A relationship between Heavy Metal and birds has existed for decades. Representing everything from freedom to patriotism, the mighty eagle has flown free, as high as the sun, and even cried, not to mention appearing in varying degrees of quality on the covers of every Primal Fear album ever. Crows, ravens, and vultures all stand proudly and fiercely Metal, and even the mention of blackbirds and albatrosses has been known to get moshpits moving.
But what of the humble owl? Unfairly seen by many as just feathery little mouse-grabbers more at home in children’s books like Winnie the Pooh and The Gruffalo, the cute and fluffy owl sits alone on his branch with only the singer of Kvelertak for company.
And only then because he presumably wants a new hat.
Linked to folklore and mythology, owls hunt in total darkness and tear open their prey with razor-sharp talons, but despite that clearly being brutal enough for Metal, they are still rarely deemed worthy of mentioning. However, thanks to the title of the latest album from Pennsylvanian five-piece Rivers of Nihil (and even though there doesn’t appear to be a single one present on Dan Seagrave‘s fantastic artwork), it seems that this outdated legacy of blatant owlism might finally be over.
Despite sounding like an ornithologically themed episode of TV show Cheers, Where Owls Know My Name is based entirely around the season of Autumn (or Fall for US readers), and follows on from their Spring themed début album The Conscious Seed of Light, and Monarchy (all Metal Blade) which represented Summer. Whereas their first two full-lengths were solid slabs of modern Technical Death Metal, Where Owls… sees Rivers of Nihil not giving two hoots (sorry) to convention, ripping up their rule book and throwing everything from clean singing, ’70s prog, electronica, and smooth jazz into the mix basically just to confuse everyone.
Gently sung intro ‘Cancer/Moonspeak’ combines a Mellotron with ethereal Twin Peaks atmospherics (“the owls are not what they seem” anyone?) before segueing into the thunderous ‘The Silent Life’. Vocalist Jake Dieffenbach roars over jagged, twisting riffs backed by swirling, nebulous keyboards and Jared Klein‘s intricate, pneumatically driven drum patterns before taking a sudden, unexpected turn into blues/jazz territory with a moody guitar solo and sultry saxophone. A ’70s prog-infused guitar solo takes over before the song suddenly explodes into a maelstrom of double-kicks, quickly building to a crescendo of bellows, screams and a wild, schizophrenic sax break.
‘A Home’ begins with a conventional, almost Foo Fighters style riff before transforming into something more at home with their technically minded Death Metal. Again, this song is punctuated by a slow, proggy middle section before the explosive final part swoops down on you with a screaming guitar solo. ‘Old Nothing’ is one of the heaviest – and for a while at least – one of the most straightforward, tracks, but that doesn’t stop if from showing many different faces along the way. Although choosing to fade out rather than finish with an appropriately explosive flourish means it all, unfortunately, ends rather anticlimactically.
‘Subtle Change (Including the Forest of Transition and Dissatisfaction Dance)’ has the band throwing pretty much every aspect of their music into one gigantic cooking pot during its eight exciting, but utterly demented minutes. If you locked Opeth, Cynic, Gojira and Tool in a room for a week then this would probably be the result. Instrumental interlude ‘Terrestria III – Wither’ follows ‘Thaw’ and ‘Thrive’ from their first two albums, and after beginning with a John Carpenter vibe but transitioning into oppressive, booming electronica, continues the record’s overarching theme of death and rebirth. ‘Hollow’ and ‘Death is Real’, although completely different songs, follow a simpler blueprint (by their standards anyway), the title track is Cynic-inspired magnificence, and closing track ‘Capricorn/Agoratopia’ is another perplexing, undulating powerhouse of subtlety and intensity.