I spent seven years in college at a place that was so frigid that the open green space between the campus housing and lecture halls was unironically called “The Tundra.” Hell, it was so cold one winter that the school shut down for a whole week and only opened up once the wind chill warmed up to -10 degrees.
I was fortunate enough to earn not only pharmacy and law degrees (complete with an unofficial minor in student loan accrual), but an appreciation for the work it can take to accomplish something a younger you had no business completing. (Side note: if you’re asking why a twice-licensed professional writes for a music magazine, they say those who can’t do teach, and those who can’t teach write about it, so voila!)
Enter Reading, PA’s finest prog metal band Rivers Of Nihil and their incredible new record. The Work, due out September 24 via Metal Blade, is the culmination of a decade of, uh, work that has clearly paid off. Never have the band sounded so free both from genre rules and the norms associated with being a heavy act. It’s somehow both the weirdest, warmest, heaviest, and most heartfelt Rivers Of Nihil have ever sounded— and you fuckin’ betcha that sweet sax is along for the ride. What a ride it is.
Guitarist Brody Uttley shares that the band wanted to go into the prog deep end on The Work without sacrificing their trademark heaviness.
“We turned up the heavy factor in a big way but also the prog factor,” Uttley says. “I feel like [when bands] start dipping their toe in the prog pool, a lot of them end up losing that burning, angry mood that they’ve historically had as a band and sacrificing that for more of the prog-y kind of stuff. We wanted to turn the prog way up, but at the same time, releasing probably the record that has some of our most obviously heavy shit on it that we’ve ever had, you know what I mean?”
To that end, pressing play on The Work feels like stepping into Rivers Of Nihil’s own Sound World— a land where anything can and will happen, and you’re gleefully pulled along for the crazed conductor ride. It’s a fitting soundtrack to the weirdest time in the band’s life, as Uttley explains:
“On every record, I always sort of like us to go for capturing a moment in the history of the band, where we were all at, at the time of the recording. And we’ve done that. We’ve done three records. I think we’ve gotten close. Especially on [Where Owls Know My Name], I think we got pretty close. But I would say that there’s no other record that we’ve done where you’re literally stepping into where we were like you said, that ‘sound world.’
“It’s like you’re literally stepping into a place when you put that first song on. It really captured what the band was going through at the time. I mean, we were touring relentlessly on Owls. That had a lot of effect on our lives both positive and negative, and constantly being away from home and seeing all these new places all over the world, going to Australia for the first time, going to New Zealand, touring all over Europe, headlining and selling out tons of shows as a headlining band. That was the stuff that we’ve never done before as a band. All that energy just went into these songs. Then, of course, we got back from our last European tour the last week of February 2020. We literally put Owls out, toured nonstop, and then the whole machine turned off.”
“At certain points in the middle of lockdown,” Uttley continues. “I was fairly convinced that we were never going to be able to go out there and do this again. Everybody during COVID had crazy thoughts come up just about the world around them and what the future was going to look like.
“I realized we might as well spend as much energy as we possibly can putting together this project, to show people what the band sounds like during this absolutely insane time of uncertainty. I think, in a lot of ways, that that was a very productive creative catalyst, because I know we said it on Owls, and I’m sure we probably say it on every record, like, ‘Yeah, man, we just did whatever we wanted. We don’t care [laughs].’
“But on this one, I would say it really was the case where we were like, ‘Well, who knows if we’re even ever going to get to play this shit live? We might as well just release the most bizarre shit we’ve ever had, put ourselves on an island all by ourselves, and just lay it all down.’”
“That’s what we set out to do,” he expands, “There’s a lot of stuff on this record that’s deeply personal, both conceptually but also just sonically. I mean, I went out and did hundreds of field recordings all over where we live as well as other places, but especially where we live to kind of just put the listener in Reading, Pennsylvania, where we’re from. The train that pops up all over the album, I mean, that’s the train that runs by my house all the time. I mean, I hear that noise pretty much 24/7.
“When I first moved in to where I’m at right now, it was kind of an annoying thing. But now, it’s this sort of comforting reminder of being at home. It puts me to sleep now, and just stuff like that that I tried to put into this record to just make it a deeply personal experience for us as the creatives and for whoever listens to the record, just wanting to step into our world for an hour or whatever.”
Every Rivers Of Nihil album has been based around seasons, and while we are all hoping this eternal COVID season will end, The Work puts an end to the band’s four-season album run. Has Uttley pondered the end of this chapter and what it’s meant to him?
“I haven’t really thought about that too much just because we’re still kind of getting stuff ready for this one. But I guess I’m happy that it’s over, because I just turned 30 in May. And really, those four records, that’s my whole 20s in four albums. I could look at those albums and really just pinpoint exactly what I was thinking and exactly what I was probably going through at any given point during those records. Finishing ‘Terrestria IV’ was a really powerful moment for me, just personally as a writer. The end of that song essentially begins the way that our first album began. It closes out with the winter wind screaming shifting over to these springtime birds, kind of insinuating that we’re just on this endless cycle, and that it all comes back around. It felt triumphant to finish it. I’m happy that it’s done.”
Watch the video for “Clean” here:
For more from Rivers of Nihil, find them on Bandcamp.
Photo courtesy of Rivers of Nihil and Mike Truehart