When Napoleon's army discovered the Rosetta Stone on the bank of the Nile in 1799, little did they know that the tablet of black basalt would provide them with a key to unlocking the thorny riddles of Egyptian hieroglyphics. "Perhaps someday," they might've thought, "this slab of carved symbols will lead a group of ragtag heavy-metal kids in Greenville, South Carolina, to create a death-metal band that celebrates the ancient race of people we have just uncovered."
And such a band did come to pass, having the given appellation Nile, so named for the brackish river that snakes its way through Egypt.
And it was good.
Nile is a four-man operation from the South that, seemingly tired of death metal's usual array of corpse wolves, grave-robbers and syphilitic barbarians, instead wallows in the misery of Ramses' wake ("I crush the skulls of the dying and sever the hands of the slain/I, Ramses/builder of temples, usurper of monuments/slayer of Hittites/bringer of war") or pestilential curses ("A cesspool breeding the unclean/hordes of locusts/fiends of the south winds/Cleanse the earth from the impure").
But just as those early intrepid archaeologists opened 5,000-year-old tombs only to face the mummy's curse, it seems that this band has stirred some sacred wrath of its own. What else could describe the huge festering boil that appeared on the ass of the group's roadie during one tour? The pustule grew and grew until it finally exploded, sending "icky, icky" stuff throughout the van. The smell was disgusting. "We had to sell that van a couple days later," says singer/guitarist Carl Sanders from his home in Greenville. "It was totally unbearable."
Man, as they used to say in ancient Babylonia, "gnnnnarrrrrly!"
"Well, the story gets even more bizarre," Sanders continues. "It turns out, when he got home he went to the doctor because it was coming back on him again. It turns out it really wasn't a boil. He was growing a tail!"
This story, told with such deadpan sincerity, might just be true. It turns out that every human being has the ability to grow tails and, in fact, has a vestigial nub at the base of his or her spine -- we just lost the genes that made it grow somewhere between monkeytime and now. But for one out of every couple million of us, the tail does start to develop. Surgery can usually correct it. But why the explosion and the smell?
"A lot of times when you're on tour, you're not bathing a whole lot," Sanders explains. "You're driving down the road for twelve hours a day." Lack of showers, sweat, filthy clothes, mummy's curse ... these things add up.
Nile recently released its third full-length album, In Their Darkened Shrines, raising its status as the most buzzworthy band in a genre that's been glutted with sound-alikes for a while now. Most people brushed Nile off at first, judging it yet another gimmicky doom band. But for real aficionados of the form, it became apparent that Nile had chops. They bring their guitars down to A, creating a sort of modal tuning that lends a certain darkness to the proceedings. Not only do they throw in unique flourishes with the Dobro, sitar, waterphone and Tibetan chants, beneath the loud onslaught exist ornate metal symphonies, interesting time changes and yes, even guitar solos.
"I think people tend not to appreciate the amount of work that goes into writing three minutes of death metal," says Sanders. "Sure, it's a noise -- you put it on, and it really is that thing that your parents don't want to hear. To the uninitiated, it's a bunch of noise. But to me it's kind of like avant-garde jazz, where it might sound like noise at first but, as your ears and your mind become accustomed to what it's doing, you start to understand that it's not noise anymore."
For those initiated ears, Nile is the shit; Shrines popped up on many a 2002 top-ten list. "It seems fair to say that they are on the verge of surpassing Cannibal Corpse as the genre's number one band," opined the Music Street Journal.
Mario Perotti, proprietor of San Jose-based metal site Powerslave.com, says there's a simple reason Nile is so hot: pure, technical, brutal death metal. "Each song goes through its own journey, but it's still burly as hell," he says.
But the band also gets attention from the unlikeliest of listeners: college professors. "I get letters, e-mails," Sanders says. "I guess kids in classes start mentioning whatever we do and it becomes an annoyance to the teacher and so they end up checking us out. I get plenty of letters like 'I can't believe you wrote about this completely obscure thing that even I hardly know about' or 'I'm really glad someone is trying to do something worthwhile with the death-metal idiom.'" The band has even been asked to appear at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in London.
The minutiae that all these dirt-diggin' nerds are noticing is the result of Sanders' armchair obsession with Egyptian history. That, fused with the fixation on American weird-fiction godfather H.P. Lovecraft, is what he uses to create what he calls his band's "ithyphallic metal." "To be ithyphallic is to be portrayed in a statue form with a massive erect penis," says Sanders, "a godlike erection." Well that certainly fits into metal's glorious bulge-centric history. "Yes," he chuckles, "we're just embracing some really old traditions. In fact, there's nothing new under the sun."
Truthfully, it's no surprise that death-metal kids and science nerds can be musical bedfellows. Among rock musicians, those who play brutal onslaughts are often among the brightest -- just a hop, a skip and a blast away from Dungeons & Dragons geeks. Of course, not everyone who likes metal is bright -- the genre may attract its fair share of the erudite, but it also must contend with a tombful of dumbasses, as witnessed by this sterling review of Shrines on Amazon.com:
"After listening to tha first three songz, my reaction waz pure horror. Tha singa soundz like he'z got serious bowel problemz.... Tha guitarizt and da drumma sound like they've done ova dozed on suga. This album iz just straight up wack. If ya want good muzak, just stick wit da troo rap-metal. Peace Homiez."
Granted, this reviewer never claims to like death metal, and that's fine with Sanders. "Death metal may be for the underground and the elite," he says, somewhat immodestly. "It's not for everybody. It's for people with a certain mindset, a certain spirit that's in them -- it's made up of outcast people that don't necessarily fit in with the bell curve."
Still, like any "hard" music from the underground, someday this genre is going to go mainstream, even if no one expects it to just yet. As they say, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition. "No one expects a death-metal band to come from Greenville, South Carolina, either," adds Sanders.
Stranger things have happened, though. Just look at the pyramids.