Friday, July 27, 2012

Album Review: Nile - At the Gate of Sethu

Nile - At the Gate of Sethu
(2012 Nuclear Blast)

There are few events in the death metal community that generate as much buzz, scrutiny and discussion as new releases from veteran bands.  In an era when terms like "technical" and "progressive" mean such different things to different people, such descriptions lose a bit of significance when trying to put into words what an album really sounds like.  Nile is indeed a technical band, and a career-spanning love affair with exotic instruments, haunting chants and schizophrenic arrangements is as musically progressive as you'll find.  As such, it's unfair to review such a release without giving it several start-to-finish listens, which is both a challenge and a pleasure if you're a Nile fan.  That said, At the Gate of Sethu may leave more than a few listeners wondering what has become of their favorite purveyors of Egyptian-themed metal.

From the opening notes of "Enduring the Eternal Molestation of Flame" comes the uneasy feeling that something is different.  Several somethings, actually.  The guitar tone is less layered, a bit less crushing to put it in proper Nile-worthy terms.  The drums sound more natural, more like being in a room with George Kollias than listening to the triggered assault you would expect through a polished studio effort or heavy-handed concert mix.  And as is abundantly clear on "The Fiends Who Come To Steal The Magick Of The Deceased" that immediately follows, Nile is plotting a new course in terms of extreme metal vocals.  If the preceding Those Whom the Gods Detest hinted at vocal diversity, then Sethu reveals Nile's true intentions.  In addition to co-guitarists Dallas Toler-Wade and Karl Sanders sharing vocal duties as in the past, former member Jon Vesano contributes at numerous points throughout the album.  The use of gutteral growls is somewhat diminished (although still very much present) and more of a spoken/yelled "ranting" style pops up here and there.  While in truth this isn't by any means overdone or out of balance with the more traditional vocals, some listeners will inevitably raise their eyebrows and wonder if this element is to their liking.  It took a few spins for me to become comfortable with it, as well as the changes in guitar and drum production.

What musicians will appreciate in all this is more clarity and transparency, making it easier to pick out who is doing what.  The bass guitar (alternately played by Karl and Dallas from song to song) is better-represented than on any Nile release I can think of, and the guitars and drums don't get muddy.  The downside of this is that, compared to not only previous Nile albums but also other modern death metal releases, there is a certain first impression of a "thin" production.  However, as I mentioned earlier, one listen is not enough to appreciate what is offered here.  There is certainly no lack of epic moments, and while the song structures are what one would expect from Nile after so many years of increasing expertise, perhaps the most important quality here is an oft-understated ability to weave catchy, memorable progressions into the musical chaos.  Of particular note is "Supreme Humanism Of Megalomania" for its surprisingly straightforward battering ram of riffage, which becomes immediately familiar as soon as you hear it a second time.  Some bands try so hard to shatter songwriting convention that their arrangements become a chore to listen to, but Nile can deliver lasting impact whether through a sandstorm of blast beats and churning guitar solos or in a relentless war-march.

Once the changes in production and delivery sink in, there are still a few eyebrow-raising moments, especially if you purchase the version of Sethu containing two bonus instrumental tracks at the end.  As opposed to some of the "interlude" pieces scattered here and there (as is typical of a Nile album) it seems to me that the bonus songs needed only vocals to place them among the pantheon of Nile's finest material.  Furthermore, ending the album with two instrumentals seems an odd choice, although certainly not unique to Nile since this is a common practice.  I'm not complaining, but it just strikes me as strange.

If you are a longtime Nile fan and recognize their evolution from one album to the next, At the Gate of Sethu could very well become your favorite amongst the catacombs catalog.  If, on the other hand, you are 100% insistent that "your" bands don't change formula, you may find yourself at a bit of a loss.  This is still Nile, and perhaps the best Nile has sounded in years if not ever, but it might not be until their next album is unleashed that it will be decided if this is a defining moment or just flirtation with stylistic changes that eventually fall by the wayside.  To my ears, this sounds like a transitional release of sorts, and while it surely stands on its own as a brilliant example of Nile's genius, I still find myself ranking it behind their past few albums at 3.5 out of 5. 

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