By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Sunny is hardly the word you'd expect to come out of the mouth of a metal man. You know the type. Erratically long hair. Painted-on leather pants. Studded wristbands. Guitars played while standing with feet as far apart as limbs allow. Names with umlauts over vowels just because it looks cool and Teutonic. The typical stereotypes.
But that's the very word uttered by Karl Sanders, lead vocalist, guitarist and songwriter of the death metal outfit Nile. Then again, Sanders is no ordinary metal man, and Nile is no ordinary metal band. Furthermore, the cheerful connotation of the word perfectly suits his disposition as well, despite what lies before him on this July 4 morning: He and his three band mates are about to travel from coast to coast. By auto.
"I'm calling from my home in sunny South Carolina," Sanders says, as sprightly as a Boy Scout. "We're loading up the van and getting ready to head to Seattle. It'll take us a couple of days to get there, but the first date's not till Sunday [July 8], so we should be all right."
They're gearing up to swing around America for three weeks with Cradle of Filth, Suffolk, England's black metal entourage that's more sinister and insanely popular in Europe than yesterday's newsboy, Marilyn Manson. But Nile may be the bigger draw on this side of the pond. Its 2000 release, Black Seeds of Vengeance, is a powerhouse, not only for its lightning-quick riffs, sledgehammer drumming and guttural vocals, all staples of the genre. What sets Nile apart from the fold is its overall concept.
Nile is the sole practitioner of what the band brands "Ithyphallic Metal." That four-syllable mouthful can have lewd or indecent associations, owing to its origins with the symbolic phallus carried in ancient festivals of Bacchus. For Nile, however, Sanders isn't alluding to the Greeks. He's more interested in the god Osiris or the Pharaoh Min.
Yes, we're talking ancient Egypt. Nile's two Relapse albums, Vengeance and 1998's Amongst the Catacombs of Nephren-Ka and 1995 debut Festivals of Atonement are drenched in Egyptian history and mythology, as well as a general interest in the Middle East. They're themes that crop up in song titles and lyrics on Catacombs like "Ramses Bringer of War" or "The Howling of the Jinn."
The name came about because Nile--Sanders, Pete Hammoura (drums, vocals), Chief Spires (bass, vocals) and Dallas Toler-Wade (guitar, vocals)--had an affection for Middle Eastern music, but that interest blossomed into a larger framework. "The more I researched Egyptian history and myth, it was like I was bitten with an infectious bug," Sanders says. "The more I got into it the more I wanted to take it all the way to the extreme, and we felt kind of liberated when we decided to do that."
What started simply as a thematic shroud has since become a full-on dissertation. Vengeance is a mini manifesto. Its CD booklet not only contains lyrics, many of which are in Arabic, but short essays documenting the historical context of the subject matter. The blistering "Multitude of Foes" deals with the "battle of the Kadesh, in the year 5 of the reign of Ramses the Great, about 1274 B.C.," while "Defiling the Gates of Ishtar" draws its lyrics from translations of cuneiform tablets. And though "To Dream of Ur" didn't spring from an ancient text, its haunting mood feels as epic as a tome.
Sanders' research has also transformed into sounds on Vengeance. He's incorporated Middle Eastern musical motifs and instruments into the band's ferocious textures. Prayer chants and gongs provide atmospheric accents to certain tracks, and the album opens with a moody processional played on an arghoul, which is like a double-reed oboe indigenous to the area.
"I try to get as close as I can to the sounds of Middle Eastern instruments when I'm going for that," Sanders says. "And I'll do whatever I have to do to approximate it. Whether it be beg, borrow or steal, get somebody else to do something, try it on the guitar, mangle it on my computer, whatever."
Nile is only one of many contemporary metal bands that are starting to make the veterans look weak. Just take a gander at the Extreme Steel Tour, which slices through town this week as well. Sure, the gut-punching assault of Static-X rides a barrage of hooks, and Slayer remains the lone '80s thrash band that's kept its new licks fiery, avoiding the Behind the Music mockery of Megadeth and the play-the-hits parading of Metallica. But death-metal icon Morbid Angel is beginning to look and sound long in the tooth, and Pantera still can't decide if it wants to be as pop as Def Leppard or as schlock sleazy as Waysted.
It's the extended careers of such metal mainstays that feed the genre's stereotypes, vertically striped spandex pants and all, so much so that pop culture even derides the music with a certain class of American. Why else would David Lynch have speed-metallurgists Powermad provide "dance music" for Lula and Sailor in 1990's Wild at Heart, which opens its white-trash perversion subversion of The Wizard of Oz near Cape Fear in the Carolinas.
That one of the most inventive and consistent metal bands of the 1990s hails from that very neck of the South reeks of poetic justice today. When Nile started back in 1993 in Greensberg, South Carolina, the seeds that would become the new metal underground were just starting to sprout. You need to look no further than Nile's Relapse label mates. The decade-old, Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, independent has been one of the leaders in adventurous metal, cranking out noise barrages from Finnish prog-metal alchemists Amorphis, as well as breathtaking displays of technical skill from the likes of the jaw-dropping Dillinger Escape Plan and the stoned psychedelic clouds exhaled by Bongzilla. Any way you slice it, this ain't Texxas Jam hair-farming.
"I think the origin of that is that you have musicians who like a variety of things," Sanders says. "Like with those guys in Dillinger, they like a lot of jazz and thrash and a lot of other things as well, so their music has more in it. There's more things informing it than there was for metal bands about a decade ago. That may not seem too difficult an explanation of why metal is the way it is now, but I think that it's made up of guys who have a wider range of experience."
And despite a growing legion of fans outgrowing the nü tactics of Limp Slipkorn et al., these metal men aren't going to be plastered all over MTV anytime soon. "I think death metal will always be an underground thing," Sanders says. "You'll never see it in the mainstream. And that's why you're going to find metal bands in vans driving around the country, not getting a lot of money, doing things the hard way, just doing it because it's what they like doing. And I think that's the way it's supposed to be. I don't think metal's supposed to be 'N Sync-huge. I mean, if it does become that popular, that's great. But if it doesn't, that's fine, too. Because most of the bands that you find doing metal nowadays do it because they enjoy it. And that's good for the scene."