Nile: 'At the Gate of Sethu' – CD Review


You have to figure that any band which describes their style of extreme metal as “Ithyphallic” (a word which apparently refers to a certain part of the male anatomy) is probably going to be a challenging listen... and in the case of South Carolina-founded trio Nile, you'd be correct. Their signature mode of massively complex technical death metal is based almost entirely on the mythology of ancient Egypt, with a heavy emphasis on death, the underworld, and the occult. They illustrate these concepts with incredibly lengthy song titles (by my count, the wordiest so far is "Chapter of Obeisance Before Giving Breath to the Inert One in the Presence of the Crescent Shaped Horns"); extensive liner notes explaining the history and lore behind their lyrics; doomy atmospheric soundscapes; and of course the beefiest, most punishing drop-tuned riffs, technical wizardry and searing vocals ever unleashed upon the human ear. Their seventh studio album At the Gate of Sethu continues many of these grand traditions, and I've got the full breakdown for you below, along with one of the most interesting tracks from the record. Read on and listen in!


Founded in 1993 by frontman/songwriter Karl Sanders, Nile has undergone numerous lineup changes since then, but the duo of Sanders and Dallas Toler-Wade on guitars (both of them trading off bass duties in the studio), along with George Kollias at the drumkit, has essentially been the heart of the band since their supreme 2005 release Annihilation of the Wicked (the first Nile album I heard, and still my favorite), and this team went on to record three more albums, including this latest project. This consistency in personnel has been matched with strong songwriting and fairly solid production, though reviews have been mixed from one record to the next; I've been waiting for the band to match the intensity and majesty of Annihilation, so I was eager to check out their latest offering and see how it measures up.
The first element that seems to set At the Gate of Sethu apart from its recent predecessors is a slightly thinner-sounding mixing style (overseen by UK producer Neil Kernon), with more emphasis on the higher frequencies. As a result, the puzzle-like intricacy of Sanders' blazing lead guitar work is much easier to pick out from the mix, but in exchange, the mountainous weight of the band's riffs is lessened without the iron anchor of the bass. Many earlier Nile releases sounded too dense to pick out every nuance of Sanders & Toler-Wade's inhumanly complex fretwork (many death metal purists consider this lo-fi approach as the only proper recording method for the genre), but they were also massive enough to shake the molars right out of your jawbone, which to me is just as crucial. As a musician and producer myself, I know how delicate the balance of low and high frequencies can be: too much high-end, you sacrifice heaviness; too much low, you get a muddy mess. With that said, Sethu still showcases Sanders and company at the top of their technical game, and you can hear every nuance of their playing – so it's still a rewarding listening experience overall.
While the song structures are as challenging as you'd expect this time around (though not as wildly experimental as the previous album Those Whom The Gods Detest), there are actually some catchy melodic passages on this record, which took me by surprise. Normally Nile tends to blow your mind apart with sheer brutality and sleight-of-hand rather than planting a melody and letting it grow, but there are some truly memorable hooks to be found within the mayhem and apocalyptic soundscapes, and I like where they're running with that.
All the band's favorite textural elements – orchestral percussion, traditional Middle Eastern instruments and eerie chanting voices – all come into play in the album's opening minutes, setting off the track “Enduring the Eternal Molestation of Flame,” which quickly explodes into dueling fretwork from the two guitarists, who also alternate and mix their vocal styles; Sanders is more guttural in the mode of classic death, while Toler-Wade leans more toward the demonic rasp of black metal. Progressive metal elements work their way into tracks like “The Fiends Who Come to Steal the Magick of the Deceased” (which also features melodic chanting from guest vocalist Chris Lollis), but it's the crunchier riffage and blistering percussion of cuts like “The Inevitable Degradation of Flesh” and “Natural Liberation of Fear Through the Ritual Deception of Death” that leaves a more lasting mark.
Among all the mega-dropped tuning and furious neck-tapping come some darkly magical textures, especially in the album's middle third: the instrumental interlude “Slaves of Xul” is all urgent chanting amid the beating of tribal drums, which leads into the opening orchestral atmospherics of the title track (one of the few instances where the bass truly comes to life); “Ethno-Musicological Cannibalisms” captures a similar mood, with the excellent touch of Arabic string instruments and unearthly throat-singing. A dissonant blast of orchestral brass bookends “Tribunal of the Dead,” an ominous, violent piece that ricochets between sludgy dirge and neck-snapping turbo-death. Hearty guitar harmonies float on waves of blastbeats in “Supreme Humanism of Megalomania” and the album closes out with the dusty, snake-charming notes of “The Chaining of the Iniquitous,” featuring masterful beats and bell-like touches from Kollias, and Sanders at the absolute blackest end of his vocal range.
While it pushes fewer musical boundaries than previous Nile releases and lacks some beefy bottom-end, At the Gate of Sethu is still a worthy release from a band known for godlike speed and cosmic brutality. Even to a more recent disciple of the band like myself, the evolution of their sound seems to be continuing in the right direction, and their technical mastery still ranks them among the titans of the death metal realm.
Want a suitably sick sample? Check out “The Fiends” below!