It’s a pattern we’ve seen before; regardless of musical genre, there will come a point in most ambitious artists’ lives where they will hit a plateau. As musicians become more confident and skilled within their style, there is often a yearning to see how far they can push their boundaries. This usually results in a string of progressively more complex and detailed albums. Ultimately, the artist will reach a point where they either cannot push the envelope any further, or long for the comforts of their earlier incarnations. Such was the story for BLACK SABBATH, METALLICA, BATHORY, VOIVOD, DREAM THEATER and most other bands that lived on past their glory days. So too, it seems, is the case for NILE and their seventh album, “At the Gate of Sethu”. Following the ambitious compositions, vicious hooks and untraditional instruments used in “Those Whom the Gods Detest”, NILE have returned to a more primordial state, focusing instead on a stripped-down approach reminiscent of their earlier material. To their credit, NILE’s unrelenting technical chops retain their claim as one of Death Metal’s best acts, but this regress has robbed their sound of many of the things that made them interesting to me in the first place.
Over the course of “Ithyphallic” and “Those Who the Gods Detest”, NILE had departed somewhat from the technical Death Metal style to focus more on sounds of oriental ambient music befitting their Egyptian mythological themes. Not only was this ‘Egyptian music’ being used in interludes; it was a vital part of the band’s musical expression- the epic climax to “Kafir!” comes to mind. Barring the non-metal instrumentation, these albums (with particular regards to the latter) took NILE past the confines of their technical Death Metal songwriting, fusing the music with excellent hooks and otherworldly atmosphere that made the albums work on a level beyond the style NILE were known for. “At the Gate of Sethu” takes the band’s sound to a time before the dynamic of these albums. The unrelenting aggression of their defacto magnum opus “Annihilation of the Wicked” appears to be the direction they were looking to take on this one. As a result, the songwriting has been generally condensed, the speed turned up and the unessential elements left for the jackals to feed upon. Although the potential to bring NILE back to their more aggressive form could have worked wonders, this latest album feels like a rehash of ideas, largely less inspired and memorable than the former style they are trying to rekindle. NILE’s cutthroat skill with their instruments hasn’t faltered any, but the songwriting lacks both of the momentum of their early work, and scope of their latter work.
Although it was likely a conscious decision in order to give the album a more stripped-down feeling, the production feels far less vital than it did on the last two albums. Although the now-scarce Egyptian instrumentation still enjoys the rich atmosphere I’ve come to associate with NILE’s interludes, the prevailing metal element feels like a studio throwback to somewhere between “In Their Darkened Shrines” and “Annihilation of the Wicked”. The rhythm guitars bear the brunt of the weakened production, sounding pretty dull compared to albums of the more recent past. Although George Kollias’ technical barbarism on the drumkit is the most impressive aspect of NILE’s performance this time around, the drum production sounds completely sterile, succumbing to the all-too common ‘trigger’ syndrome. Fortunately, the lead guitarwork sounds as great as it ever has, although this sense of inconsistent production is a bit of a problem in its own right. It’s a shame really, because some of the riffs on the album are fantastic. “The Eternal Molestation of Flame” in particular is a powerhouse of exciting Death Metal riffs. “The Inevitable Degradation of Flesh” is another great one, finding a firm balance between groove and dissonance. Although the technicality is constant throughout most of the album, most of the album passes by as something of a blur, one frantic riff after another. The highly informed and well-researched lyrics that have in part defined the band’s career are still here, but in a style of music where people complain ‘you can’t even understand what they’re saying’, it’s not enough to keep the perception of quality from taking a firm dip southward.
NILE’s latest album is the musical equivalent of a celebrity acting in a biographical film about themselves; even though this is their signature style, it comes off feeling contrived anyways. NILE’s willingness to go beyond the boundaries of what is normally considered ‘Death Metal’ is one of the big things that got me into them in the first place. “At the Gate of Sethu” has nothing necessarily wrong about it, but goddamn, was I ever expecting more from them.
(Online April 13, 2013)