experience of greater depth (and a good helping of smooth saxophone). In creating an emotional atmosphere of melody, gentleness and heavy riffs, they push each song on the album toward some kind of evolution in its runtime. They’re more than simply showing off how fast they can play or how quickly they can shift time signatures, weaving the instrumentation together to create spellbinding compositions of intricately alternating rhythms, style, and emotional tone. The Work is very much an extension of this approach, with a cohesive theme running through it and containing a greater musical dynamic.
“The Tower (Theme from ‘The Work’)” begins calmly, as slow piano keys glide over the ring of a train whistle. For as serene as the instrumentals are, the opening line, “You’re out there waiting for the train to come/ Or maybe the rain to stop,” adds a melancholic tone. Drums and guitar come into the frame, the tempo rising, and a smooth progression plays out for a time until the band kick into higher gear, with drums thundering down alongside the roaring guitar rhythm. It’s only the start for what is to come—and yes, the sax is back.
At first, the following song, “Dreaming Black Clockwork,” plays out in familiar fashion. Yet give it a little time, and it throws a curveball at the listener. Arriving with pummeling guitars and bass, the rhythm makes a sudden drop into minimal, restrained instrumentation, leaving room for an atmosphere that builds upon the tension of the more aggressive performance. Later, after a brief sonic beatdown, the song blooms with a bombardment of noise and distortion (morphing into a noise presentation). The group never makes it easy to guess where a song is heading in terms of sound, speed or mood, and the experience of that unpredictability is something magical and rare.
Rivers of Nihil have packed so much into The Work and none of it clashes awkwardly, feels forced, or vapid—it all perfectly flows into one another. The band are simply masterful performers; bassist Adam Briggs lets loose a compelling performance throughout the record, while drummer Jared Klein utilizing the drums to manipulate tones of calm and ferocity. How guitarists Brody Uttley and Jon Topore play their instruments—employing sound to drastically alter mood, and suddenly shifting their speed and performance—is surreal. When taking in the range and technicality packed into The Work, the complete product is almost psychedelic.
As the record plays out, each cut builds upon the last, either carrying over a previously conveyed but elevated feeling, or an appropriately new emotional response. Those opening lyrics from the first track, “You’re out there waiting for the train to come …,” evoke the sense that the day is just starting. There’s a journey ahead, but the person on that journey is going to have to face things. They are going to have to navigate difficulties and how to move forward. The Work is a strong display of technical majesty, but likewise a rich exploration of something more meaningful. How we carry on our everyday lives—how we shape ourselves and how we come out at the other end of adversity. The lyrics may be more direct in this concept, but the instrumentation acts as an emotional rollercoaster, conveying the waves of struggles and triumphs.
Rivers of Nihil have captured lightning in a bottle twice in a row. The Work is exhilarating, but it’s also heartfelt. Beyond the technical prowess the band showcase, The Work is a stunning exploration of perseverance. Life can be devastating; whether it’s striving through the days against a demoralizing day job, addiction, grief or mental illness, life takes work to exist. On The Work, the band don’t just capture this harsh reality, but also provide a ray of hope—that perseverance is necessary and something better is within one’s grasp.
Label: Metal Blade
A graduate of Columbia College Chicago's Creative Writing Program, Michael Pementel is a published music journalist, specializing in metal and its numerous subgenres. Along with his work for Treble and Bloody Disgusting, he has also written for Consequence of Sound, Metal Injection, Dread Central, Electronic Gaming Monthly and the Funimation blog.