Rivers of Nihil – Putting in the Work

Thursday, 16th September 2021

Rivers of Nihil’s last album, Where Owls Know My Name, sent well-deserved shockwaves through the metal scene due to its combination of impressive heaviness and genuine emotional output.  Praised by many (including this scribe), it goes without say that their follow-up, the last of the four album concept around the seasons, would be hotly anticipated.  The Work doesn’t attempt to outdo its predecessor, instead shooting for brand new territory from the ever expansive act.  Some may find it to be polarizing and divisive, but there’s no denying that it’s a big sonic leap forward.  We spoke with guitarist Brody Uttley once more to get his thoughts and impressions regarding pressure following-up Owls, how the band has changed, wrapping up the four season-based album cycle, and what lies ahead for the act.

Dead Rhetoric: The first time I heard The Work I was like, “What the hell is this?” But I listened to it over the course of the weekend quite a bit and had it sink in.  I think it’s going to take some time for people to come around to really appreciate what you have done with this album.

Brody Uttley: That seems to be the general reaction that I have had from people who were big fans of Owls who have heard this one.  At first, it was a little bit of shock, followed by a couple of listens.  It is an album that you can’t really absorb in one sitting.

Dead Rhetoric: Did you feel the pressure for The Work, coming off of Where Owls Know My Name as well as this being the release that wraps up your four album cycle of seasons?

Uttley: At no point was I sitting here wondering, “Oh, I don’t know if this is going to be better than Owls?  Can this compete with Owls?  Is this a worthy follow-up to that record?”  That wasn’t anything that really crossed my mind, because I’m aware of the sound that we achieved on Owls – that is the best version of that sound that this band is ever going to do.  That was very clear, and with all of the records, they are just moments from our lifespan that are captured on record.  There is no way that we could put ourselves in the same position two times in a row.  We are different people than we were in 2018 when Owls came out.  We are a much different band.  So there was no point where we were wanting to one-up Owls.  We just wanted to give a different point of view, or window, into where the band is at.

That being said, we were aware of the fact, that now, unlike previous albums, there was a lot of people paying attention to what we would do next.   The actual content of the record wasn’t influenced by us being concerned about people’s reactions to Owls, but I would say that the way we are rolling things out and the attention to detail that we are putting into everything we do – a lot of it we probably wouldn’t have thought about before Owls, had it not had been so positively received.  Everything we are doing on this record, visually and otherwise, we are putting a lot more time into everything to make sure it’s as cool and different as it can possibly be.  Really, we aren’t trying to be better than the last record, we are trying to be on another island from that record.

Dead Rhetoric: How do you think that your progression has continued for The Work?

Uttley: On the Owls cycle we toured a whole bunch, and a vast majority of the shows that we played on that cycle were all really good.  That was a new thing for us, it might sound funny, but it was a new thing for us to show up in Australia and play for 1200 people and have it be awesome.  Before if we had played to that many people, or had been somewhere we hadn’t played before, people probably would have just had their arms crossed and looked really confused.  But because of the success of Owls, word got out.  We all of a sudden had all of these people who were really excited to see us.  That was a really new thing for us.

I think it put a different spin on what it is we do as a band.  Being able to just go out and just see this thing that we are building and it’s actually working.  Things are starting to move.  I think that all of the stuff we did around that record really influenced, or gave us a more worldly view of, what we do.  It took it out of the basement of wherever and it became apparent that more people were interested in what we were doing.  It gave us more courage to venture out and try even more wildly different things.  For example, our two most popular songs, “The Silent Life” and “Where Owls Know My Name” are nearly 7-minutes long a piece.  It’s ridiculous, because a 4-minute song is difficult enough for most people to get through let alone a 7-minute one.  We knew that our fans were really willing to go on an adventure with us.  They were willing to take risks with us and let us spread our wings as a band.  That’s why we are so different from the last album.

I feel like even though with Owls, we didn’t adhere to any rules, I still think we were ultimately boxed in by the technical death metal label, even to ourselves.  There were things we weren’t willing to try, because we were boxed in by what we thought people thought of us.  But after the success of the last record, we thought that people actually enjoyed the risks we were taking.  That really encouraged us to adventure into new sonic territory as a band, knowing that our audience was excited for the weird shit.  “Where Owls Know My Name” has no blastbeats in it, and there is barely any double-bass.  For a tech death band, you would think that would sink us immediately, but that’s the song that comes up the most when people are requesting songs on tour.  We saw that people are willing to go down those weird paths with us, which drove us to get even weirder.  It put less limitations on us as a band.

Dead Rhetoric: I know the labels and tags and whatever aren’t all that important, but do you feel that you are a ‘death metal’ band at this point?

Uttley: Yeah, I would say that at our core, we are still a death metal band.  But after this record, that’s a tough question.  I don’t know, I wouldn’t want to pigeonhole my own band.  I would say that the material on this record is more reminiscent of falling under a more general umbrella of metal or progressive metal.  It’s not necessarily death metal.  There are songs on this record that could be on a Fleetwood Mac or Yes album.  It’s very out and wild stuff for a death metal label.

It’s tough, when people ask what type of music we play, most of the time I just say that we are a progressive metal band, or a weird death metal band.  I guess we will find out, as ultimately it’s the people who listen to this stuff that decide what category it is under, but I would say that at this point it is fair to say that we have departed from the technical death metal thing.  This record is so vibe-oriented and so not tech-oriented, I would be surprised if anyone calls us a tech-death band after this.  We will see I guess!

Dead Rhetoric: How do you feel The Work embodies the winter season?

Uttley: I think that winter, I guess depending on what part of the world you live in, but winter is often associated with long, cold, harsh nights.  Not a lot of sunlight and frigid temperatures.  It’s a season where only the strongest survive, or the ones who hibernate the best, if you are a bear.  As a season, it’s really harsh, it’s temperamental, and there can be days where the clouds break and it’s sunny and peaceful and days where it is completely gray and cold with snow coming down and beating against your skin – making your experience a much more difficult one.

I think that The Work, as a title, is a reflection of that.  The winter season is one where you have to work extra hard to survive to get through each day to the next one.  So I think the title, among other things, embodies that idea of having to fight uphill and tooth and nail to survive.

Dead Rhetoric: In a few listens going through the album, there is this cold, distant warmth that goes through some of the melodies I thought.

Uttley: There definitely is.  Like I said, the winter season can break, and you can have nice days in the winter season.  Those tend to be the time, if we are talking about animals, that they will come out and gather supplies before the harsh conditions return.  There’s always a silver lining, or a break in the clouds, even in the winter season.  So I think those warmer moments kind of reflect that idea.

Dead Rhetoric: The artwork for The Work is incredible.  Can you talk about some of the details that were included?

Uttley: That was a piece done by Dan Seagrave, who had done the last three covers.  This new one, as a side note, is definitely my favorite that we have had thus far.  He really knocked it out of the park.  The cover has a couple different things going on.  The first thing that a lot of people have pointed out, is that this album cover is laid out almost identical to our first album cover, but with a more nightmarish landscape, and that was intentional.  We wanted to complete the seasonal theme and bring it back full circle.

We wanted to have that reflection from the spring record, our first one, to this record.  You have a tower in the background, which was all Biggs’ conception, and it’s a reference to the tower tarot card.  It’s usually interpreted as a sign of danger, of sudden change, or destruction, but also higher learning and liberation.  The tower symbolizes a great change, either in life, or in our case the band’s sound.  All of this stuff is loosely interpreted into any number of things.  You have this landscape that is splitting in half, all of this chaos and outer space in the background with everything being sucked out into this void.  Then in the foreground you have this cozy cabin with these inviting, warm orange lights glowing from within, which is basically meant to represent the warmer moments on the record that you were talking about, amidst this chaotic and frigid landscape.  You have this inviting, peaceful place that you can seek refuge and wait for the storm to pass.

You also have cars thrown all over the place, which is a direct reference to our hometown in Reading, PA where you have the Reading Railroad that runs through where we live.  Literally a football field’s length away from my house is the train line and I hear it all the time.  I thought that was a cool thing to include on the cover as part of this whole landscape.  It ended up kind of perfect due to the time in which the record was created.  It was completely by accident, but when I saw the cover for the first time, I will never see that album cover and not think about working on this record in my house while the rest of the world tore itself apart.  It’s kind of funny, because the cabin on the front cover even looks like where I live a little bit.  But it’s definitely my favorite cover, and there’s a lot of stuff in which Adam [Biggs] could elaborate on but those are the main points.

Dead Rhetoric: This effectively wraps the four seasons concept for Rivers of Nihil.  Do you have any plans for what you’d like to do moving forward?  Like another multi-album conceptual framework?

Uttley: I am not really sure, to be honest.  The four season thing was Adam’s idea from the very beginning, even before we were signed to Metal Blade.  He always talked about this idea for this four season concept and we all kind of just brushed it off.  But then when we got signed, and we decided to roll with that.  So it has been this thing that we have all leaned on as we went along.  It puts a lens over things and allows you to put yourself in a seasonal mindset, so it’s been good.  But I don’t know what the future will bring.  This project was so enormous for us to complete.  We are still on this one, in getting it as good as it can possibly be and discussing live stuff, production, and video stuff.  So I don’t know, we haven’t discussed it but after a year like last year, I would say anything is possible at this point.  Who knows?

Dead Rhetoric: Choose one song from each of your four albums to make a small ‘seasonal’ EP that represents Rivers of Nihil past and present?

Uttley: I would have to go with the Terrestria songs.  That’s pretty much exactly the function that those songs were designed to serve.  “Terrestria I: Thaw” then “Terrestria II: Thrive” then “Terrestria III: Wither” and now “Terrestria IV: Work.”  They were kind of designed to exist outside of each of the albums, but still within it as these reminders of the season that you are on.  Those four songs could be strung together as a continuous piece of music as an EP and played outside of the context that they are in.

Dead Rhetoric: I heard a few things myself already, but I am assuming there is that same level of nuance with “Terrestria IV” that you have kept with the earlier ones where you integrate the other ones into it?

Uttley: Yeah – “Terrestria IV” literally ends in the way that our first record begins.  It is a circle basically, which was very intentional.  It’s the longest “Terrestria” and the only one with vocals, but it definitely has all of those same nuances as well.

Dead Rhetoric: What are your plans for the rest of 2021?  The album is out in September and you have a tour coming up too, right?

Uttley: We are going out on tour with The Black Dahlia Murder, After the Burial, Carnifex, and Undeath in September.  We are leaving for that in a couple of weeks.  That’s in the US.  Then we are slated to do a co-headliner in Europe with Archspire in November.  But we will see if that one happens.  I know restrictions are a bit different over there, and I don’t think club shows have started to happen over there yet.  We are kind of waiting on that one.

Those are the two tours we have for the rest of this year, but I think that next year, depending on what comes down the tubes as far as support tours go, I think we will probably be putting our chips in the headliner basket.  I think this material needs to be represented live, in a very big way, with lots of cool production – something we haven’t put an emphasis on before.  I think that will be the next thing on the agenda once we figure out the rest of this year.

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