Over the past decade or so, Pennsylvanian quintet Rivers Of Nihil have become one of the most exciting names in death metal – a perfect storm of bloodthirsty riffs, pounding blastbeats and primal guttural roar.
This year’s fourth studio album, titled The Work, documents the band searching for new ways to blow our minds, at times opting for more atmospheric or simplified means of aggression.
Its second track, Dreaming Black Clockwork, for example, is reminiscent of Gojira thanks to its mid-tempo, neck-breaking grooves. Much like the French metal titans themselves, it turns out Rivers Of Nihil guitarists Brody Uttley and Jon Topore wanted their riffs to breathe, as well as stun…
“That was a song our bass player Adam [Biggs] came up with the main riff for,” Uttley tells Guitar World. “He sent me a cellphone video of him playing it on an acoustic guitar. I interpreted it based on what he sent.
“It’s got this slower tempo than what we’d typically roll with. We really wanted to emphasize how we were creating space rather than packing in as much as we possibly could. We wanted to let those low frequencies bloom out instead of having a bazillion notes to contend with.
“It was all about atmospherics instead of speed and technicality. There’s a different sonic impact because of the tempo, which made it different to using super-fast fills and blastbeats the whole time. It gives the riffs a chance to breathe.
“The drums are more open-sounding on this song, which gave more opportunity for the bass and guitar to come through. Scaling it back like that meant we could stick more things on top, from melodies to additional percussion and weird noises to create a bigger picture.”
When asked about the most challenging aspect of the recording process, Uttley is quick to recall his slide guitar solo on the album’s penultimate song, Maybe One Day. As he quite rightly points out, it doesn’t matter how good you are as a guitarist, if you’re unfamiliar with slides, using one will probably make you sound more like a total beginner…
“That solo was a pain in the ass to track because playing slide is tough,” laughs Uttley. “I think a lot of metal guys think slide guitar is this silly bluegrass thing but honestly, it’s no joke. It’s actually really hard to make everything sound good with a slide – you have all the strings rattling against the slide. And if you’re even just a little bit off, it sounds horribly out of tune. That was a bit of an experiment for us this time!”
You guys have used Kiesels and Schecters through Mesas and Kempers over the years. What exactly are we hearing on the album?
“It was a bit of an unconventional writing process this time and because of that I ended up recording the vast majority of the guitars on the record. Most of it was recorded with a Kiesel Crescent, the black and green one that I’ve been using as my main guitar for the last couple of years.
“I also used a Fender Custom Shop Strat that my friend loaned me on a couple of leads, like the first half of the Clean solo. It’s got this really sick, road-worn and almost David Gilmour-looking kinda vibe. For a lot of the heavier stuff, we were using a Peavey 6505 for the rhythm tracks, boosted with a Fortin 33 pedal, which was an interesting turn for us…”
In what sense?
“Well, I’ve never been a fan of the 6505, at least for the sound we’re going for. I guess we’re more of a Mesa kinda band. But we did a shoot-out between the 6505, a Mesa two-channel Rectifier and a PRS Archon. For some reason, the 6505 ended up taking the cake.
“Most of the leads were recorded using that two-channel Mesa, one of the Rev Gs from the early '90s. I’m a big fan of those amps. We use Kempers live, but the profile we use is of that two-channel Mesa. So we’re still rocking them, sort of. It was a shift for us in a few different ways but I think we’re both pretty stoked with how the final product came out.
“The rhythms came out sounding huge on this album, which is what we wanted. It’s not a super-notey record – the vast majority isn’t, anyway. We wanted to concentrate on getting a thick, girthy guitar tone, and the 6505 really made that happen. It was one of the heads sitting around at the studio – I actually think it belonged to one of the guys from August Burns Red. I don’t know if he had it modded, but it sounded great.”
Wait has some really interesting use of modulation. What effects were you running?
“That ended up being quite an odd track. Originally, we weren’t even sure if it was going to end up on the record. It’s more of a lo-fi song, dialed back in so many ways. And right in the middle, there’s almost a Smashing Pumpkins part with fuzzed-out guitars and weird phasers. All the guitars are reliant on some kind of modulation on that song.
“I’m a big fan of the rotary effects. There’s this company called Neo Instruments who make a pedal called the Ventilator. I have that pedal. I think they were originally designed for Hammond B3 organ players in church gospel music. Even though they’re pretty expensive, those pedals have that killer Leslie sound, from all those classic records by artists like George Harrison…”
It’s amazing how much depth the right kind of modulation can add…
“For a lot of the clean stuff on that song, I had it running in stereo on a slow setting just to create movement. Because I’ve found that when music is more dialed back it can end up sounding bland if you don’t treat it with proper effects.
“Creating movement is important on tracks like this, whether it’s a rotary or a phaser. In the middle section, there are three different phasers at three different speeds! [Laughs] That’s why it sounds like it’s spinning around in your head. Delay and reverb are a big part of our sound, especially for the atmospheric stuff.”
So what exactly did you use for the ambiences?
“Believe it or not, for most of the delays and reverbs I used this plug-in called Supermassive from Valhalla DSP. It’s actually a free plug-in, so anyone can just get it from their website. I also used the Space Spiral, Afterneath and Transmisser by EarthQuaker Devices. I’ve got a lot of their pedals and they’re really sick for wild effects, so we ended up using those ones a good deal.”
The solo in Wait has gets surprisingly bluesy – there’s even an Eric Johnson-esque dominant run at one point…
“Yeah, it does have that bluesy kinda thing going on. A lot of people have been referring to that second solo as the Guns N’ Roses part, which I didn’t think of at the time but totally hear now. It does have that Slash thing going on.
“Growing up, he was one of the biggest guitarists for me. I was a huge Guns fan and every now and then I let the influence out – this song is a good example. I tried to spice it up with that Eric Johnson run and different flavors here and there for some outside-sounding stuff, just to make it more interesting.”
The solo for Clean feels composed, going from pedal tones to Zakk Wylde-style stretched pentatonics near the end. How do you go about constructing leads like that?
“My advice to anyone building a solo would be to really consider the material you are playing over. Because with a lot of my solos, what I’m playing over is just as important as what I’m playing. Maybe on past records of ours I’ve overplayed a bit. I might have learned a new technique or lick or whatever. This time I wanted to treat our solos as songs within the song.
“I’d add in an intro section, like I did on Clean, which starts kinda slower and low key, just to set the tone. And from there it’s build, build, build until the climax or peak or whatever, and then it picks up speed. The chorus comes on there before the big ending. I also try to save my coolest moves or whatever you call them for the high point of the solo…”
It can certainly sound more impactful that way, instead of giving people 20 licks of death in one go.
“Once you hit a certain speed threshold, you’ve kinda maxed it out at that point. It’s a casing of saving your points. Think about elevating the song and making it more musical instead of how many notes you can fit in.
“I try my best to not overplay, but still find sneaky ways of making it sound interesting. It could be an effect or how I bend or come into a note, starting and ending on different beats with phrases continuing over, which pulls the listener into thinking it’s a longer passage or more detailed phrase.”
More? has some tapped harmonics and outside-ish legato lines. What exactly were you playing there?
“I’m doing this harmonic tapping thing around Satan’s chord or the Black Sabbath chord. So I’m tapping tritones an octave up, getting those natural harmonics and then sliding up and down a minor third. That gives a cool effect because you’re getting the note underneath and the harmonic on top. It created this disorientating, menacing kind of sound, but it depends on how you use it.
“You could use the same technique with happy major chords and get a completely different feel. It’s a good way of dressing up parts that might feel a bit standard, I guess.
“And the part at the end is just a symmetrical shape, a bit of a Dimebag thing that’s real stretched out. I’m playing the 12th, 13th and 16th frets while skipping strings, so going from the low E to the D to the A to the G and so on. It’s the same frets the whole way through. I’m a big fan of those shapes – they’re easy to remember and sound kinda weird and outside.”
- Rivers of Nihil's new album The Work arrives September 24 via Metal Blade Records.