Whereas former releases ‘The Conscious Seed of Light’ and 2015’s ‘Monarchy’ dealt thematically with spring and summer, ‘Where Owls Know My Name’ bring things into my favourite season – that crisp, pensive and enshrouding feel of autumn. The noticeable lifting of humidity from my lungs as we enter autumn is a perfect companion to the richly oxygenated, crisp texture of this album as produced by the infamous Erik Rutan.
Cancer/Moonspeak begins with it a nice, wafting intro, warm synths, and soft vocals that wouldn’t be out of place on the more subdued moments of a Dream Theater album. The Silent Life then kicks off with an epic wall of riffage, clattering double-kicks, and playful bass arpeggios before drawing right back into a solid mid-tempo death metal stomp. Lead guitarist Brody Uttley deftly weaves some melodic leads over the solid backing of bassist/lyricist Adam Biggs, rhythm guitarist Jon Topore, and drummer Jared Klein.
Vocalist Jake Dieffenbach laments “the loss of summer” through a guttural, yet very clear tone; a progression building playfully between tight drums, short breakdowns, and tremolo-speed chord runs that remind me heavily of latter-day Fallujah. A plodding background riff gives break to an open bass and guitar solo, and, is that sax in the background? A very sultry saxophone solo, not forgetting to mention some church-like organs – well, that just happened. The Silent Life is a thoughtful and just plain nice piece, so when things break into a heavier descent the detuned chugs, growls, blasts, and black metal rasps are made even better for it.
A Home follows up with a thoughtful progressive rock curiosity, before blasting into a riff that builds quickly into a crescendo before dropping back a tad. It’s clear Rivers of Nihil aren’t interested in pandering to either prog or death stereotypes, choosing instead to augment battery force with highly melodic and emotional overtones. Sections of bashing back-and-forth between instruments on a tight schedule take a break for a cleanly sung section, replete with acoustic guitar and effects-heavy soloing that’d make Mikael Åkerfeldt grin.
Speaking of, the overall build of the songs on this album create strong vibes of classic Opeth. Old Nothing breaks right into a much more straightforward affair comparatively. Shorter and less intentionally meandering, this track demonstrates a deft capability to turn into beast-mode where required. Fast riffage breaks back into that open exploratory side we’ve seen before. First, a warbling, jazzy solo Fredrik Thordendal (Meshuggah) would be happy with and then a brief return to the tight chug-fest before closing.
Subtle Change (Including the Forest of Transition) does as it appears via the title, with reserved, down-tuned chords augmented by acoustics and those ethereal leads. Punching out from here is a strong, clean-rough vocal dual attack. Even the techy, slightly off-kilter riff that ensues has a latter-day Porcupine Tree feel to it. Vintage organ noodling and shredding guitar add to this feel before being blown away by an absolutely crushing breakdown riff. White-knuckle blasts and high shrieks weave between these slamming riffs into… another sax solo? This level of experimentation is edging closer to Ihsahn territory the further we get, and it’s great.
Pushing the boundaries again, Terestria III: Wither begins with Blade Runner-esque dark bass synth, strange bleeping samples, and dirge-like piano. If I didn’t check the track time, I’d have sworn it was an elongated track introduction and not just an interlude, avoiding the trap of instrumental filler. Straight out of the ‘Ghost Reveries’ era, Hollow then opens with some creepy synths, reined back in by a tight, kick-and-snare heavy section juxtaposed with some very epic clean vocals, grand roars, and blast beats. Absolutely watertight palm-muted thrashing blast sections are also contrasted with some bluesy soloing. Technical blasts ring this track out to add some meatiness to things.
Death is Real continues the darker thematic approach of the previous track, subdued muting contrasting with bending doomy riffs and a jumpy, blast beat-laden section. Bass rumbling with a sharp, scraping clacking underneath those slick guitars, the rhythm section keeps the tempo cranked over the steady barks and growls throughout the track. Even when things become (briefly) more vast and open on this track, they do so in an unsettling manner with warbling leads, whispers, and heavy synths before being reduced to a very metal solo and thrashing riffs.
Title track, Where Owls Know My Name, starts with a power ballad feel that cleanses the ears from the dark ethos of the past few songs. ‘And it gets colder every day…’, and thus, the atmosphere takes on a doom metal approach; interspersed with effects-heavy leads, bouncing basslines, and that old sax again! Things drag downwards into dirge-like intensity with an almost sad, reserved feel before arcing into lofty heights once more. We are brought back into the light with a classic prog ballad section, a brief breakdown, and phasing out with a warped pensive vibe.
Capricorn/Agoratopia begins with synthetic vocals, a warm but sombre wash of synth and bass. The whole thing is so subdued that once the wall of visceral, pained screams and constricted riffage begins, you’re thrown off, but in a great way. As expected, another lofty and ethereal section closes out the album with the morose but beautiful interplay between all the soft and harsh elements.
If you are interested in feeling out a very different, soulful, and experimental journey between death metal, classic and modern progressive rock, look no further. If you pine for a return to the era of enormously grandiose prog-death circa ‘Deliverance’ and ‘Damnation’, you’ve come to the right place, friend. Welcome to autumn, relax and enjoy the subtle changes and crisp, cool air.