Graded on a Curve:
Rivers of Nihil,
Where Owls Know
My Name

I don’t talk much about my Death Metal Years because they were very dark and I was frequently horny. What I will say about my tenures in such renowned Black Metal bands as Cannibal Infant and Skewer Christ is that they marked a time of deep spiritual seeking, most of it done the traditional way–by drawing pentagrams on the floor of the Walmart warehouse where my buddy and bandmate Doug worked.

You may remember Cannibal Infant for the immortal “Satanicon,” the satanic “Immorticon,” and the randy “We’re Horny (Touch Our Horns).” Hell, we might have actually gone places had Doug not renounced Satan (and the bass guitar) to pursue a career in floral arrangements. I’ve never been able to figure out why you can’t make floral arrangements AND worship Satan, but Doug sees things differently.

I don’t listen to as much Death Metal as I used to, but I like to keep abreast of the trends, and the up-and-coming band that most makes me want to go on a church-burning tour of Norway hails from, you’ll never guess, Reading, Pennsylvania. Yes, Reading, Pennsylvania, non-Satanic hotbed of your plain Amish Volk, who continue to speak in their amusing Pennsylvania Dutch dialect until this very day. I wonder how they’d say, “Bang your head!”? Wait, I know! “Je hoofd stoten!”

Just goes to show you never know where Satan is going to establish his dominion over Earth. Or more likely the lads in Rivers of Nihil are no more sons of Satan than I am. I’ll betcha they’re as decent and upstanding as everybody else from Reading, Pennsylvania, and don’t dabble in pot much less pentagrams. Hell, they probably don’t even drink their coffee black.

But enough with the idle conjecture. What I like the most about Rivers of Nihil is they dare to be different. Sure this quintet comes on like your standard Death Metal outfit, but they introduce some very odd colors to DM’s grim black palette. Death Metal with saxophones? Seriously? AND trumpet? The Dark One has been accused of a lot of things, but no one has accused him of being a jazzbo since the 1930s.

What makes Death Metal so neat is that unlike your standard one-way ticket to Hell you can COME BACK. In short it affords you the luxury of being a tourist, and Rivers of Nihil’s 2018 release Where Owls Know My Name is luxury tourism at its best–a 10-song outing in a glass-bottomed boat across the burning lakes of Hades. Croaking vocalist Jake Dieffenbach sounds like he’s channeling the Dark One himself, new drummer Jared Klein might as well be playing a machine gun, and new guitarist Jonathan Topore goes from playing riffs that are heavier than a two-ton gargoyle to firing off pointillistic speed runs that would make the Devil (a Jack Scratch player himself) damned jealous.

River of Nihil’s sound is anything but stripped down; like your best Death Metal outfits they’re aiming for melodrama, and they certainly have a flair for it. They’re also a band of many moods; Where Owls Know My Name may have a “Fall” theme (their first two LPs were “Spring” and “Summer” themed, respectively) but the boys in the band are smart enough to know that every season has many faces.

Why, even the individual songs have as many moods as your average mood ring. “The Silent Life”–the LP’s standout track–goes from full-on tempestuous to jazzy-spacey in a Pink Floyd-meets-Traffic Kinda way (you gotta love Zach Strouse’s sax) before bursting into magnificent flame, briefly breaking down into what can only be called free jazz and (finally) going out on all cylinders. I call it mood disorder music, and I call it a triumph. And if it’s something totally new and different you’re looking for I definitely recommend the title cut, which starts as a kind of quiet Metallica homage only to devolve into what I can only assume is the first Death Jazz recording (I call it Wrecking Ball Swing) ever made.

And the same applies–if to a lesser degree– to the rest of the songs on Where Owls Know My Name. On “Old Nothing” Klein tosses in lots of impossibly fast drum stutter, Dieffenbach goes Cookie Monster while reaching for the lowest depths of the diaphragm, and Topore varies bone-crushing riffs with airy passages guaranteed to blow your mind. The atmospheric “Terrestria III: Wither” is metal programme music right down to Sean Carter’s muted trumpet; it’s vaguely Middle Eastern in tone, but with lots of slow-motion drum pummel straight from John Bonham’s benighted sepulcher. “Subtle Changes” (which comes complete with the hilarious subtitle “Including the Forest of Transition and Dissatisfaction Dance”) lurches from the titanic bombastic to explore a whole lot of changes indeed; I hear one very far-out sax interlude, lots of show-offy guitar playing, some swords and sorcery vocals, even some fancy prog-rock organ. Forget Fall; this one’s a song for all seasons, and its changes come at you so fast they’re dizzying.

I don’t generally go in for stuff like this; I’ve been known to criticize Rush for trying to package 10 songs into one, and Rivers of Nihil is definitely guilty of the crime of placing technical virtuosity on a pedestal and worshipping it. But I’ll be damned if the odd juxtapositions (from saxophone blurt to Hammer of the Gods!) on Where Owls Know My Name don’t pull me in. I find myself listening to these songs just to hear what’s coming next, because what comes next very often blows me away. Where Owls Know My Name is an audacious album, and succeeds on audacity alone.

I look back with a sort of wistful nostalgia on my Death Metal Years, and the time I spent in such bands as Necrophiliac Dad and Portal of Pestilence. Such idealism! Such optimism about the future, as expressed on such albums as Bludgeon the Planet, Imminent Carnage, and Oceans of Entrails! All we wanted to do was have fun, kill our parents but not really (they were sweet), and make peoples’ eyes bleed from sheer volume alone.

In short those were simpler times, before graduation, work, and a very brief stint on probation for attempting to shoplift a supermarket cart full of chainsaws from a local hardware store to use in the video for our song “Blood Orgy ’79” sullied our innocence. Growing up is a bitch. It’s like John Cougar Mellancamp said: Life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone.

Je hoofd stoten!


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