The summer of Rivers Of Nihil's 'Monarchy'

Progressive death-metal unit unleashes sprawling concept album
By Peter Lindblad

Rivers Of Nihil released the album
'Monarchy' in August
Never mind what the calendar says. To Rivers Of Nihil, it is a scorching-hot summer in the desolate desert of Monarchy, where the earth is a giant wasteland and its new inhabitants, ruled by oppressive religious zealots, think of the Sun as their God.

The planet is in peril on the latest post-apocalyptic concept album from ascending progressive death-metal provocateurs, and only a wise old earthly force can save them from themselves. In Rivers Of Nihil's seasonal cycle, which began with spring and 2013's The Conscious Seed of Light, the dog days of existence are here, as bassist Adam Biggs, guitarist Brody Uttley and vocalist Jon Dieffenbach are joined by new members Jon Topore (guitar) and Alan Balamut (drums) on a dystopian journey through flowing scenes of brutal sonic devastation and beautifully developed, expansive post-rock atmospherics inspired by Explosions In The Sky or Sigur Ros.

Signing with Metal Blade Records and sharing stages with the likes of Obituary, Whitechapel and Dying Fetus has only served to enhance the profile of Rivers of Nihil, who formed in 2009 and have been focused on building off the promise of their first EP Hierarchy since its release.

On Monarchy, Rivers Of Nihil break new ground, releasing giant storms of emotional tumult through ever-evolving dynamics, alternating scenes of darkness and light, and monstrously heavy, seething riffs that stand there huffing and puffing while gazing upward at heavenly skies of gorgeous sound astronomy.

Biggs recently took time out to answer some e-mail questions about the making of Monarchy and what influenced this mammoth project, which ought to garner some "Album of the Year" consideration. 

Explain how the lyrical concept for Monarchy was conceived and what role the seasons have played on your records.
Adam Biggs: The specific concept for Monarchy pretty much came as a result of simply thinking about topics that bother me about our modern society and sort of extrapolating it to its source if you will. I was thinking a lot about the issue of LGBT rights in general and the grip that the "fundamentals" of our society has over a person's individual rights. What really governs someone's right to love? Or to be who and what you are without fear of judgement? It comes down to this convoluted idea of right and wrong brought about by centuries of religious brain-washing. So Monarchy deals with a race of new intelligent life forms on a distant future earth after it has been transformed into a desert wasteland by a massive solar flare, and their struggles with these similar issues. The desert setting, and the "oppressive heat" of this religious empire's stranglehold on the masses really sets the tone as the summer album in the seasonal concept. The whole idea behind the seasonal bridges between the four albums is to illustrate in the most relatable terms, the inevitability of death, and idea of rebirth within an ever-changing landscape. It's a huge thing to connect four records, but hopefully by the end it will all come together, and the larger picture will be more apparent.

Rivers Of Nihil - Monarchy 2015
Did this turn out to be a more emotional record for Rivers Of Nihil, and if so, why? Did the sequencing of the album play a role in bringing out those elements?
AB: I think it definitely is a more emotional record. You can tell just by listening to it. There's a whole lot of different feelings mixed in with the more stoic brutality that we tend to bring to the table. I think the main reason we decided to inject more feeling into this record is because the last one just felt so straightforward brutal, which is great, but it's not all we have going for us really, so we decided we should dig a little deeper this time around and show the more emotional side of our musical range. The order of the tracks takes on a sort of progression towards this idea, with the album starting off a lot darker and heavier before giving way to the more progressive leanings on the album. It's intended to give this feeling of relief, a sort of break from the anger of the first half or so. 

What was different about making this record, as opposed to previous efforts? Did you feel you had more freedom this time around to do what you wanted to do?
AB: Absolutely. We decided to take a fairly large chunk of the production duties on ourselves this time, utilizing our guitarist Brody's burgeoning engineering skills to track all of the guitar and bass performances in his home studio before importing to nearby Atrium Audio in Lancaster, Pa., where the rest of the album was tracked, edited and mixed. This method allowed us the freedom and time to make the guitar parts as layered and intricate as we wanted without the threat of going over budget or skipping over something for time's sake. This sort of control we had this time I feel really opened up the floodgates as far as what we felt we were capable of pulling off as a band; whereas before there was always a question of whether or not it'll work, now we can listen to it right away and get a feel for what we're doing ahead of time.

Talk about the influence of post-rock music on this album. Was it simply a matter of wanting to make an album that was more atmospheric, or did those elements work especially well with the tale you wanted to tell?
AB: Again it was another means of bringing our more emotion within the music. It's an element we'd experimented with in the past, but never brought to the forefront like on Monarchy. Yes there was also a desire to make the record more atmospheric, but at the same time it's more about just making everything denser; it's almost like having an orchestra backing in the band in a way that is really cool. The amount of moods that it can create is pretty impressive. 

In what ways is this record more experimental than the others? What sorts of things did you try with Monarchy that you hadn't attempted before? Were there some that didn't make the record because they simply didn't fit or seemed to be too "out there"?
AB: Pretty much everything that was written made it onto the record in some form or another which is kind of odd, I know. We've been a band for a lot longer than some people realize, and Brody and I have a pretty good understanding of what works for Rivers of Nihil material and what doesn't. So while we were writing the record we really stretched those ideas; rarely did we truly break away from the sorts of things we know we like to hear. It was all really a matter of sort of amending the definition of what this band is a little bit without betraying the whole meaning. 

Rivers Of Nihil are Jon Torpore,
Alan Balamut, Brody Uttley,
Adam Biggs and Jake Dieffenbach
How did the talents of the two new members, guitarist Jon Topore and drummer Alan Balamut, impact the recording of Monarchy? What kind of musicians are they?
AB: Jon's impact on the record is somewhat minimal because he joined the band pretty late in the writing process. However, he did co write the song "Reign of Dreams" with Brody, which turned out to be one of my favorites on the album. Jon is really solid as a player; he's a goofy dude, but when it comes down to putting on a tight show he's all business, and his talent for guitar mimicry is pretty impressive and makes for a really solid addition to the guitar duo of this band. Alan on the other hand contributed quite a bit. All of the drum parts are totally translated through his super busy, entertaining style of drumming. Alan really wanted to shred on this record, and that he did. At one point during tracking he even joked that he was doing too much and should probably make his drum parts easier next time, but I doubt he will. It's just not in him to take a break behind the kit.

Was there a moment during the making of Monarchy when it seemed like everything was coming together just the way you wanted it to? Conversely, what frustrations did you encounter along the way?
AB: It's actually pretty crazy because I don't think there was any point during production that I thought the record wasn't coming along the way we wanted. It really was a super smooth process, each next thing we did just kept adding to the overall feel and we just kept getting closer and closer with very few stumbling blocks. But if I had to choose one moment where I was like, "Yeah, this is what this is supposed to be," I'd have to say it was during mixing. Having all the finished parts where we wanted them and just adjusting the fine details of the whole thing really made it feel like reality at that point. It's like putting the last coat of paint on a model car or something.

There has been talk about how lush and layered the record is. Talk about the process that went into producing those sounds.
AB: It was honestly just a ton of Brody's guitar wizardry layered with a generous heap of delay and reverb among other effects. Like I said earlier, this was one of the big reasons that recording the guitars in our own home studio was the right option. There's just so much there and so many different tracks and tones that it would've been a nightmare trying to track them all in a pro studio when the clock is ticking and the money is flying out the window. He took a lot of pride in composing and arranging those tracks, so it's something I encourage anyone who listens to the record to take an extra careful listen to all the ambient textures. A lot of it is really cool.

Let me get your take on a few of the songs off Monarchy, beginning with "Ancestral, I" ...
AB: This one was actually pretty divisive. When Brody first sent the demo for this song I wasn't entirely sold on it, and I'm not sure if he was either. We went back and forth on it a lot; at one point we even considered leaving it off the album altogether. This one easily went through the most changes, going from the demo stage to what you hear on the record. Everything from the overall tempo to the solo structure to bass lines and drum beats were tweaked, scratched and re-written. It turned out to be well worth the effort in the end, because everyone in the band really enjoys that song and we plan on including it in the live set in the future. The lyrics ended up dealing with the death and burial of an over-zealous religious figure within the monarchy who is reflecting on the impact his life and influence had and will continue to have on generations to come. 

"Reign of Dreams" 
AB: Again, this is the one that Jon and Brody wrote together. It's a brutal, chaotic experience right from the get-go and it kind of gradually gathers itself into a more easy-to-digest sound, culminating in one of the biggest sounding choruses on the record. It was also one of the most difficult songs on the record to learn and perform. It could just be that the pace of the song is pretty nonstop, or that I'm just not used to adapting Jon's riffing style to the bass guitar just yet, but I had a hell of a time with this one – still lots of fun to learn and play though. The lyrics are about the sort of freedom that this new society enjoyed prior to the advent of the sun-worshipping religion and the Monarchy itself. It was free-flowing and dangerous, but they were very much in control of their own minds. The lyrics themselves have a good deal of "stream of consciousness"-type phrasings to reflect a truly free society.

"Terrestrai II Thrive" 
AB: Believe it or not this was actually the first full song written for the record and it's a heavy contender with "Ancestral, I" for the title of "most messed with song on Monarchy," in that it was pretty much a different song until Brody decided to turn the song into an instrumental, and was titled "Terrestria II." This is definitely the biggest leap sonically that this band has ever taken; it's head and shoulders above anything else we've done as far as a more progressive sound is concerned. I'm personally really excited to bring this one to the stage sometime, but it's hard to say when we could possibly make that happen.

"Perpetual Growth Machine" ...
AB: This is another one that got worked over pretty good (you're reminding me just how much rewriting we actually DID do). It started as a few throwaway riffs that Brody cobbled together to test tones on an amp configuration in his studio. When I heard it I said to him, "That's how the next record starts." And that's really how it happened. He sat on amp test version of this song for a while until fleshing it out more, and then there were some further edits we did. As it turns out this has quickly become a pretty popular song for us, which is strange because I never really saw "single potential" in it because the song doesn't really have a chorus, but hey it works! The lyrics, naturally, are about the birth of the new species of life on earth as the crawl from cracks of the world's dry ocean beds. It's meant to portray the persistence of life, and the inevitability that life can continue through just about anything.

Vocally, what's different about "Monarchy"?
AB: The easiest thing to notice about the vocals in this track is how few of them there are compared to a lot of our other songs. At the beginning of the writing process for this record, Jake and I agreed that we'd made the vocal lines way too busy in our previous releases and we wanted to draw it back on this record and focus on hooks, and more slogan-esque type passages that get stuck in the listener's head, while also giving the music and the riffs more space to breathe. And Monarchy is a pitch-perfect example of us doing just that. 

Now that the process of making the record is over, what stands out the most about it to you? And in what ways does it reflect where Rivers of Nihil is right now and where it's going?
AB: I think the thing that stands out the most for me is that I can still listen to it and not get grossed out in a way hearing my own band like I usually do. It still feels like it's fun to listen to, which I hope is something that translates to fans as well. As far as how it reflects us? It really doesn't because this IS us right now. When you see us live you're going to see mostly new material because of how proud we are of it. Hopefully when it's time to wind down on touring for Monarchy and start writing the next album we can continue the trend set by this record and just not put limitations on ourselves, and just do what we think sounds cool, because that's ultimately how good music is made.

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