Back in early December, tech-death “legends” The Faceless released In Becoming a Ghost, their first new record since 2012’s Autotheism. It was met by a collective “meh” by most, including your friendly neighborhood anthropomorphic cupcake ruler. For all of the cool, interesting things that the band tried to accomplish on the record, they erred on just as many elements. Michael Keene’s clean vocals sounded nasally and weird. There was plenty of technicality, but no groove to provide a foundation for the tracks. The saxophone sounded forced and out of place. Tech-death’s most highly-anticipated release in recent memory landed with a deafening thud.
Where Owls Know my Name, the third album from Pennsylvania’s Rivers of Nihil, is what In Becoming a Ghost would have sounded like had The Faceless written a perfect album rather than fucking it up nearly every step of the way. I love me some tech-death, but I’d never heard a record in the genre that I could genuinely call “perfect” until Rivers of Nihil decided to melt my face off with their new album this week. Every song, ever verse, every guitar solo, every saxophone interlude is pitch perfect, creating an enthralling listen that will be showing up on every “Best of” list at the end of 2018.
Where Owls Know my Name is now, in my opinion, the prime example of what technical death metal should strive to be. From the thunderous, commanding growls to the delicate clean vocals, the punishing riffs to the melodic interludes, Rivers of Nihil has created a complex, fascinating work of art. The musicianship is beyond technically impressive, but at the same time functional in creating a groove/melody for the backbone of each track. You can shred as much as you want to shred, but it doesn’t do any good if it doesn’t fit within the framework of the song: I want an album, not a guitar class. The drumming is aggressive and complex, and the bass and low-end guitar work provide and dissonant backdrop to the already dark and foreboding atmosphere of the record.
Where the album really distances itself from its tech-death peers is through the vocals and lyrics, as I can’t recall many (if any) albums quite as brutal as this that have such clarity in the growls. Granted, the lyrics are well down the list on reasons why I listen to metal, but its certainly nice having the option of paying attention to the words of the song rather than being lost in a wave of “AARRRRGGGGGGRAAAWWWRRRR GGGRREEEEAAWWWHHH!!!!!!”. And just as impressive, the clean vocals, unlike Michael Keene’s shrill whines on In Becoming a Ghost (in case you can’t tell, I’m still kind of bitter about how much that album sucked), fit in seamlessly with the album, adding a delicate balance on the melodic moments of the record.
All three of the singles released before the album came out (“The Silent Life”, “A Home”, “Where Owls Know my Name”) are winners, blending overwhelming brutality with a dark and mysterious atmosphere, all in a package that is both complex and easy to digest. But the album’s strength must be its depth, as there isn’t a weak track on the record. “Subtle Change (Including the Forest of Transition and Dissatisfaction Dance)”, in addition to probably being the longest song title in metal history, belies its own name by introducing sweeping sonic shifts and wild variations in movements over the course of eight and a half captivating minutes, complete with some of the finest saxophone work on the record. Even “Terrestria III: Wither”, and instrumental bridge track, manages to shine, combining yet another beautiful saxophone part with a towering wall of industrial percussion, creating a sound that I can honestly say I’ve never heard before. If you had the time, and if I had the desire, I could easily compile a laundry list of reasons why I love every single track on this record. And the best part? None of those reasons would be the same across the songs. Despite developing an identifiable sound, Rivers of Nihil explore every inch of their sound throughout Where Owls Know my Name, never letting it grow stale or boring.
Since I refuse to just let great things be great, I do have one minor, microscopic gripe with the record. While the saxophone sounds amazing and blends in seamlessly whenever its used, it only really shows up for brief moments on 4-5 tracks. The band may have been protecting against it being seen as too “gimmicky”, it’s surprisingly too good and too perfect for their sound to be used so infrequently. So that’s it. My one issue with this technical death metal masterpiece is that there’s not enough saxophone.
In totality, Where Owls Know my Name is a damn-near perfect album. It is fun, interesting, complex, and expertly made. For all of the great tech-death bands out in the metal world today, Rivers of Nihil has put together what will likely be a seminal work in the genre’s history, illuminating the path to what tech-death is truly capable of.
“The Silent Life”, “A Home”, “Where Owls Know my Name”