In 2002, Universal Pictures was in a tight spot. They needed some music that communicated to the public that their new Mummy offshoot, The Scorpion King, was the most epic fucking thing to ever grace the silver screen. But not just any music…they needed super heavy metal that the kids would relate to. The studio suits put their toupeed heads together and came up with a single word that would propel their Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson vehicle into the billion-dollar stratosphere: Godsmack.
Of course, if anyone at Universal had even a cursory awareness of underground music, they would have known that the sound they were looking for (epic Middle Eastern melodies mixed with the crushing brutality of metal) already existed. And even though Nile’s debut LP would have never saved that CGI-addled piece of hippo shit, it would have at least painted a clearer picture than those nu-metallers from Mass. ever could.
Amongst the Catacombs of Nephren-Ka (inducted into our Hall of Fame in June 2009; you can purchase the issue here) is a near-perfect death metal album—absolutely pummeling and technically astonishing, yet layered with unique instrumentation and musical phrasing that give it an archaic, otherworldly atmosphere. It’s a genuine classic from front to back, and its modest 33-minute runtime gives it near infinite replay value. Ranking such a slab of awesomeness from “worst to best” is about as ridiculous as Sully Erna’s face tattoo, but that’s never stopped us before!
11. Kudurru Maqlu
This has to kick off the list because it’s the lone instrumental and it’s only a minute long, but it’s still highly effective in the context of the album as a whole. After the two opening tracks bludgeon the listener with dusty handfuls of limestone, “Kudurru Maqlu” shifts the scene to an ancient, wind-strewn bazaar, where cloaked figures sell forbidden trinkets and you’re probably gonna get stabbed by a necromancer.
10. Pestilence and Iniquity
This tune has some great riffs and effective movement, but its short length makes it slightly less impactful than the rest of the songs. Still, if you’ve been binging on too much Dream Theater and need a reminder that it’s entirely possible to stuff 4,742 awesome riffs and transitions into less than two minutes of music, “Pestilence and Iniquity” is a great place to start.
9. Beneath Eternal Oceans of Sand
Putting an acoustic intro on Amongst the Catacombs’ closer was a great idea; it adds some softer dynamics to an album that just spent the better part of 30 minutes sandblasting the listener back to the Early Dynastic Period. Pete Hammoura is especially great on this track—his creative fills and frenetic blasts add compelling textures to Karl Sanders’ mid-paced riffs. Bonus points for fitting both the album name and the band name in the lyrics.
8. Opening of the Mouth
I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that the intro to this song is the catchiest thing to ever be played on a thigh bone flute. I don’t even mind that it only lasts 23 seconds, because the three minutes that follow feature solid, momentum-building riffs and some of the best vocals on the entire album. And who doesn’t love that tribal breakdown at 1:53? Pass the human skull drums and let’s get weird!
7. Barra Edinazzu
This is one of Amongst the Catacombs‘ more traditional death metal jams, with shades of Morbid Angel and Cannibal Corpse peeking through the cracks in the pyramid slabs. The keyboards in the slow middle section are a great atmospheric touch, and the guitar crescendo at 2:26 will forever be one of Nile’s best “invisible oranges” moments. Also, if you follow the NBA, I always sing “Serge Ibaka” at the beginning and end of this song. Good luck not doing that the next time number 9 hits the court.
6. Smashing the Antiu
I love how an album that’s so atmospheric and layered starts so goddamn ballistically, like a mummy bursting from its sarcophagus and chasing you through the dim corridors of its tomb. Nile could have easily led off with “Kudurru Maqlu” to set the tone for the whole Egypt thing, but instead they immediately grabbed a few sledgehammers and went to work bashing down the pyramid. Respect.
5. Stones of Sorrow
This mid-paced epic features windmill-inducing riffs, frenzied vocals that tell the intense story of a slave who’s building a pyramid for some asshole pharaoh, and one of the best guitar solos of Karl Sanders’ career (2:54). If Santa Monica Studio doesn’t use this intro to score the next God of War game, they fucked up.
4. Die Rache Krieg Lied Der Assyriche
Sometimes I think about which song I would use as my entrance music if I was a pro wrestler. The list is short and the criteria is simple: epic shit that gets the crowd pumped for the whoopin’ I’m about to deliver to my hapless opponent. And buddy, if you don’t think “Die Rache Krieg Lied Der Assyriche” is on that list, you’re in for a Rude Awakening (or a DDT, depending on where the match takes us). Of course, I’d have to be a huge heel, like a King Tut-type dude who’s carried to the ring on a jewel-encrusted chariot. Anyway, the band doesn’t even play on this song but it’s still one of the heaviest things on the entire record. Thigh bone flutes, Turkish gongs and epic chanting in full effect. Great stuff.
3. Ramses Bringer of War
This is basically a super heavy version of Gustav Holst’s “Mars, Bringer of War,” which tells you everything you need to know about its grandiosity. The riff at 2:43 is a metaphor for the album’s musical approach: absolutely filthy, lasts for about six seconds before moving to another crushing passage. This song is also on the short list for my pro wrestling entrance music. Obviously, I would be called “Ramses, Bringer of War” and my finishing move would involve some sort of ritual sacrifice.
2. Serpent Headed Mask
“Serpent Headed Mask” has one of the best opening passages in death metal history. In just 13 seconds, a labyrinthine riff and chilling female vocals sum up everything that’s special about Nile’s first full-length. The riffs in this song are monumental, and true to form, the band manages to blast through 19,000 of them before you have a chance to catch your breath. Two and a half minutes of brutal perfection.
1. The Howling of the Jinn
I’ve always thought “The Howling of the Jinn” is one of death metal’s quintessential songs: shit you would play for aliens if they beamed down and wanted to study the extent of human noise. It’s a perfect blend of technical prowess and groove, with wailing guitar solos, ferocious vocals and captivating dynamics (dat vocal break at 1:18) filling in the gaps. Nile explained in less than three minutes.