Album Review: Nile - "At the Gate of Sethu"
I have never been a fan of Nile. I should probably start by saying that.
It seems like I should be. High speed death metal? Check. Ancient Egyptian mythology? Yep. References to H.P Lovecraft? It's got those, too! If Nile could see fit to squeeze in a couple tunes about chocolate cake and the Oakland Raiders, they'd have a bunch of the basic tenets of my personality covered. Yet, it doesn't work for me.
Some of this comes because I find technical death metal to be an extremely esoteric genre that is among the purest definitions of 'acquired taste.' Some of it is because I saw Nile open for King Diamond circa 2005 and walked away disappointed. At least on that night, the band seemed nearly apologetic for their performance, practically thanking the audience for just sitting through it; as one might imagine, this does not instill confidence in the performer. The band's somewhat revolving cast over the past few years and albums hasn't helped matters, as it gave me no real reason to embrace the band again.
Yet, I remain curious about the idea of Nile, to the point that I find myself always giving them another chance to turn the corner in my eyes. So it is that I resigned myself to taking a spin with “At the Gate of Sethu.” Surely, this time the band’s mix of blistering six-string artistry and pounding, seamless percussion would find the pot of gold.
For fleeting moments, it does. While the fanboys have always stood and rang the bell for Nile’s unimpeachable talent, this album finally sees them craft together some tunes that appeal to the more casual metal fan.
What impresses the most about Nile is no doubt the continued use of their signature throaty, robust guitar tone. While I am certain that the band would never use this word to describe it, there is a certain warmth mixed in with the crunch that makes the notes blend together; in effect creating a full unity of sound that serves the dual purpose of being larger than life and strikingly recognizable. The back half of “The Inevitable Degradation of Flesh” speaks to exactly what I’m talking about, where the guitars soar over the persistent percussion to get a nice two-level effect (only slightly higher and with a little path running down the middle…)
There are even moments (gasp!) where Nile creates some solid, detectable rhythm and allows someone who is time signature illiterate to have access to the music. Single “The Fiends Who Come to Steal the Magick of the Deceased” has this in spades, easing the listener into progressively more complicated smashing and banging until the song eventually pulls back into an outro that’s almost (almost) a very distant cousin of the best moments of Life of Agony’s “River Runs Red.”
Other than those moments however, Nile is very much the same band they’ve always been. The fundamental issue I’ve always had with technical death metal, and by proxy Nile, is that it simply isn’t very fun. That probably sounds like a terribly shallow and small-minded argument, but it’s the most critical piece of all. Few people outside of hipsters who aren’t as smart as they think they are and true music academics (not to be confused with the much maligned and entirely anonymous “intelligentsia,” who are an easy target along with the mysterious “They” and “Them,”) listen to the music to challenge themselves and their understanding of the medium or out of misguided ‘irony.’ Therefore, it’s tough for Nile and “At the Gate of Sethu” to really hit home with an audience. You would never hear this as a party and Nile’s fans wouldn’t want you to, as this album plays perfectly into the pervasive metal psychology of “we’re listening to this because it’s heavy and no one else understands it.” Parenthetically, this is the gateway mentality to the genre-damaging game of “undergrounder-than-thou.”
Aside from having song titles so long-winded that Rush would be jealous and The Sword would wish they’d thought of it, Nile’s album is only readily enjoyable for two minute stretches as a time. Take for instance “The Gods Who Light Up the Sky at the Gate of Sethu,” which has an awesome, near-thrash finish and some nice intermediate cadences, but breaks them up between discordant pieces and follows up that song with the nonsensical “Natural Liberation of Fear Through the Ritual Deception of Death,” which focuses solely on beats-per-minute. It’s certainly an efficient use of time, vacuum sealing as many drum notes as possible in a three-minute span.
In the end, it needs be said, Nile’s repetition and ceaseless wall of noise can be at best uninspiring and at worst boring. There’s no emotional connection here at all.
Most everything on “At the Gate of Sethu” sounds pretty similar to everything else on “At the Gate of Sethu,” particularly when run through the litmus test of skipping to random parts of each song and seeing where it lies. For all the technical death metal prowess, there’s not a lot of versatility, and while I understand the album’s complexities, I’m not sure I understand what the attraction is. Nevertheless, if you’re one of the technical death metal crowd, “At the Gate of Sethu” is an album performed by very talented and capable musicians that will sate your appetite for more of the same. If not, it’s going to sound like non-stop noise, and won’t change your mind.