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CD Review: NILE At the Gate of Sehtu

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With the brand of clean, technical death metal that Nile helped to pioneer on the ascent these days, this South Carolina quartet could have cooled their heels and taken a victory lap in 2012. And some will accuse the band of doing exactly that with At the Gate of Sehtu; there's little groundbreaking done here, clean (gulp!) vocals pop up left and right in the choruses (double gulp!), and – though every metal band likes to claim otherwise – this is hardly the heaviest Nile record to date.So why does it all work? For one thing the guys have trimmed the fat a bit, with only one song – the album closer – exceeding six minutes. This allows the band to largely eschew the atmospheric interludes which usually pop up with alarming frequency to remind you that, hey, it's all so Egyptian. The interludes are not completely non-existent, but they are kept to a minimum… which is fine, because the relatively slower pace of At the Gate of Sehtu would not have lent itself to repeated breaks in the action.

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The production is the most readily identifiable head scratcher here, the raw brutality of previous recordings having been traded in for a crisp treble that sacrifices a lot of bottom end in the service of cleanly articulated guitar leads and dexterous percussion. It sounds off – wrong somehow – when applied to preconceived notions of what a Nile album is supposed to sound like, but after several listens it becomes obvious that a wall-of-sound production would not have worked for the more measured velocity the band are going for here (though, in all frankness, they may have overdid it a little for sheer bass-lessness).

"Tribunal of the Dead" is one of the more traditional tracks on At the Gate of Sehtu, a foreboding riff suggesting menace in a slow, simmering manner, and this song provides an excellent crucible to contrast current and past production techniques. The more abrasive phonics of previous efforts would have emphasized the sinister ambience; though that ambience is hardly absent here, the accentuation is more on the technicality.

Similarly, the clean vocals on "The Fiends Who Come to Steal the Magick of the Deceased" would have sounded forced and out of place on an album like Those Whom the Gods Detest, while here they add texture and nuance to material that is hardly in a position to coast on sheer brutality.

At the Gate of Sehtu will no doubt become a divisive album in a catalog notably short of those, but, hopefully, the elements that initially trigger those knee jerk feelings of betrayal in the first place will eventually be seen for what they are: a band adroitly stepping outside their comfort zone and exploring a few of those old school, early 90's death metal influences that were already passe by the time Nile reared their head for the first time. It was either that or get into a cock measuring contest with the plethora of tech death bands that have arisen in the last few years over who had the better chops, the sickest riffs, the fastest fingers… that kind of pissing match is exactly what most fans are probably clamoring for, but Karl Sanders will have you know he's his own man, thank you very much.

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At the Gate of Sehtu is out July 3 on Nuclear Blast.

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