1998 was a transitional year for metal. To the general public, nu-metal may have become the dominant face of heaviness, but little could have been further from the truth in the underground. Black metal’s self-destructive tendencies were burning out and beginning to be channelled into new, more experimental directions. Death metal stalwarts Morbid Angel were exploring new territory with new frontman Steve Tucker on Formulas Fatal to the Flesh, and Death released what would become their final album – The Sound of Perseverance. Other modern megastars were also beginning to establish themselves as significant forces, with Behemoth and Opeth both releasing their third albums during the year.
Among all of this, a little South Carolina-based act named Nile unleashed their first album on an unsuspecting death metal scene – Amongst the Catacombs of Nephren-Ka. With a guitar in one hand and a copy of E.A. Wallis Budge in the other, Nile’s brand of Ancient Egypt-obsessed, triple-throated death metal helped resurrect a genre that might have otherwise decomposed in a tomb of genre tropes and clichés.
By the time of Nile’s debut release, the blasphemy and occultism of genre heavyweights like Morbid Angel and Deicide – along with the horrific gore of Death and Cannibal Corpse – had become the go-to lyrical topics for many aspiring bands. Though still evoking most of these themes, Nile looked at them through the unique lens of Ancient Egyptian/Middle Eastern religion and mythology.
It wasn’t the first time that metal had tackled such subjects – Mercyful Fate punched out ‘Curse of the Pharaohs’ on Melissa all the way back in 1983, and less than a year later Iron Maiden would feature a pharaonic Eddie on the cover of Powerslave. Perhaps most notably, Metallica tackled the Ten Plagues of Egypt on Ride the Lightning’s ‘Creeping Death’. Yet Nile were arguably the first to approach the subject with the seriousness it deserved – depicting the darker, more horrific aspects of the ancient world, far removed from the sanitised view frequently presented in pop culture.
This alone probably would have garnered them considerable attention, but Nile’s attention to detail extended beyond the lyrics and into the music itself. Their influences weren’t hard to spot, but they were all combined in an utterly crushing fashion, instantly marking Nile out as a death metal force to be reckoned with. The addition of exotic instrumentation could have been a throwaway novelty in less capable hands – but instead they helped enhance an already powerful atmosphere, further distinguishing them from their contemporaries.
The album marked the start of an impressive career for the band; in 2018, Nile are now ranked among the canon of death metal heavyweights, alongside many of their early influences. Mainman Karl Sanders has steered the band through numerous lineup changes and changing trends in metal, all the while delivering consistently excellent material to a loyal legion of fans. Yet it all began with a little over a half hour of death metal, back in 1998.
Twenty years after its release, Amongst the Catacombs of Nephren-Ka still remains an essential listen.
Nile are currently recording their ninth album. To listen to Amongst the Catacombs of Nephren-Ka, visit here.
Words: Tom G. Wolf