With their 2018 album Where Owls Know My Name, Rivers Of Nihil both refined and advanced their sound.
Gone were many of the tech death shredfest moments, the band instead focusing on creating a varied and atmospheric record, moving from thick walls of guitars and drums to lush soundscapes, and even – yes – saxaphone solos.
Of course with any metal record, the guitars are going to be a standout, but with Owls guitarists Brody Uttley and Jon Topore really showcased a wide pallet of tones, with some songs moving from high gain djenty riffs to lush clean tones to mid gain blues licks and back again.
Better still, the band spent much of 2019 touring the record by playing it in it’s entirety, and one of the things that made that possible was that the band had all of the album tones loaded onto the Kempers they’d been using on tour for many years.
Fast forward to 2021 and Brody has released these tones as his “Where Owls Know My Name” pack (available for purchase at this link). We caught up with him to talk about the pack, as well as squeeze him for info on what comes next from Rivers Of Nihil.
So the tone pack is pretty killer, and makes up a whopping 38 different profiles, can you give us a quick overview of what kind of tones are in there, especially for those who maybe aren’t familiar with the record, of maybe fans who don’t know your stuff on the record from Jon’s?
Hey dude certainly. So most of this pack is based on a Mesa Boogie Revision G 2 channel triple rectifier with EL34s in it, which is a little weird, but I LOVE that sound. The large majority of the low gain, lead, and rhythm profiles are based on that amp. In the case of the lead and rhythm profiles we boosted the signal with a Fortin 33 clean boost.
My goal with this pack wasn’t to necessarily offer 40 different amps but rather to have a cohesive sounding set of profiles that would be perfect for recreating the album live. There is also a Bogner Uberschall in there, a late 60s Fender Band Master, and a 50 watt JCM800. This pack is super effects heavy and offers a lot of options when it comes to dynamics. I basically have clean, low, mid, lead, and high gain all covered.
Would you say the tones are geared more towards recreating the album versions, or were they dialled in more to work in a live setting?
These profiles were all taken directly from the album but I dialed them in a little bit better for live use in both a DI scenario as well as cab use. Our live setup is exactly that: direct to FOH with cabs for stage volume. So really, these profiles are the profiles from the album, but dialed in a little better for live use (a little less gain and a little more midrange, plus time based effects and modulation).
However, if you wanted to get the album tones exactly all you would have to do is zero out the eq sections. That’s the only real change. I really just wanted to make the tones on the album FUN to use since you know, the way an album tone feels/sounds soloed out isn’t necessarily what you’d want to use in a live setting.
While obviously these profiles weren’t used on the record, are there any major differences in amp choices or pedals between the profiles and what was used on the record?
Actually these were used on the album and the only real difference is the addition of the effects since we used a lot of pedals and vst plugins for the effects on the album. I basically just listened to soloed out versions of the tracks on the album and added the effects as needed, but these ARE indeed the profiles that were on the album, just dialed a little bit better for live use.
We used a ton of Earthquaker Devices pedals on the record, so obviously we had to recreate those sounds for live use in a convincing way since a lot of their effects are super unique. I’m also a big fan of the Leslie sound. We used a Neo Instruments Ventilator 2 for those parts on the album, but the Kemper rotary is a pretty close compromise. You can even control the speed if you have an expression pedal.
How did you come across the kemper initially, and were you using it on tour prior to needing the wider sonic pallette for the Owls Know My Name tour?
I was very much the loudest guy in the room when it came to the real amps vs. Kemper discussion (siding with the real amps party). I always lugged around a 4x12 with a 2x12 on top, a 5150 III, and a giant rack with a TC Electronics G Major and a drawer full of pedals. THEN in early 2014 we toured with Whitechapel and those dudes pretty much opened my brain up. Their sound guy Alex Markides showed me one day how good the direct in/cab setup worked for them and I was totally blown away. After that tour (or within the next 6 months) I had ditched my entire rig in exchange for a Kemper. Ben from Whitechapel was nice enough to introduce me to some of the people at the company and I’ve not looked back since.
When we first got the Kempers we were doing ONLY direct with no cabs. For a smaller band with no sound engineer at that time (2014) we probably sounded very bad. I found that having no cabs really only works when you’re in larger venues. The first tour we did with the Kempers was actually with Death and Obituary (haha not really the kind of tour you’d expect to see a “no cabs” band). This tour went great and everything sounded awesome. However, once we returned to smaller venues we realized that the people in the front row were missing out and we brought the cabs back in.
Over the years with the software updates I think that Kemper has gotten so impossibly close to the “real thing”, and you can’t beat the convenience for touring. You just can’t. I’ll argue with amp guys all day long about that. If you’re touring on a small budget its kind of a no brainer at this point. Save your money! Seriously. Especially if you’re playing in other countries. When we fly all I bring with me is my laptop, my two guitars, and my Kemper in a 3 space rack case as well as a Seymour Duncan power amp (very small). It saves us thousands of dollars in overweight baggage fees and we only have to rent cabs (instead of a head, cab, footswitch, road cases, etc.) Not to mention that I’ve been using this thing for 7 years and I’ve not had one failure with it that wasn’t my own fault. Seems like every 15 shows I’d have some weird issue with my old setup. You just can’t beat it for touring.
Plus, since I have all of our patch changes programmed into a session in Logic Pro X I don’t even need to bring a pedal board. It just have to play and the Kemper does the rest. On albums I will always use real amps if they’re available over the Kemper just because I like tubes and knobs, but honestly at this point you’re really splitting hairs. Like, if its good enough for Andy Sneap its good enough for me. You know?
Oh also, we use a Mesa Boogie Fifty/Fifty tube power amp for non-fly gigs. Ironically that tube power amp is the only thing in my entire rig that ever has issues haha. It pops fuses about once a tour.
Some people take a little time to fall in love with the Kemper. Was there an “aha!” moment for you, or were you able to get what you needed from it off the bat?
There was definitely a learning curve. I think in 2014 when I first got the Kemper it wasn’t quite there yet. However, through the years through various software patches I think the Kemper is dead on these days (with good profiles.) I remember when I first got it having a lot of issues controlling the high end sizzle that you get from running direct. It was a very different world from just plugging in a playing through a head.
But after a few tours I would say I really got comfortable with it and learned all of the tricks for making even bad profiles work in a mix. I would say that once I got our whole live set on a session with automated patch changes I was totally sold and never going back. Having the automated patch changes literally makes me play better because I don’t have to anticipate clicking a button to change sounds when its guitar solo time. I just play guitar.
Aside from your own packs, are there any profiles you particularly like or use? Any specific profile makers you like?
Man, to be honest I am so insanely picky with profiles. Most of the time when someone sends one to me I can’t stand it. I have a really specific set of things that need to work for me in order to consider a profile a good one. A lot of it has to do with the feel and less with the sound (although a lot of profiles that I get sent have super awful high end and really sloppy loose low end). A lot of guys by default just throw an SM57 on there and call it a day but I don’t think I’ve ever come across a 57 profile that I’ve enjoyed. My buddy Wes Hauch and I trade a lot of profiles back and forth and his shit is pretty much always right on the money with me. I’ve kind of noticed that unless the profile was made using my setup it doesn’t really work for me. Wes’ stuff not included. He’s got the ear.
I’m honestly not super familiar with the “aftermarket” industry for Kemper profiles. As soon as I figured out how to make my own profiles I didn’t really have any interest in other stuff. I always enjoy using my own stuff. Makes it easier to improve for the future. That being said, I have gotten a few of the STL packs for ambient/spacey/clean stuff and those packs are pretty tight.
This is your second profile pack for the kemper, did your profiling process change much from that pack to this one?
Definitely. This was done at a totally different studio. My first tone pack was done with Tonecrate. I flew down to Texas for a few days to build a pack with the owner of that company, Clifton Miles. He and I basically wanted to put together a pack that really offered a lot of different tonal options for high gain sounds that I would use. Really sick and diverse set of profiles. I think we ended up using 7-8 different heads. The owls pack was designed to be more of a specific use sort of thing. Like, if you like how Where Owls Know My Name sounds, then you’ll like that pack.
The Kemper rig exchange has loads of great profiles but a ton of not so great ones. What do you think is the secret to getting a really good profile?
My secret so far has been the use of small diaphragm condenser microphones for all of my high gain sounds. There is just something that a Neumann KM184 does to a profile that no other mic does. It preserves the tightness and “realness” of the low end while not adding an obscene amount of high end like an SM57 would. Also, I’m a big fan of the dyna-mount stuff. Proper mic positioning is really the key with all of this.
However, as I said before: I think a lot of guys just chuck the ol’ 57 on there right on the edge of the dust cap. This is all personal taste of course, but I’ve never heard a profile taken with a 57 that I’ve liked. I like 57s blended in if you’re doing multiple sources with REAL amps, but as far as profiling? The 57 just has never done it for me. The low end gets way sloppy and the high end is like a jar full of bees no matter how far out from the dust cap I get. Small diaphragm condensers solve this issue for me in a major way and I highly recommend everyone trying that move out for high gain stuff. The thing that nobody considers is that profiling and getting tones from a head are two TOTALLY different processes (to me at least), and you have to be willing to try different stuff to get the best results.
Looking back at Owls now as a record, and with the benefit of having spent most of 2019 playing it live, is there anything on there that you would go back and change?
No way, never. Everything that we wanted to say at the time we said on that album (as with every album.) That was a snapshot into our world at the time and for me to explain it or offer up suggested changes would be doing a disservice to the art. I think it’s the best we could do when we did it.
One thing I noticed on some of your playing on that record (eg A Home) you use your guitar plus a ton of reverb to get quite synth like sounds. Is that just how it comes out, or something that you (as an occasional keyboard player) were trying to achieve or recreate on the guitar?
I’m a huge fan of the post rock and post metal genres. Having super ambient guitars is something that I’ve always wanted as part of our sound. Even on our debut 2010 EP you can hear some of it. Basically that sound is delay, slow chorus, and reverb all at once fed through the “front of the amp” section first, then into another reverb and delay in the “effects loop” to smear it all together. That method is something that I learned from reading Steven Wilson interviews. He’s a big fan of running delays in front of an amp, then feeding them into a loop to make them smear together in a cool way. I just really like that sound. It puts you in a place where you feel like the guitar is washing over you and I think that’s the best feeling ever. “Owls Space” is the profile included in this pack that does exactly that.
Owls as a record was something of a step away from the more tech death stuff you guys did on Conscious Seed Of Light and Monarchy. Apart from the writing, how did your approach to your own tone change going into that record?
I think before we did Where Owls Know My Name I was very much a gain hog. I liked insanely saturated high gain amps. At some point in 2017 my buddy Mike Truehart let me borrow two of his Mesa Boogie 2 channel rectos and it pretty much changed the game for me. After I started using those heads I really got into the super dark Mesa sound. Less gain and more dynamics were the most noticeable differences on Owls from the previous two records. I just really love what those old Mesas do when you have em on the orange channel with a sick boost (specifically the Fortin 33). You get the perceived saturation but with way more articulate and distinguishable sounding results.
What are the band’s plans for when things reopen, is there new music in the works?
Things are moving but I definitely don’t want to discuss it at this point. We aren’t a very public band these days when it comes to new music so I’ll just say that…
Have you been able to check out much new gear this year? Any stuff you were surprised by, either that you were surprised you liked it or didn’t like it?
This is going to sound really silly, but I got the free “Supermassive” plugin from Valhalla DSP and its kind of my favorite thing ever. Like, I have dozens of time based effects from other companies that I’ve paid top dollar for, and I always just reach for the Valhalla stuff these days. Great company.
If someone wanted to learn a song from Owls, where would you suggest they start? Any passages or licks/riffs you particularly enjoy playing?
We actually have some official tab books available through Sheet Happens Publishing. Id recommend picking one of those up if you’re interested in learning Rivers of Nihil songs. “The Silent Life” is a good starting point. Cool mid tempo song with riffs that aren’t so bad to play. Fun, even.
Photo Credits: Caleb Arnaud / Thomas Savage / Niklas Karlsson