Review Summary: A genuine classic.
When I first started Where Owls No My Name, I was convinced Spotify had made an error of some kind. Opening track Cancer / Moonspeak is a soft, moody little number that wouldn't seem out of place on a post-rock album. There's a quiet bassline with a keyboard melody (which my friend informs me is a DX7 e-piano) with some strings while spoken words go on in the background, far from the usual kind of intro that a death metal album would make. I was immediately intrigued. Monarchy certainly set a different aesthetic than most of its kind, but what did Rivers of Nihil have up their sleeve this time?
As it turns out, quite a lot.
Originality is tough in music, and especially so in extreme metal. So many genres have cross-pollinated over the years that trying to put a unique spin on music usually ends up with going so far off the reservation that coherency can be lost. It's a shame that "progressive" has become a kind of cliche-ridden sound of its own, because my temptation is to call Owls... a progressive death metal album. Not in the sense that it uses "prog" tropes, but because it genuinely sounds like a forward step in terms of what can be done with death metal.
I'm not often a fan of likening bands to other bands, because I think unless it's an intentional throwback or copycat it does a disservice, but the first thing that comes to mind is Fallujah by way of Maudlin of the Well and I do not say this lightly. Owls... has an intensity to it that is organically broken up with occasional clean or melodic sections that never sound out of place, and they even incorporate a saxophone into a death metal album that, some-***ing-how, never comes across as hokey or gimmicky.
All right, let's dig in a bit. The musicianship is as tight as any metal release you're likely to his this year or any other year. Every band member is on top of their game. The guitars layer beautifully, with chunky riffs both alternating and occasionally layering beneath more melodic lines. The rhythm section pounds along, with a bass guitar that fleshes out instead of simply sitting at the root notes, even getting plenty of room to shine on its own (which I appreciate) and a drummer that can handle blistering double bass and blast beats right alongsize jazzier sections. All the while we have a vocalist who manages to be perfectly understandable, by death metal standards anyway, without ever losing that sense of intensity and roughness.
A quick side note on guitar solos. I'm not a fan of them in most extreme metal. They work in power metal and rock, but metal and in particular death metal tends to set a harsh aesthetic that is interrupted by a guitar suddenly going all weedly-wee on the high strings. Rivers of Nihil doesn't exactly rip into Dragonforce solos, but the guitar does periodically start to shred, however in each instance it's a growth of the song rather than feeling like a moment to show off.
Now, one of the best things in metal is that feeling of not knowing what to expect next. Sometimes it's less enjoyable if it feels like the band doesn't have a grip on what they're doing and keep taking left turns to the mood, but once again Rivers of Nihil succeeds by having each song feel like a distinct entity while never losing the tone of the album as a whole. After the first three "proper" songs (after the intro), the appropriately named Subtle Change comes in with a melodic and prog-rock inspired beginning, blossoming into a behemoth of a track that puts that saxophone front and center and sounds just goddamn glorious with it, acoustic guitars and jazzy drums forming a foundation and building to an explosion of keyboards and heavy riffs.
At this point you might think you've heard all of Rivers of Nihil's arsenal, and you would be all wrong and a bag of chips. The very next track, Terrestria III, starts off with an electronic bassline with a faint spoken conversation deep in the background and echoed piano chords, and then the guitars and drums kick in to an apocalyptic degree, like the heaviest song Godflesh ever made. If your breath doesn't catch in your chest I'm going to assume it's only because you went deaf from cranking the volume earlier in the album.
This may sound a bit silly, but I tend to have high standards for title tracks. If you're going to title a song after the name of the album (or, conversely, use a song's title for the whole album), then that song had better be the damn highlight of the entire thing. Well wouldn't you know it, Rivers of Nihil nails it once more. The title track is like a revue of all the best bits of the rest of the album. Heavy riffs, clean vocals mixed with growls, acoustic bits, that cot dang saxophone again, guitar soloing, the works. After that, a similarly epic closing track and we can finally take a rest to let it all sink in.
No album is 100% without faults, no matter how revered, and I admit the production on Owls... has a touch more of an artificial feel than I'd like. This is most noticeable in the drums, with the kick having a slight "plastic" sound to it. It's a minor gripe, but when dealing with an album that I'm reviewing a 5, I'd be remiss not to point out those tiny faults.
The word "classic" gets tossed around a lot, but I honestly can't think of a better word for Where Owls Know My Name. From front to back and top to bottom, this album is both firmly rooted in death metal with a progressive bend while standing alone atop the mountain. It's equally headbang heavy and enthralling, music to get in the mosh pit and simply sit in awe of. This is required listening, because there's nothing else quite like it.