Rivers of Nihil is, if you couldn’t tell from the name, a metal band; a technical death metal band, to be specific. Be warned, however, that “technical death metal” is exactly what it sounds like, and is definitely not for everyone, so if you’re reading this review and are not a windmill (big metal fan), then I DON’T recommend listening to the album. With that out of the way, Monarchy (2015) is the sophomore studio album from Rivers of Nihil and, like the albums before and after, is quite an interesting set of tunes. This album has incredibly sharp guitar work, classic octopus tech death drumming, and a really great overarching theme that gives the album a unique identity.
Heirless introduces the album with all the depressing badassery of death metal, leading with a slow and deep guitar motif accompanied by some light tom work on the kit and an atmospheric ambience. Being an intro song, Heirless is just about 2 minutes long and serves only to precede the first “real” song on the album, Perpetual Growth Machine. And this song is definitely “real,” considering that it slaps you in the face with blast beats and cacophony the moment it starts playing – whatever one might expect from “death metal,” this would be it. After the intro section, the verse takes hold with a much more traditional chugging riff behind the rough metal vocals, soon to be overtaken by a return to the Heirless motif for the bridge. The soloing that follows is, as most on the album, far too brief; the solos are some of the best parts of Monarchy, and the only criticism I have of them is that they really should be allotted more time in every song. Perpetual Growth Machine is a song very defining of the first half of the album, but I personally am not a huge fan of it; this is because it somewhat follows a hard-and-fast rule that pretentious metal elitists obey to the letter: NO MELODY. Well, I like melody, so no wonder I’m not super into this song (but it does have its moments).
Reign of Dreams begins with a pretty rapid guitar riff and some equally rapid blast beats in front of a quiet atmospheric chord progression, the likes of which I’m always a sucker for. The intro riff continues into the verse while the drums shift to a more consistent double-bass feel – the bridge riff is pretty similar to the intro riff, and masks another really subtle background progression before transitioning into the pre-chorus. The pre-chorus and chorus establish some patterns that become more apparent in choruses later in the album, namely stretching out vocal syllables, bringing out the background noise, and structuring more of the riff around the chord progression via shorter phrasing. The solo section comes a bit later, and, as usual, delivers. Briskly. A quick crescendo, some arpeggiations, and we’re back to the chugging riff; towards the later part of the album, and namely this album’s entry in the Terrestria recurrence, the solos get longer and more enjoyable, so just hold tight. I wish I had more to say on this song, but as it stands I don’t fully appreciate it yet.
My favorite of the first six songs on the album, Sand Baptism (absolutely sick name by the way), establishes itself from the get-go as a bit different than the previous three entries: it doesn’t immediately slap you in the face. How polite. But in all seriousness, I always appreciate a gentle opening in metal music, and it is, in my opinion, a very underrated and underused way to enrich an otherwise seemingly cacophonous genre. The ideas at the beginning of Sand Baptism are stellar, and were when I really got in tune with the “theme” of the album: desert! As someone who recognizes that he can tend to take the album cover art as a little too indicative of what a given concept album is about, I’m still confident that I nailed this one, at least superficially; I’d talk more on how the music interacts with concept itself, but I’d like to save for that for another song I find less captivating and interesting than this one. Back at the intro, the ride cymbal makes its first official solo appearance, but not its last in Monarchy, and helps cement a kind of airy, albeit solemn atmosphere in tandem with the other sounds before bringing in the guitar for the intro riff. When the guitars and toms come in, I get this visceral image of a arduous trek through a hot, sandy, desert, and a lone man peeking out over the ridge of a dune and solemnly looking up at the sky, the hot sun beading sweat upon his brow and beating rays onto his face. Coincidentally, when I looked up the lyrics, that’s the first line of the chorus: “He stares at the sky.” Excellent artist-listener communication from Rivers of Nihil, and further proof of their commendable musicianship. The verse, bridge, and pre-chorus are all pretty predictably death metal-ly, with sharp and speedy riffs attacking relentlessly and not varying much, but enough to distinguish one from another with relative ease. The chorus really brings the song together, and like how it began the tune, it hammers the desert concept home; the first line of the chorus, “I am the sun,” really strikes me as memorable and powerful, and is also reminiscent of another iconic line in the last song on the album, so I’ll callback to this later. Lastly, it’s worth mentioning that we’re allowed another meagre portion of delectable soloing, if only to remind us how hungry we are.
Remember what I said about “gentle openings?” Forget that, as Ancestral, I has one of those literally-screaming-right-off-the-bat openings like Meshuggah’s Shed off of Catch ThirtyThree (great album, give it a listen). The intro really turned me off of this song, but on further listens I can at least pick out some of that background atmosphere I expressed a fancy for earlier, so there’s that. The verse, despite being an almost typical chug fest, has some level of subtle charm that keeps me listening -the bridge leaves more space, which I appreciate again. The chorus (which then shifts into the solo section, but keeps most of its identity) continues the trends I mentioned earlier, that is, establishing the desert theme, letting some notes hang, leaving space, following the chord progression, and emphasising the background atmosphere. Rivers of Nihil, from what I’ve observed, have very earth-centric concept albums, both art, lyric, and music-wise – The Conscious Seed of Light felt based around a swamp or jungle, Monarchy feels based around a desert, Where Owls Know My Name feels based on a forest, etc. Of course, this is my own interpretation, and I will admit to partial confirmation bias when trying to tack themes onto metal albums.
Dehydrate (getting more confident in my “desert theme” diagnosis now) starts off really strong, with a great lick on some kind of string instrument. To my chagrin, however, the song heads straight into “hard & fast” territory, with chugs, weedly-dee’s, noodly-doo’s, and the whole noisy ensemble we all know and love taking centre stage and barely letting up for a moment. The chorus (or whatever section precedes the solo) is the only time the band lets loose any slack, and they do so in a similar fashion to the choruses in the previous songs, leaving space, following progression, etc. The only other notable things are the return of the ride cymbal front and center in some sections as well as good background atmosphere in those same sections. Dehydrate, I’m sorry that I don’t love you as much as the others, and that the song that comes after you is so good that I’m not really going to pay much attention to you, but you should know that your band loves you very much and I feel bad that I let you down.
The last four songs in this album might be the only reason I’m motivated to write a whole review on it – simply put, these four songs are my favorite of their entire discography, and I’ve learned to play them all on the kit because sometimes listening just isn’t enough. Where to even begin…
Monarchy, the title track, is incredible – from the first moment, I was hooked. The drumming is full of ghost notes and rapid, accented 8ths on the hi-hat and ride, almost reminiscent of something funky, and the guitar and bass harmonise so well together to cement that desert feel that I’m almost inclined to say that everything on the album builds off of the feel this song elicits. Oh, and, by the way, food’s here. That’s right, solos for breakfast, baby! Right after the intro we are BLESSED with a fantastic guitar feature that leaves space and melts face, taking us right into the undulating sands of a land without rain, followed by a post-solo breakdown complete with vocals that have just the right amount of “umph” to herald something truly excellent. In terms of the verse, the vocals and drumming really seal the deal, but there’s nothing wrong with the guitar either – it’s hard to explain why this particular series of chugs is better than the ones I called “typical” earlier in the album, but not everything about music has to make sense. I would go in depth and cite all the vocals I find memorable, but we’d be here forever, and if you give it a listen you’ll likely end up remembering most of them like I have; the vocals on this track add so much flair to the song that it’s hard to really put them in the “garnish” category that I often pen most metal vocals within. The rhythms really shine in this tune as well, with a lot of the best moments occuring when a section with a strong quarter note feel shifts into a triplet feel, or vice versa, and you can really substitute any note length into that statement like a Mad Libs – it just works. Also, I would be absolutely remiss if I didn’t thoroughly gush over the second solo in this song: from beat one I fell absolutely in love with the epic-as-hell guitar doing everything it’s done before but better, the drums playing the initial groove but switching ghost notes to hi-hat hits, the desert feel, everything just comes together so nicely. I need to finish up with this song, but after the second solo there’s not a single wasted second, and the third solo is awesome too and the return to the intro motif and the iconic vocals and the syncopation and the phrasing and gosh, everything is just great. Really, really great.
Terrestria II: Thrive. I’m beginning to think that my “earth-centric concept albums” diagnosis was also right, because there’s been a Terrestria entry on every Rivers of Nihil album to date. However, “Thrive” seems a bit odd to me as the name of the entry on the desert album, but I guess we’ll find out. The intro is nice and calm, really atmospheric, and one of the best parts of the entire album. I can remember multiple occasions where I would just sit on my windowsill in the evening and play this song (and sometimes just the intro) because of how effectively it can teleport one to a completely different place. Another great thing about this track is that it’s chock full of solos, almost like it’s the solo tax collector, and that’s why all of the other songs have hardly any solos, because they’re not really motivated to pump them out if Terrestria is just going to end up with half of them anyway, and at the end of the day every song knows that it’s just the tracks that are close to Terrestria that get to have any solos at all and that’s just because they have connections with it, so it’s not really fair but they still put out some solos anyway because you can’t really get by if you don’t have any solos and at a certain point you just gotta grit your teeth and bear it. Yup, almost like that. Regardless, the solos on this track asolutely shred, and I’m talking about real mastery here – this is some fantastic stuff that has me coming back again and again just to hear the same damn notes over and over, but for some reason my ears can’t have enough. What’s between the solos is marvellous as well, and crosses so much ground that it’s really hard to tack one feel onto this song – when the song is over, I’m always so amazed at how a track like this can feel right at home on the desert album and still really live up to its name: “Thrive.”
Time for Circles in the Sky, which has by far the most beautiful opening on the album (sorry, Terrestria). Subtlety is the name of the game here, with gentle tugs on the bass and heart strings augmenting a beautiful background drone and complementing a really unique guitar feature that I can barely describe (so I won’t). The bridge to the verse is still quite beautiful, but in a more death metal way this time, with a strong chord progression and some pleasantly unexpected notes here and there. The verse itself, however, is one of the best in Monarchy, with a really well-executed speedy chug riff that, like the one on the title track, somehow just works better than the others on the album. By the time the chorus rolls around, you know what to expect: shorter phrases that match with the chord progression, etc., but one thing that is a little different is that the guitar doesn’t increase its rhythmic diversity, but rather decreases it, the result of which is a much larger emphasis on the chord progression and bass, which luckily can stand on its own just fine; the drums change around plenty during the chorus, which helps keep it interesting. The post-chorus and solo sections go full instrumental, which is a stark shift from the tone of the album, but works excellently (and so does the solo itself!). The longer the song goes on, and the more the tune reverts to the chorus and verse riffs, the more I realize that this is really a rhythm guitar piece, which explains the decreased rhythmic diversity and emphasis on chord progression. It’s pretty damn hard to pull off a worthwhile rhythm guitar piece, especially in heavy metal (where rhythm guitar saturates), and even harder to pull off a rhythm guitar piece that I actually enjoy, so grats to the band here for expanding my horizons. Towards the end, and quite unexpectedly, the strings that began Dehydrate make a return, shifting tone and corralling the song back to the desert theme all by themselves – perfect for setting up the following solo, which is one of the best on the album (not just because it’s one of the longest). The fade out isn’t particularly remarkable relative to the rest of the piece, but I really like how it bridges into the final song on the album.
Suntold and I go way back, it being the first Rivers of Nihil song I ever listened to. Something I find that happens quite often in my musical journey is that one song really catches my ear and sticks its foot in the door, eventually enticing me to explore its entire album and eventually its band’s discography as a whole: Gojira’s Silvera, Meshuggah’s Bleed, TOOL’s Forty-Six & Two, Megadeth’s Holy Wars, Lamb of God’s Redneck, and many others. Suntold is no different, and I’ve come back to this song countless times, whether just listening to it on its own or with the intent to enjoy the whole album. Be warned, however, that I love to play this on the drum set, so I will go into music theory detail on some of what’s going on in this track. Let’s begin. The intro is almost the exact same drum groove as Monarchy, only slowed down and with more distinct accents – everything’s there, from the ghost notes to the periodic shift to and from the ride cymbal. After the intro, a quick breakdown leads into the chorus, which is the absolute highlight of this tune, both music theory-wise and listening-wise. I’ll start with the music theory: the chorus is in 4/4 (so one quarter note = one beat), and the chorus is split into two groups of two phrases, each group consisting of 16 beats, with one repetition of the whole chorus consisting of 32 beats. In the first group, the first phrase (which accents the first three quarter notes) lasts for 10 beats, and the next phrase lasts 6 beats. In the second group, the first phrase lasts for 9 beats and the second phrase lasts for 7. Both groups are 16 beats long, but divided into phrases of slightly different lengths: group one is 10+6, and group two is 9+7. Listening-wise, the chorus hinges on the monophonic guitar-drum symbiosis to establish a hardcore, deep, no-nonsense main idea; the vocals, however, add that extra flair that makes the chorus truly memorable: “I am crease, as I am fold. I am composition; thus, I am suntold.” Like Sand Baptism, these lines add so much character and flavor to the chorus and the song as a whole that it’s set apart from the rest of the album. The words are said with such conviction and ardor that I can’t help but wonder: what is this entity, that is crease as it is fold? What does that mean? I really feel like the lyrics, the vocals, and the song itself are somehow much deeper and more thought out than what comes before. That’s the word, depth. This song is deep – not philosophically, not emotionally, but musically and individually. As a quick music theory interjection and lazy segue, I’ll note that the song as a whole is in 7/4, with the exception of the chorus and some other sections.
Also, while under the protection of the one lazily inserted section in this whole review, I wanted to take a second to talk about my only criticism with this song. There’s a line in the verse that goes, “No creature has truly lived until it has truly died.” If you don’t understand the problem with that, let me explain: as long as you are alive, you are living, which is present progressive tense (an ongoing action). If you “have lived,” that is past perfect tense (action started in the past which ended in the past). So, by the laws of grammar, in order to “have truly lived,” you must be done living, which means you must already “have truly died;” tautologies are not lyrics that get extra points in my book, so strike one for Rivers of Nihil. This isn’t nearly as bad, however, as Ozzy Osbourne’s Crazy Train, in which he admits on several occasions to be “going off the rails on the Crazy Train;” dear Mr. Osbourne, if you are “going off the rails,” that colloquially means that you’re going crazy. If the colloquialism is predicated on the assumption that a regular train is the one that is being derailed (which is highly likely considering the fact that the lyrics in Crazy Train are based off that colloquialism, which means that it came afterwards, so all preceding trains may be considered “regular”), and if simply being on the Crazy Train is proof that an individual is crazy, then what exactly happens when you “go off the rails” “on the Crazy Train?” Are you going crazy on the Crazy Train? But if the train itself is crazy, then it likely wouldn’t consider adherence to its status quo of craziness exceedingly “crazy,” and the only thing that would really get you called “crazy” on the Crazy Train itself is being normal. So you’re either going off the rails on a regular train, or you’re just sitting on the Crazy Train. You can’t have your cake and eat it too, Mr. Osbourne. I don’t mean to beat you into the ground, and to that end I have so far mercifully omitted the secondary argument that a train going off the rails tends to grind to a halt after a few seconds, so by the first chorus of the song the Crazy Train would just be lying on its side in a ditch, which isn’t super crazy. Lastly, on God is Dead? you use the line “rivers of evil run through dying lands.” What the f*** is a “river of evil?” Is evil a liquid? What is wrong with you?
Anyways, Suntold‘s verse is very low, with abyssal eighth-note chugs masking the same drum groove from the intro, albeit with different accents and crash hits, which are a big part of the drumming on this track. Crash hits, even though they might seem arbitrary and noisy, are vital in supplying impact to the guitar riff and tone of the song. The next two sections make that quite apparent, with an unchanging guitar riff spanning more than one section, meaning that the only real difference is the switch on the drums from 16th notes to 8th notes and various crash hits. After those sections though, a brief interlude (with the solo ride cymbal returning to make the 7/4 feel of the song apparent) sets the tone for a solo that, while supported by the whole ensemble in its own right, seems to somehow herald an imminent change in tone. The solo itself is great (and long, thank heavens), utilizing all the stuff we’ve come to love from Rivers of Nihil guitarmanship over the course of this album, so the specific tenets don’t even bear repeating. Then a short snare buildup, well, builds up to what I can only really call a breakdown (ironic), that would have a purely epic, almost power metal feel if not for the tech death instrumentation and established tone of the album. Quickly heading back to the chorus, which I can’t in good conscience talk anymore about, and diving into an instrumental outro backed by spoken-word vocals standing on a rock-solid double-bass pattern, Rivers of Nihil leaves us terminally with a soft, echoing string pattern that gently lulls the album to sleep.
As someone who loves concept albums, I really, really enjoy the way that the band makes each release a microcosm of a larger picture through art, music, lyricism, and a confident ability to convey a specific message or image through music. And as someone who has taken a consistent academic and personal interest in Ancient Egypt, I was drawn to Monarchy because my head is already filled with pictures and images of a desert civilization; I always imagine camels, pyramids, dunes, and a scorching sun when I listen to this album because my brain can’t think desert without thinking Old Kingdom Egypt. I’ve made it abundantly clear that this album appeals to me on much more than just a musical level, but I hope that I’ve done a good enough job articulating the specific musical aspects of this release to prove that it has objective musical value outside of my personal bias towards it. As it stands, I can’t admit to being a die-hard Rivers of Nihil fan, but I can definitely claim to being a die hard fan of Monarchy.