Published Apr 24, 2018Death metal with saxophones. Full stop.
Building on two solid releases and a decade of touring, Rivers of Nihil dropped Where Owls Know My Name onto an unsuspecting public last month. Since then, the Pennsylvania-based progressive metal act have seen the album skyrocket to Number 3 on Billboard's New Artist charts. Not bad for a group that sounds like Cryptopsy meets Kenny G.
"It's crazy," bassist Adam Biggs tells Exclaim! "It's bigger than anything I ever expected us to do." When we talk, Rivers of Nihil are in the middle of touring with Dying Fetus and Thy Art Is Murder, bands with whom they share superficial similarities, but Biggs admits their influences lie elsewhere.
"Brody [Uttley, lead guitarist] and I are both big classic '70s progressive rock fans," Biggs says. "Stuff like Pink Floyd and King Crimson, Yes and Rush — we like [them] more than any metal artists."
Rivers of Nihil weren't afraid to show off their progressive tendencies on Monarchy or The Conscious Seed of Light, but Where Owls Know My Name puts them right up front. "It was kind of, 'Do we do this again, or do we do something completely different?'" says Biggs of the change in sound, "My inclination is always 'Why do it again?'
"We have a friend, Zach Strauss, whose band Brody recorded. When we started tracking this album's demos, Zach wanted to hear it. He sent us back a video of him playing sax over the song. We couldn't believe it. We hadn't even asked him to do that. Suddenly, it was like 'Do your thing!' We thought it was awesome."
That demo ended up becoming "The Silent Life," on Where Owls Know My Name. Scratch the song's surface and it reveals almost everything Rivers of Nihil get right, from jazzy interludes to Tool-like time signature changes and a jittering saxophone solo that will redefine how we think of the instrument in a metal contest. Over all of this is some of the best progressive death metal since Gojira's Magma.
"You hear a lot of non-traditional rock instruments in [prog] all the time" says Biggs. "Nobody bats an eye, really. That farther we got along in the writing process for this album, the more the floodgates opened. We were adding in Mellotron solos, and additional sax solos. My answer is pretty much universally 'Yes, let's do it.' Y'know, why not?"
Death metal crowds can be an orthodox lot, and Rivers of Nihil obviously knew this going in. "It is scary," Biggs admits. "There were plenty of times when we were like 'Whoa, is this gonna upset some of our core fans?'" Fortunately, the fans responded. Where Owls Know My Name has gathered glowing reviews in the metal underground since its release. When asked if he has been following the fans' reactions, Adam was enthusiastic.
"This is all happening while we are on tour," he explains, "With anything you do on tour, you get a weird perspective on the world around you. But now, people are coming out specifically for us. We've been doing better, markedly, then any other time before."
Rivers of Nihil are on a creative streak, making something that genuinely has not been done before. "I would rather put out something I truly believe in, something positive, then just retreading ideas. I feel I'd be miserable just doing that."
Where Owls Know My Name is out now on Metal Blade.
Rivers of Nihil recently announced tour dates with Alterbeast and Inferi that include Canadian dates from Halifax to Regina, beginning at the end of June. You can find the dates here.