With the overwhelming success of 2018’s Where Owls Know My Name, Pennyslvania’s Rivers of Nihil could not have set expectations much higher for a subsequent release. 2021’s The Work proves to be an extremely polarizing album—one which will meet those expectations for some and fall far short for others.
The album is unique in its focus on both simple, clean interludes and extremely avant garde, industrial experimentation. The problem is, both styles miss the mark, and often come off pretentious, relying on mixing techniques and dense layering to create new sounds where inspired melodies might have been. Instead, we are lost in a labyrinth of casual stoner rock and simple, droning riffs that lack the melodic spine that carried Owls so confidently. Though the album is not without its gems, even the more realized tracks feel lost amongst the rest. The one consistent element of the album is the lyrical theme, which we are incessantly badgered with. As a whole, the album is vexing in that it is either overly ambitious, or is far too lazy, with experimentation generating both the truly awesome as well as pitifully dull.
Upon first listen, the opening track starts off promising—predictably easing us in with some subtle, clean melodies eventually building to a gut punch entrance of distorted guitars and the growls we’ve come to expect. It’s dense, and evocative, but simple in structure. We’ve seen simple work like this be effective before on Owls, with the band using repetitive quarter and eighth note rhythms to success. However, the melodies and the riffs fail to evolve from here.
“Dreaming Black Clockwork” succeeds only in reminding the listener of better work by Between the Buried and me, or perhaps, the sections of Devin Townsend’s “Planet of the Apes” featuring BTBAM vocalist Tommy Rogers. The layering of the vocals and overall production comes off very Deconstruction, but without the same payoff. Again, the riffs are simple in structure, but without any of the charm of Owls.
As if on cue, the saxophone we were wondering about emerges, serving merely as a sprinkle of salt on an undercooked steak. The outro of “Dreaming” serves as an example of experimentation born out of laziness. They’ve merely layered and twisted as much distorted sound as they can, building to the song’s finish. If they are trying to achieve a certain feeling here, they’ve only distracted us with an ill-conceived dissonant mess. This sort of production is smattered throughout the album, and it’s a shame because they were heading in an interesting direction with this gritty, industrial sound that we are introduced to on “Terrestria III” off Owls. This sound feels like a crutch on The Work.
If the ugly of “Dreaming” bothers you, the pretty of “Wait” is worse. This is a truly useless track that combines stock, groovy rock, annoying clean vocals, dated guitar solos and bizarre production. It is, luckily, the least successful track on the album. Only up from here.
“Focus” is the clear choice for a single on the album, finally using the industrial sound RoN are leaning on to good effect. There are distinguishable verses, a chorus, and some very fun and heavy riffs. Even this, very entertaining song feels out of place with it’s more conventional structure and sound—as though it was conceived separate from the overall vision and tucked neatly in as some obligatory red meat.
Another bright spot, and the most successful track on the album is “The Void from Which No Sound Escapes.” It’s a well produced track that has a strong melodic arc not without delightful twists, and it uses the blending of clean and harsh vocals to dramatic effect. Even here, however, they have to spoil it with the off-putting, distracting transition into “More?” This is the second time they’ve used a wall of dissonant tones at the end of a track, hoping to set a mood of ill-content. However, by sourcing the literal calls for an encore of “one more song,” we can’t help but be reminded of the performers themselves rather than the music.
The clear goal here, lyrically, is to allude to the constant call for more production out of all of us. There is a very focused lyrical theme of being overworked and caught in a relentless cycle of the daily grind that most Americans (if not humans) are caught in. The theme is interesting, and redeemable. What is not, is the overt, repetitive lyrics. Your theme is simple enough to be summed up in one short sentence. “Do the Work.” With a theme that simple, the music begs for nuance and narrative in the lyrics beyond what RoN are giving us.
“Episode” is another track with some completely wasted potential. The clean sections are on the verge of annoying, and the guitar solos feel like an 80s garage band warmup. When they do unleash the hounds and go heavy on this track, it’s so simple in structure that it becomes droning—which makes the modulated vocals feel, again, like a band-aid. The music isn’t interesting enough, so lets make him sound crazy too. “Work work work.” We get it.
“Maybe One Day” is a somewhat pretty, somewhat uplifting pop song with some nifty vocal layering toward the end. They’ve channeled the softer side of Devin Townsend this time, skirting the line between annoying and inspired—as they’ve done for much of the album. Lyrically, this track is possibly the most domestic I’ve ever heard on an extreme prog album. It’s basically a discussion about whether or not to leave a job. As you may guess, the word “work” pops up aplenty.
The album concludes with “Terrestria IV,” which both in name and musically references motifs from Owls. The callbacks are well established and celebrate some excellent stuff from the past, but by concluding the album this way, they’ve reminded us of what we loved so much about the previous release. It is not an exclamation point on a sequel album, though it is treated as such. Musically, it’s pretty fantastic. Probably the second strongest track behind “Void,” but the problem is, we are revisiting themes that are vacant this album. It’s as if RoN are saying, “but remember that other really good album we made? Go listen to that instead.”
Was this album too ambitious, or not enough? Was it too focused, or not enough? Regardless, it ventures far too often into simple, faux-proggy clean sections and unstructured, overproduced heavy sections with very little melody to engage us. The Work is disjointed, and largely unsatisfying outside 3 and a half very good tracks, which themselves feel alien to the whole. It is evident that RoN intended this as the natural progression of where Owls left their sound. Ironically, The Work itself reminds us of how great that album was, and this one, unfortunately, doesn’t work work work work nearly as well.
FAVORITE TRACK: “The Void From Which no Sound Escapes”
RELEASE DATE: 9/24/21
FOR FANS OF: Black Crown Initiate, Between the Buried and Me