At The Gate Of Sethu is a puzzling, enjoyable, and ultimately troubling album. After six albums and more than a decade of basically ruling the death metal world, Nile shouldn’t need to do anything more than keep pace with themselves. By continuing to work excellently within their own framework, they’ve kept up a staggering level of quality – Those Whom The Gods Detest stands among their best work – so expecting them to continue in such a fashion with At The Gate Of Sethu was not a faulty presumption. However, presumptions can make fools of us all, and Sethu seems more intent on teaching us lessons than reaffirming our trust in the band.
If there is one lesson that At The Gate Of Sethu teaches us almost immediately, it is that Nile is desperately dependent upon their hulking wall of sound – that which has a larger gravitational pull than the pyramids that serve as their inspiration. The dense, balanced, and bludgeoning sound Nile normally crafts allows them to go about their normal business of weaving heaps of Middle Eastern and minor key riffs, gurgled and screamed vocals, and inhumanly blasted drumming into truly behemoth death metal albums. Sethu does not enjoy this luxury. The production is flat, dry, largely devoid of bottom end, and almost completely unNile in nature. Worse, the mix seems haphazard, exposing the thinness of the vocal performances and isolating the drumming. It’s a puzzling move by a band that so consistently puts out colossal-sounding albums. It may be an ill-fated attempt to create a stripped down or old school presentation, but all it really does is make the album sound like a Nile demo.
The end result is that Nile sounds exposed. Not so much for their lack of innovation – very few among us expect that – but for failing to make full use of their own razor sharp tools. A good half of the album feels tossed together from past ideas: lazy attempts at being epic during “The Fiends Who Come To Steal The Magick Of The Deceased,” blatant recycling of the hook from “Lashed To The Slave Stick” during “Supreme Humanism Of Megalomania” (a song that isn’t nearly as fun as that from which it steals), or a failure to even execute the gargantuan weight and menace normally associated with “slower” Nile songs (closer “The Chaining Of The Iniquitous”). None of it is horrid, and more than a few songs pack adequate heat, but the entire platter ends up being somewhat forgettable when placed within the context of the band’s legacy.
Still, the biggest issue with Sethu is not the production or even the recycled ideas, but its lack of those special moments of pure battle-ridden Nileness upon which their albums have always been anchored. In short, there’s not enough Nile in my Nile. Nothing here rivals the horn-signaling, slave-driving passages in “Unas Slayer of the Gods,” the unforgettable chorus of “Kafir,” or the holistic brilliance of “Annihilation of the Wicked.” In fact, by far the album’s best song, pseudo title track “The Gods Who Light Up The Sky At The Gate Of Sethu,” succeeds less because of its stereotypically Nile elements and more because it is merely a really good death metal track.
As is often the case, a lesser album by a great band is still a pretty good album, and At The Gate Of Sethu is certainly that, it’s just not a very good Nile album. Whether the well is running dry or there is just a temporary drought remains to be seen, but the present result is an album that should provide a few quick thrills before finding a permanent spot on the shelf. Between the production and the shortage of over-the-top Nile moments, there’s a small sense that the band is trying to be slightly more ordinary (slightly). Problem: Nile isn’t that good at ordinary. They excel at ridiculous. At The Gate Of Sethu just isn’t ridiculous enough, and that’s troubling.