South Carolina native Karl Sanders had an odd introduction to heavy metal.
"Fifteen or 16 years ago, when things were first starting, I went to my jazz guitar teacher and asked him to show me some chords that sounded like ancient Egypt that I could use in a death-metal band," he recalls. "He looked at me, laughed and said, 'Here, learn this Steely Dan song.'"
Sanders wasn't satisfied endlessly finger-tapping the "Kid Charlemagne" solo. Instead, he started tinkering and eventually harnessed the haunting, exotic sounds that have become the trademark of what is perhaps the most original and recognizable band in modern death metal: Nile.
As early as the release of Nile's 1998 debut Amongst the Catacombs of Nephren-Ka, veteran metalheads preached about the band's stunning combination of speed and technicality, while critics praised the innovative use of atmospherics and cinematic scope — a rarity in the death-metal genre. Perhaps most stunning, after the arrival of singer-guitarist Dallas Toler-Wade in 2000, the band continued its progression toward more complex arrangements, despite a revolving-door rhythm section that never stayed onboard for more than an album or two. In 2005, the year the band released Annihilation of the Wicked, George Kollias finally anchored the drummer spot.
Two years later, the band released its most brutal, streamlined album, Ithyphallic, which garnered nearly as much derision as praise from fans and critics alike.
"I think we went a little wrong on Ithyphallic," says Sanders. "That was pretty much, 'We're going to fucking play these metal songs and fuck everyone else.' A lot of people were beating me up because Nile had gone to a more straightforward thing. I realized Nile does have a sound."
So the band's reverted to its old form on 2009's Those Whom the Gods Detest. It's the third collaboration with producer Neil Kernon, whose engineering illuminates the group's lightning-fast articulations.
"Sometimes you play something that might be an awesome riff, but doesn't necessarily translate out of a speaker into someone's ear," says Sanders, who admits that capturing the band's nuances is daunting. "It can be frustrating, but we were bound and determined that shit would smack people in the face this time, so that they're going to hear it."
The album indeed accomplishes this. Those Whom the Gods Detest is easily Nile's clearest, most accessible album, but it retains the intensity and ferocity of the band's roots. While initially frantic, the album peaks early with back-to-back epics "Those Whom the Gods Detest" and "4th Arra of Dagon," after which it settles into a more comfortable groove before closing with the confounding "Iskander D'hul Karnon."
While melodic singing and Middle Eastern-style chanting have been elements of previous albums, Those Whom the Gods Detest marks the first time Nile brought it into prominence. Mike Brezeale— who also provided similar vocals for Karl Sander's two ambient folk records — adds an ethereal, otherworldly element, as well as discernable melodies.
"I think [the entire record] is more listener-friendly," says Sanders. "It has hooks, and there's a certain kindness toward the listener."
Nile are planning shows around the world. After that, Sanders jokes, the band will take a 180-degree turn.
"After we're finished with everything, I want to make a record that's completely undecipherable," he says. "No hooks, ultra-progressive and completely impossible to understand."