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At The Gate Of Sethu
Review by Nathan on November 14, 2023.
This was the review in this series I was most excited to write, because At the Gate of Sethu might be the only album where my opinion is in stark contrast to the general fan perception. Sure, I don’t like most of the pre-Annihilation of the Wicked albums, but they have their share of detractors and everyone (including myself) still generally agrees that Annihilation is hands down their best record (with Those Whom the Gods Detest occasionally being mentioned as a distant second). Sethu, on the other hand, got a very poor fan reception. I recall browsing forums and such when this was released, and seeing scathing criticisms lambasting their lack of effort, that this was nothing new, poor production, etc. any time the album was discussed. Nowadays, even looking through the filter of time, most consider Sethu the unquestionable weak point of Nile’s discography.
This is puzzling to me. For one thing, it fuckin’ rips. Not only that, but the awkward songwriting that handicapped the band before is near absent, as these songs rip in a way that is direct, concise, and forceful. The transitions are smooth, the cheesiness has been (mostly) bled out of their atmospheric tendencies, and technically this is as exhausting and carpal-tunnel-inducing as anything the band’s written. If anything, this might be the only Nile album that’s consistently solid all the way through and doesn’t have a single moment that’s straight-up boring (even their best albums fell victim to this, if only for a short period). Am I listening to the same thing everyone else is or what?
The only theory that even partially explains the general opinion of Sethu is that it was a reactionary response to the warm, layered ambiance of the previous album. In all fairness, on Those Whom the Gods Detest it finally sounded like Nile was actually getting the hang of the whole “integrating Egyptian music and mythos with death metal” thing and not having it sound contrived or slapped together. Not only that, but Gods had their best production job (probably a big part of why it felt less hokey), and Sethu opts for a thin, treble-heavy tone that’s a lot closer to what you would have heard on Ithyphallic. It has a bit less oomph, so I can understand why it might have felt like a letdown - when you play Gods and Sethu back to back, the shift between the production styles is jarring without a doubt. Two tracks in, however, it’s apparent that the guitar tone choice was to showcase the finger acrobatics, of which there are many - and for once, they weave a thread you can follow.
It wouldn’t have made as much sense to have the big, warm tones that the previous release did on Sethu because the album doesn’t give as much focus to the Egyptian themes. It’s still Nile, mind you, but another reason why this may have gotten some extra flak from fans is because it dials up the “death metal” side of the music which comes at the expense of their whole hieroglyphic shtick. The ambience is relegated to more occasional interludes and every time you think they’re going to drag a boring slow song on too long so they can flesh out some more contrived atmosphere, Kollias kicks it into high gear again and you’re back to getting your face fucked with riffs. And the riffs sound mean as hell! Even with the beefed up noodling, this is the most direct and purposeful the guitarwork has sounded since Annihilation of the Wicked. It doesn’t sound like the speedy verse licks Sanders loves are just random jumbles of notes in a Middle Eastern scale, they actually repeat distinct and memorable motifs.
I suppose this is the part of the review where I should say that I’m already a big fan of tech death (it’s one of my favorite subgenres, if not my absolute favorite), so that may be why I’m biased towards this album. It amended all of my beefs with Nile’s other material: it cuts out the aimless wandering and most of the ambient filler, amps up the riffs and makes them the focal point, and narrows the band’s range of motion in order to make the transitions more fluid. At the Gate of Sethu is Nile’s least pretentious album, so don’t let the fact that this isn’t a fan favorite stop you from giving it the attention it deserves.
PS: Any complaints about “not being able to hear the bass” on this album are bullshit as per usual. To anyone who is saying that: get better speakers.
Rating: 8.6 out of 10559