It’s a bit hard to fathom that Nile guitarist and mastermind Karl Sanders is still creating some of the unholy sounds in extreme metal at the age of 52. Other musicians at that age are releasing Lou Reed collaborations that only serve to undermine their legacies. Not Nile.
The Nile modus operandi on eighth studio album What Should Not Be Unearthed (Nuclear Blast) remains the same. Healthy doses of Egyptian mysticism and history (sample: “We must cut off the head of the Spinx. Timeless guardian of the ancient pharaohs”) with the occasional dash of Lovecraftian imagery set to the kind of searing death metal that recalls prime Morbid Angel. Maybe that’s why I have such an affinity for Sanders and his art, he was there to pick up the pieces when Morbid Angel was losing creative steam being dogged down by unsuccessful experimentation.
Experimentation is kept a very base minimum here as the album opens to aural punishment that is ‘Call to Destruction.’ We are then hit with the swift hyperblast one-two of ‘Negating the Abominable Coils of Apep’ and ‘Liber Stellae – Rubaeae.’ This is the kind of fiery death metal that hurts so good like Dying Fetus or early Gorguts. Also for the real tech heavy crowd check the finger cramping opening riff in ‘Evil To Cast Out Evil.’
But it’s not all fire and brimstone as death jams like ‘In the Name of Amun’ and ‘Age of Famine’ give way to breadth and dizzying tempo changes. Title track ‘What Should Not Be Unearthed’ also follows this pattern and allows for a real nice low and slow breakdown. And even when operating at a more gradual cadence, human drum machine George Kolias makes sure to load up the double-bass pummel.
In a genre where many of their peers are still spewing out murder fantasies and are fascinated with the undead, Nile stands out with a mix of intellectual lyrics and musical proficiency. If the prog fans and metal elitists can get past the death grunts and learn to love the blast beat they may just find a band fawn over other than Dream Theater.
“It’s a weird sensation that I’m not completely stressed and fed up and ready to kill people!” declares a chirpy and distinctly non-murderous Karl Sanders as he prepares for the unleashing of the eighth Nile opus magnificus, What Should Not Be Unearthed (Nuclear Blast).
The album recording process affects different musicians in all manner of ways, from the studio genius whose improvisation and spur of the moment innovation leads to artistic magic, to those who feel swallowed by the pressure of self-doubts, of knowing they are committing something to a permanent statement; recording is a process that can reduce even the most hardened of souls to intense frustration, self-doubt and, perhaps, genocidal responses.
“I feel much less insane this time around” continues Sanders. “Our producer Neil (Kernon) is a Londoner, but he’s a Nazi at heart! He has this belief that if you press people you can push them to discover new found creative levels of energy, but this time around it was really chilled. He wasn’t down here with us in South Carolina, he stayed in Chicago and we were uploading files to him and it was a very relaxed process. There were no levels of insanity.”
To what level of “prepared” does one of the premier technical Death Metal bands out there get to prior to hitting record?
“Generally we try to work everything out in pre-production, and then work on it in rehearsal. But it always happens that, as we’re actually recording it, the song continues to evolve, because when you hear it back in its more finished form you can get a different perspective on it.
“It’s certainly a lower stress level (recording digitally) because you can go back as many times as you need until you like it. Back in the old days you had to fucking play it.
“Conversely, I recently, last couple of years, have really become fond of music made before the computer age, like Al Green or Earth Wind and Fire; amazing bands that had to lay it down right there, together. You had to get your shit together then. It was an entirely higher level of preparation and consistency that you had to deliver.”
With the very precise, technical playing, with lots of picking, a flurry of finger movements within every set of bars, there has to be less freedom in what you’re all playing; it has to have that military precision to sound right. “You’re absolutely right, my friend. There does seem to be less freedom, which is sometimes frustrating, because you want to be able to hear the musical idea so you have to stay very much on course with very little freedom to improvise. I know that it drives death metal drummers crazy as they often have to be very careful about what they do and what they don’t do. It’s maddening.”
Sanders is an engaging, erudite and a touch eccentric an individual, relaxing with a morning coffee and sitting on a severely beastly album. Despite being vaunted and hailed from their visceral debut Amongst The Catacombs of Nephren-Ka (Relapse) – which we’ll get to in part 2 of this feature –Sanders clearly cares deeply about his band maintaining and exceeding standards, and this from a band that has several genuine classics in their canon, and come into What Should Not Be Unearthed off the back of a very strong album. Most bands have a drop off after album three or four, At The Gates of Sethu came fifteen years deep…
“We’re very motivated and we’re relentless on ourselves. I gotta say, people’s perception of our level depends on who you’re asking. I would agree, the last record was super surgical, (there was) a level of clean-ness about that record here-to-for unprecedented, though Neil would call that a double redundancy, there were some people that really didn’t like that record, but that doesn’t detract from the fact we put a lot of fucking work into that fucking thing. And that’s really where our focus stays, on what we’re working on now, the rest is too much to worry about.”
Sanders has a chuckle before continuing. “You can drive yourself insane trying to worry about the permutations and consequences. Man, you just got to make music and shut up, as Frank Zappa says.”
When Nile started, print reviews, fan letters and sales were about the only way to gauge how you were doing and what people thought of your band. Nowadays it takes seconds to Google yourself. It must be very hard not to get caught up and to get that balance right of what people want and expect, but to stay true to yourself and keep doing your thing too, and to stop what fans (or otherwise) are saying about your craft from seeping in…
“I’d say it seeps in a lot,” comes the knowing laugh. “Some of the more drastic fluctuations in my mindset and mental health over the last 2 decades are directly because of that.” Yet, as a celebrated band leader of a band with thousands of fans and supporters, why is it the negative that impacts? “It’s so easy to see the feedback and there’s a natural artistic thing where you do care what your fans have to say, you do care how they feel about what you do, it’s so natural and human.
“But it’s a multiple edged sword because there’s a madness at the end of that path, and I’ve been down it a few times and I can say it is dangerous to your wellbeing to give too much of a fuck about what other people are saying.”
Nile is currently in the studio completing mixing of their upcoming album What Should Not Be Unearthed. The record was produced by the band and mixed by Neil Kernon, and will be released late summer via Nuclear Blast Records.
Mastermind Karl Sanders states:
“All of us in Nile are happy to announce our newest album What Should Not Be Unearthed. It’s our 8th official album, and this time we believe we have a truly crushing disc to bring to metal fans. The focus this time around is on brutally heavy metal riffing and songwriting; kind of like of an Annihilation Of The Wicked approach but very streamlined to achieve maximum destructive impact. Our last record, At The Gates Of Sethu, was super surgically clean and very “musicianship oriented” whereas the new disc is a polar opposite; Unearthed is aimed straight at utter metal heaviness and memorable songwriting. Although Unearthed is still full of the kind of undeniable musicianship people have come to expect from Nile over the years, it’s the songs themselves that will hit listeners over the head this time around. These songs will be a blast to play live, and we are stoked at the opportunity to bring these songs to metal fans everywhere. See you on tour!”