#5: KARL SANDERS (NILE)
MetalSucks recently polled its staff to determine who are The Top 25 Modern Metal Guitarists, and after an incredible amount of arguing, name calling, and physical violence, we have finalized that list! The only requirements to be eligible for the list were that the musician in question had to a) play metal (duh), b) play guitar (double-duh), and c) have recorded something in the past five years. Today we continue our countdown with Nile’s Karl Sanders…
No one is saying Nile’s Egyptian themes are obscure or necessarily revolutionary: it’s a particularly brutal part of history taking place in an unforgiving environment, so it’s pretty easy to make something metal out of it (see also: vikings). But in a field as broad-yet-limited as death metal, even the smallest of tweaks or gimmicks can make you a visionary. When all your contemporaries are squabbling over whose dick is bigger, people will be more inclined to pay attention to an argument that your dick is more unique and interesting (note: not a great ice-breaker with women).
Of course, words like “gimmick” exist to demean what Karl Sanders does with Nile, and by no means is Nile worthy of being shrugged off. Playing ten-fingered riffs blisteringly fast? Karl Sanders is on that shit. Menacing, memorable slow parts that sound oppressively evil and evocative? Karl Sanders has that shit leased with an option to own. If he did none of that well, he and his band would be remembered as That Band That Wrote Songs About Mummies and Stuff. But Amongst The Catacombs Of Nephren-Ka, Annihilation of the Wicked, Those Whom the Gods Detest, and the rest of Nile’s discography are masterful, epic, and brilliant death metal albums with interesting thematic elements. But while there are guys who can play faster and slam harder, none can do it with the soul Nile does. Karl Sanders is that soul, and his playing is much more than a focus on modal riffs in lieu of atonal chromatics. It’s crafting a world of brutal heat, oppressed millions slaving for the benefit of a chosen few, and a complex system of gods, religion, and politics so ancient that it’s completely foreign to us now, all before dropping a pen to a legal pad for lyrics. His dexterity makes him a solid death metal guitarist; his penchant for atmosphere in addition to brutality is what makes him great.
Of course, balancing atmosphere and and brutality isn’t easy, which is why more often than not it involves sacrificing one for the other: Portal are murky and disturbing but aren’t quite brutal, Incantation are toxic and menacing but not quite vicious enough to stand up to their plain ol’ eviscerating peers, and blackened death guys like Behemoth and Vital Remains get the brutal part right, but wind up sacrificing the mood the “blackened” part of their genre signifier often supplies in spades. Not that I’m knocking any of those bands — I think they’re all fucking terrific. But Sanders and co. bring things to another level in terms of weaving the two elements. In early tracks with chintzy synths and typically muddy-sounding guitar (“Ramsees Bringer of War” rises to improbably excellent heights after the song’s first third is dominated with accompaniment that sounds like it came straight out of an episode of Mr. Show with Bob and David) were still brutally illustrative, and latter-day tracks, polished to a blinding clarity, leave the band sounding like a well-oiled machine, with Sanders’ riffs moaning and scrambling about in a decidedly panoramic view, the way they’re meant to be appreciated. But the band have, at any point in their career, been tied to Sanders’ fretwork, and while the band’s subject matter has been its most recognizable aspect (it’s right there in their goddamn name), what makes a Nile song instantly apparent is his guitar.
Of course, atmosphere wouldn’t mean shit to Nile if Sanders weren’t a formidable death metal guitarist. While his riffs are partially known for their emblematic modal nature, they’re also remarkably dense and full of tech-death flourish, expanding and contracting in lightening-fingered complexity. His solos tell the tell tale of the man himself, though: full of sweeps, Slayer-esque squeals, and other master-class tricks, at his core, he’s nothing more than a dedicated metalhead hunched over his guitar for double-digit hours a day. But instead of taking his talent to Jackson-Sponsored Tech-Death Band #684, he formed Nile, a band taking brutal and tech-death to new heights of palatablility and heaviness without sacrificing the uncompromising nature of either subset. With slight and, perhaps in hindsight, obvious tweaks, he blew the limiting world of death metal wide open to bold new thematic possibilities, all without doing the genre wrong. On paper, Nile is nerdy music for guitar nerds. On stereo, they’re the undead breath of an antiquated era, rotten with thousands of years of glorious decay. With sweeps. None of this would be possible without Karl Sanders at the helm.
THE LIST SO FAR