Old-school death metal revivalists take heed: Nile kept the genre’s hopes alive when it was practically on a methadone drip. Sure, there were signs of life after Death: technical death metal’s rise, and of course, the underground never truly passes away. But only Nile took their own original style into the studio with regularity, or on the road globally. In 2007 they took part in Ozzfest—say what you will about that questionable institution, that Nile landed a slot indicates an unmistakable appeal that many of their peers lack—the other death metal act on that edition was Behemoth, for reference.
And how original their style is. Vocalist and guitarist Karl Sanders took his passion for Egyptology beyond the realm of the gimmick, using meticulous research as a springboard for lyrics and art as well as melodies and instrumentation. His vision of death metal is totally distinct. Nile sounds like no other band, and when other groups attempt even one of their ideas, they enter into Nile’s orbit, not vice-versa.
Consider the band’s delicate sonic balance and how well Sanders has maintained it. Nile songs require ubiquitous chops, but they are not a “tech” band. Nile traffics in cinematic melodies and dabble in clean singing but are never a “melodic death metal” band. Their rhythmic downturns and slams deliver moshable brutality, but totally skirt the gross-outs, misogyny, and aw-shucks-we-tried fuckups endemic in “brutal death metal.”
That Karl’s managed to keep the Nile sound distinct since 1993 likewise impresses. Like most death metal bands, Nile struggles to maintain a steady lineup: the group’s cycled through many former members, including session musicians, most notably vocalist and guitarist Dallas Toller-Wade, who was Sanders’ right-hand man until 2017. Still, Nile soldiers on. The band’s just released their ninth studio record, Vile Nilotic Rites, which maintains the band’s high-quality output.
In fact, Nile’s ubiquitousness and consistent quality might be their Achilles heel. I can listen to every one of their albums on shuffle, and never get bored, but the experience wants for peaks and valleys. The Nile story doesn’t sort into neat eras, either. As such, ranking the Nile discography presents a unique challenge: even the worst of these records is worth a listen, and most of them (let’s say numbers five through one) approach the perfection of a geometrically perfect pyramid.
Regardless, here they are, Nile’s nine records, ranked from worst to their best. Look upon Karl Sanders’ works, ye mighty and despair.
9) At the Gates of Sethu (2012)
Even Nile’s weakest record has its moments. Opener “Enduring the Eternal Manifestation of the Flame,” “Supreme Humanism of Megalomania” and especially the title track, “The Gods Who Light Up the Sky at the Gates of Sethu” sport memorable riffs and forceful vocal hooks. Speaking of vocals, this record comes with tons of them—each member of the band contributes with a distinct vocal approach, but as a result, the compositions sound a little crowded. While it’s the band’s highest-charting success, I owe that momentum to its astounding predecessor, Those Whom the Gods Detest, which has an adventurous spirit that this one lacks. Even for a band whose sound remains pretty much identical from record to record, At the Gates of Sethu paints by numbers. Still, from most other groups, this record would be a triumph.
8) Vile Nilotic Rites (2019)
Eighth place feels low for a record with a song title as good as “The Oxford Handbook of Savage Genocidal Warfare.” Clearly, Sanders’ sense of humor remains intact. The band, however, does not. His first record without Dallas Toler-Wade joining him on lead guitar and vocals might sound perfectly strong to someone without years and years of Nile fandom under their belt, but to me replacement, Brian Kingsland needs a little more time to solo in fluent Egyptian. If this seems too harsh, just swap this record with the next on the list in your mind. That said, the band finally straight-up transposes the leading hook to Akira Ifukube’s “Godzilla” theme in “Snake Pit Mating Frenzy” after almost thirty years of reptilian song themes—such fun curios merit inclusion in Nile’s display cabinet.
7) Amongst the Catacombs of Nephren-Ka (1998)
Nile’s debut record shows a band still figuring out how to capture their sound in the studio, even after five years of demoing. Some of the record’s weakness owes to its recording, not its composition. The guitar tone, in particular, sounds artificial and smashed. If anyone at Relapse is looking for a record to remaster for a deluxe re-release, this is the one. Also, the relatively short songs by Nile standards, while good, don’t let the band’s personality shine through as they would later. The best songs on the record hint at the grandiose pomp that later became the band’s specialty. A little of that book of the dead magic shines through on “Ramses, Bringer of War” and especially album closer “Beneath Eternal Oceans of Sand.”
6) Ithyphallic (2007)
Though its deluxe-edition packaging is a wonder to behold, Nile’s first album for Nuclear Blast makes the end of their peak. Like the previous iteration on this list, a great deal of the blame lies in its odd production curtesy of Grammy award winner Neil Kernon, who too often sucks the oomph out of the riffs and solos to make room for George Kollias’ admittedly wonderful drums. As if admitting its weakness, Nile rarely performs any songs from the album beyond its title track and the comically long-titled lead single “Papyrus Containing the Spell to Preserve its Possessor Against Attacks from He Who is in the Water”—it takes Sanders as long to speak the title as it does to perform the damn thing. However, Ithyphallic does shine in its epic bookends, particularly closing track “Even the Gods Must Die,” which might be the band’s finest long-form song in a discography full of them. I’ve written it before and will write it again: Karl, if you’re reading this, play this fucking song!
5) What Should Not Be Unearthed (2014)
Unlike Ithyphallic, Nile’s reluctance to play songs from What Should Not Be Unearthed is misguided. This is probably the most underrated record in the band’s entire discography. Perhaps Sanders and co tired of the overcooked songs on At the Gates of Sethu themselves, because this sucker is mean. At the end of his collaboration with Sanders, Neil Kernon makes the guitars sound red-hot and meaty. From opener “Call to Destruction” on, the band delivers a relentless and relatively unadorned suite of absolute bangers (just one ambient interlude!). Of particular note is “Evil to Cast out Evil,” which manages to be vocally anthemic as well as pummeling. It’s so relentless, in fact, that it doesn’t quite feel like a Nile album proper, hence its placement in the middle.
4) Those Whom the Gods Detest (2009)
Nile plays more songs from 2009’s Those Whom the Gods Detest than any other album for a good reason. After the slight misstep of Ithyphallic, this record showcases all the band’s charms. Both their epic sweep (the title track and “4th Arra of Dagon”) and tight pit rippers (the excellent “Hittite Dung Incantation”) shine on this record, thanks to Kernon’s best production job with Nile. Dry, crunchy and almost vacuumed shut, the sound every bit suits the entombed and dehydrated vibe that Sanders was obviously always looking for. Interestingly, Sanders also delivered a little lyrical twist this time around, writing about the incursion of Islam that overthrew the pagan Egyptian religion, which he often wrote about. As a result, Those Whom the Gods Detest, which was released when the American wars of occupation were still a hot-button news topic, is the closest thing to a political album that Nile has. It’s a shame then that the opener (and best song), “Kafir!” muddies its humanist message by using the Arabic word for “nonbeliever” … which just so happens to the be racist slur most used by Afrikaners during apartheid.
3) In Their Darkened Shrines (2002)
Nile’s third record produced some of the band’s most beloved songs, such as “The Blessed Dead” and maybe the apotheosis of their aesthetic-riffage synthesis, “Sarcophagus.” Drummer-for-hire Tony Laureano’s sole contribution to Nile’s discography is a memorable one, riddled with double bass passages and intricate fills as a suitable counterpoint to Sanders and Toler-Wade’s increasingly accomplished flourishes. In Their Darkened Shrines also showcases the band at their most ambitious, with two of their very longest songs. The first, “Unas, Slayer of the Gods,” is one of the band’s most popular long-form compositions, as in, they actually played it live for some time. The second, the four-part title track, is a bit much, and maybe ought to have been released as a supplemental EP. As it stands, In Their Darkened Shrines is a delicious plate overflowing with delicacies – too many to lick the plate clean and not walk away feeling a little sick.
2) Annihilation of the Wicked (2005)
Nile’s first release with their “classic” lineup—Karl Sanders and Dallas Toler-Wade sharing lead guitar, George Kollias on drums, and Neil Kernon producing (Jon Vesano played bass, but Nile isn’t a bassist’s band)—is sheer death metal ecstasy. At this point, it’s difficult to imagine Nile working without Kollias’s quick, precise playing, which ratchets up the intensity to near-suffocating levels whenever he’s playing. His addition elevated Sanders’s and Toler-Wade’s playing on this record the same way that, say, adding Gene Hoglan made Testament’s songs feel more urgent. Sanders’s long-form playing also tightened considerably on this record. The title track, “User-Maat-Re” and “Von Unaussprechlichen Kulten,” stretch near the ten-minute mark without feeling distended. My favorite cut here, however, is “Lashed to the Slave Stick.” One of Toler-Wade’s compositions, it took the Nile formula to then-unprecedented levels of catchiness and remains one of their most essential songs.
1) Black Seeds of Vengeance (2000)
As protean and concise as Nile’s debut was, it didn’t require a quantum leap forward. However, that’s exactly what fans got with Nile’s sophomore record, Black Seeds of Vengeance. Much of the credit goes to Toler-Wade, who made his first appearance on album here, and whose vocals added depth and ferocity to the music. With his addition, Nile’s songs expanded to incorporate more space and tension, and with that cinematic style came Sanders’s now-infamous liner notes, explaining the morbid and fascinating origins of dynamic songs like “Masturbating the War God.” Former Malevolent Creation drummer Derek Roddy only joined as a session member, but his work here laid the template that Laureano and Kollias late expanded upon. And of course, there’s the title track, Nile’s most-played song, and perennial set closer. Chanting along to its climax has become a rite of passage for those transfixed by a band who blazed their own trail through death metal history and who seem intent on writing records which can weather innumerable sandstorms without losing their striking contours.