Like many modern extreme metal bands, Pennsylvanian ensemble Rivers of Nihil have been steadily integrating more progressive elements and clean singing into their habitually vicious formula. 2018’s Where Owls Know My Name was an excellent example of that, and unsurprisingly, follow-up The Work goes even further in terms of balancing heavy and light elements amidst its laudable conceptual scope and emphasis on reprised motifs. Thus, it’s easily the group’s most cinematic, tantalizing, and striving sequence to date, as well as one of 2021’s best metal albums so far.
They began writing the LP while on tour for Owls in the fall of 2018, and they didn’t finish until last year. In their official bio, guitarist Brody Uttley specifies that they didn’t know if it “was all going to connect . . . in any kind of logical or interesting way” until they finished the vocal parts. He continues: “It's an album that almost sounds like a place rather than a thing. It puts you in this world where you're not exactly sure what is going on at certain points, but eventually, it all comes together. It's harsh and cold, but also warm and inviting.” Once again, saxophonist Zach Strouse stands out as one of the most distinctive contributors, adding vibrant textures to the material.
Although Rivers of Nihil elect not to explain the concept behind the LP, bassist Adam Biggs does clarify that the title represents the constant—and often times underappreciated—amount of “physical, emotional, [and] spiritual work” that goes into making life worthwhile. Undoubtedly, The Work embodies the quintet’s most profound ideas, melodies, and sonic atmospheres, so it’s as intellectually contemplative as it is musically captivating.
Opener “The Tower (Theme from The Work)” instantly represents that grander motivation in both its name and form. It begins as a solemn and ethereal piano ballad whose soothing verses and sorrowful yet ominous lyrics yield a chillingly jazzy and intriguing environment. It’s Rivers of Nihil at their most theatrical and accessible, and the arrangement evolves ingeniously to incorporate new timbres (such as saxophone and percussion) that add haunting resonance. Of course, lead vocalist Jake Dieffenbach ultimately launches into his trademark growls—which he still does as well as any other death metal frontman—but for the most part, the track is peacefully unsettling in the best ways.
Naturally, the band pepper the rest of the record with similarly introspective and multifaceted scraps of calm dynamism. Specifically, “Wait” is mostly poppy and radio-friendly due to its singable melodies, straightforward rhythms, classic rock guitar solos, and generally encouraging—if also sobering—vibe. It’s a luscious journey that sees the troupe branching out further stylistically without sacrificing anything that’s made them so singular thus far. Likewise, “Clean” is a multifaceted and ever-changing treat whose spacey soundscapes evoke Ayreon, TesseracT, and mid to late ‘70s Pink Floyd. Expectedly, “Tower 2” brings back some elements of its titular predecessor alongside a prevalent use of acoustic guitar strums; afterward, “Maybe One Day” channels the approachability of “Wait” but with even more uplifting and compelling attributes. It’s a triumphant gem and worth the price of admission alone.
As predominantly gentle as those songs are, they still pack a punch at times, just as several other tunes prioritize hellish complexity over scattered bits of serenity. “MORE?” and “Dreaming Black Clockwork,” for example, are as relentlessly industrial and cruel as anything else Rivers of Nihil have done, whereas “Focus,” “Episode,” and “The Void from Which No Sound Escapes” are more intermittently catchy and sophisticatedly chaotic. Then there’s the somewhat epic closer, “Terrestria IV: Work,” which simultaneously concludes this sequence and continues the quintet’s multi-album suite with astonishing dexterity and reward.
At the risk of using a cringey pun, The Work is nothing less than a work of art. It’s by far the group’s most cohesive, ambitious, meditative, and varied effort, with greater uses of philosophical significance and transcendental respites. Thus, it’s paradoxically easier to get into but harder to master compared to its predecessors, requiring that listeners devote a lot of attention—and many playthroughs—to completely grasp and appreciate it. Those attributes, coupled with its frequent beloved brutality, mean that it’ll delight fresh and familiar fans alike.