Nile: Pyramid Schemes

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Originally published in Guitar World, June 2010

Nile explain the point behind their latest death metal anthem, Those Whom the Gods Detest, and show how to play their classic song “Black Seeds of Vengeance” and the new track “Hittite Dung Incantation.”

When it comes to taking on the gods, Karl Sanders is having himself a devil of a good time. As the guitarist, vocalist and lyricist behind Nile, Sanders has explored ancient Egyptian mysticism in his songs ever since the group’s 1998 debut, Amongst the Catacombs of Nephren-Ka, and at times incorporated traditional Egyptian instruments in the group’s blazing-fast technical death metal.

But with Those Whom the Gods Detest, the band’s sixth and latest record, Sanders has kicked up his lyrical attack more than a notch. This time out, he’s not just dabbling in the occult—he’s teasing and taunting the deities of many cultures, and in doing so, he pokes his finger in the eyes of believers everywhere.

Those Whom the Gods Detest is a statement of universal opposition against all gods,” says Sanders. He’s clearly an equal-opportunity offender: Sanders’ anti-god antagonism extends to everything from ancient Egyptian deities to Islam. The latter is evidenced by the opening verse of “Kafir,” in which he excerpts the line “There is no god but God” from the Islamic creed Shahada. Just a few bars later, he impiously spins it into a death metal declaration: “There is no God / Allah Akhbar!”

“It’s just a little naughty fun,” Sanders says, but he admits that he’s been startled by some listeners’ responses. “At first, I wasn’t worried. But lately I’ve been getting a lot of emails from people who are upset about us using terms from the Koran.”

“It boggles my mind that certain people would get upset about that stuff,” adds Nile’s co-guitarist/vocalist Dallas Toler-Wade. “It’s entertainment, and you shouldn’t take it so seriously.”

For all their fun-loving blasphemy, the two guitarists are dead serious when it comes to their playing. Toler-Wade says, “We’re always working on new licks, patterns, modes and scales to find new stuff to incorporate into Nile’s sound.” On Those Whom the Gods Detest, the two guitarists deliver their trademark dissonance, parallel-fifths “Egyptian” harmonies, fleet-fingered leads and distinct “pulsing on the eights” rhythmic phrasing. And to make their note articulation as clean as possible, they spent a fair amount of time tightening up their alternate picking. To that end, Toler-Wade looked to the teachings of his primary guitar influence, Paul Gilbert.

“Paul Gilbert’s playing is super clean,” he says. “I’ve been practicing licks from [Gilbert’s 1989 instructional video] Intense Rock [Sequences & Techniques] for almost 15 years. It helped me improve back in the day, but running through those three-notes-per-string patterns still helps me maintain my playing today.”

When it came time to track the material that would make up Those Whom the Gods Detest, Nile booked more studio hours than they had on previous outings, which helped the players achieve new levels of recording perfection. “Our goal was to nail and capture everything we do as cleanly as possible,” Sanders says. “It took more time to record this album, but the result is that everything is clean, articulate and able to be heard in all its glory.”

During Nile’s recent tour stop in Los Angeles, we sat down with Sanders and Toler-Wade for an in-depth interview and lesson, in which the guitarists reveal the secrets behind Nile’s exotic style of death metal and show you how to play the classic track “Black Seeds of Vengeance,” and “Hittite Dung Incantation” from Those Whom the Gods Detest.

GUITAR WORLD “Black Seeds of Vengeance” [from 2000’s Black Seeds of Vengeance] has become one of your best-known tracks. Do you remember how that song came together?

KARL SANDERS I remember a few interesting tidbits about that one. The chorus riff was the first part I created. It came out of experimenting with new finger shapes in drop-A tuning [drop-D tuning down two and one half steps: low to high, A E A D F# B]. When I was making the demo, the guys from Immolation were in town for a show, and they dropped by. They listened to it and were like, “Oh my god, you’ve put a catchy chorus in death metal! What a great idea!” Ten years later, we can’t leave the building without closing the set with that song, because people would get really upset. But there are enough twists and turns in the song to keep it fun for Dallas and me.

GW What inspired the lyrics?

SANDERS “Black Seeds of Vengeance” has to do with the Amalekites, who were an ancient tribe of awful people living in the desert. Not only did they torture the Egyptians but they also followed the Hebrews around after they made their exodus to the desert. They would kill off stragglers, kidnap kids and women, kill their animals and destroy their food supply. They were a pretty disgusting nomadic tribal people. It was said that Amalek, the leader of the Amalekites, would be the first one to burn in hell.

GW For the song’s verse riff, you alternate between unmuted and muted riffing, and you use harmonies. How do you play that?

DALLAS TOLER-WADE You can play the verse unmuted [FIGURE 1], but on the record we also play a muted version of it. Then there’s an octave harmony that goes along with it, which is actually a fifth above [FIGURE 2].

SANDERS The octaves create that stereotypical “Egyptian” sound. There are a lot of root/fifth parallels. It’s fun to play, and it’s very evil sounding and Slayer-like. And if it sounds like Slayer, it must be cool.

GW The chorus has that exotic quality, too.

SANDERS Yeah, the chorus riff is also a root/fifth kind of thing [FIGURE 3]. I discovered that with the drop tuning, the power chord is right there on the bottom two strings and you can make those quick chord changes pretty easily, as you only need to use one finger to play each chord.

GW Dallas, you take a ripping solo in this song. Did you plan it in advance, or did you just go for it when the time came?

TOLER-WADE I didn’t even know I was supposed to take a solo until we were in the studio, and Karl asked me if I wanted to do one. So I cut that one right there on the spot. That section of the song is in the [concert] key of A, so I was able to just play in that key and blaze. I probably did that solo in two or three takes. I knew I would end up coming out of it into the melody Karl had, and then he could tear into his solo.

GW Can you break down the solo for us?

TOLER-WADE It starts off with a whole-step bend, and then I do a descending fours pattern on the A harmonic minor scale [FIGURE 4]. Then the end [FIGURE 5] harmonizes with the beginning of Karl’s solo and functions like a transition or hand-off.

GW A distinct aspect of Nile’s rhythmic approach to 4/4 time is that you accent notes in groups of eight rather than four. What inspired that choice, and what benefits does it provide?

TOLER-WADE Before I started playing in Nile, I always felt the pulse in groups of four 16th notes [FIGURE 6]. But when I started jamming with Karl, he got me feeling the pulse in eight-note groups, what we call “pulsing on the eights” [FIGURE 7]. I found that it allowed me to pick faster because I was more relaxed and less frantic. You can also do the same thing in 3/4, where you feel the pulse in six-note groups [FIGURE 8].

SANDERS Besides making it more manageable as a player—because you’re not as tense when you’re not digging into every fourth note—it’s also easier for the listener to interpret. It places the death metal pulse into something that the listener can grab onto more easily, and it makes it more musical. I learned this approach by watching Trey [Azagthoth] of Morbid Angel. I asked him about it once, but he wouldn’t reveal it! [laughs] So I figured it out on my own.

GW Are there any tricks that help you negotiate the rapid position shifts?

SANDERS I like to begin practicing really slowly with the metronome. It allows your hand to get used to shifting in the time within the space you’ve allotted. You train your hand and your brain at the same time, and then increase your speed as you go.

TOLER-WADE As far as guitar licks that help increase musicianship or speed, I still use the same simple Paul Gilbert–style lick I’ve practiced for years [FIGURE 9]. It requires a lot of clarity in the picking and synchronization between the two hands. You have to make sure to keep alternate picking and not use double-downstrokes or anything. If you can master this exercise, it will help your speed a lot.

GW You guys also like to break up your burning staccato runs with legato phrasing. What does that construction add to your lines?

SANDERS There is a lot of tension and release in what we do. We have the burning fast stuff mixed with some soulful bending or melodies that help frame the minor chords and make them really speak. We really wind it up and then give it room to breathe, which allows the music to swell.

GW Let’s talk about “Hittite Dung Incantation,” from Those Whom the Gods Detest. Karl, you wrote this one with drummer George Kollias. Do you two have a particular collaboration process?

SANDERS Usually, I’ll come up with the riffs and send him a demo with a click track. I get really elaborate with the click track, and show him where the song goes into cut time, where the blast beats go, and all of that. Then he comes up with all of the drum parts, and we go back and forth until we nail it. When I work with Dallas, either one of us will write the song all the way out. We very rarely put riffs into each other’s songs.

TOLER-WADE Usually we’ll sit down at each other’s house and show what we’ve got. We used to live two or three blocks away from each other in Greenville, South Carolina, but in the last couple years we’ve moved into new houses. But we’re still only about three miles apart.

GW Karl, how’d you come up with that crazy title?

SANDERS It comes from a Hittite [an ancient people that lived in what is now Syria circa 18th century B.C.] practice where one can cleanse whatever spell or sorcery one might have on himself by going to this old Hittite woman, who would smear dog excrement on you and chant some mumbo jumbo. It’s a ridiculous concept. For some reason it came to mind when I watched that scene in the movie Step Brothers with Will Farrell, where those schoolyard bullies make them lick the dried dog shit.

GW You had a custom double-neck built so you could play this song live. What can you tell us about the guitar?

SANDERS This doubleneck guitar is made by KXK guitars in San Diego. And the genesis of the guitar is really my stupidity. “Hittite Dung Incantation” was written in drop A, but when we were tracking, I played the solos on a guitar tuned to drop D, thinking, We probably won’t play this song on tour. Well, of course when it came time to tour, we added the song to the set. So I came up with the idea for a double-neck with the bottom neck tuned to drop A and the top to drop D. So I got a hold of Rob [Kaufman] from KXK, and he built this labor of love for me.

GW The guitar also has some seriously scalloped frets. Why do you prefer those?

SANDERS This guitar is über-scalloped! [laughs] I like them because it gives you greater control over the notes. It doesn’t make you go faster or anything, but you can be really expressive with the notes and do some ridiculous string bending and shaking. If you tried that kind of bending on an unscalloped fretboard you’d kill your hand. The extreme bending is also good for when the band is going really fast and the blast beats are flying, because the bent notes soar over top of all that and really allow room for the rest of the band to be musical.

GW Does the scalloped fretboard also require you to be more precise with chording?

SANDERS Absolutely. It took me a month of many practice hours to learn how to relax my hand enough to play chords in tune. A lot of times people will pick up my guitars and sound absolutely horrible on them.

GW Dallas, you’re using a Dean Dime Razorback V to play this song. What do you like about the guitar?

TOLER-WADE It’s a great one, and I haven’t really done anything to it except take out the pickups and add one Seymour Duncan Invader that goes straight to the jack—the less electronics the better. My solos require the whammy bar, so that comes in handy, of course. I’ve always liked the Deans with the tremolos, because if you’re dive bombing or pulling back, it always returns to zero. The Deans are the only guitars I’ve ever had that do that.

GW “Hittite Dung Incantation” has an interesting descending opening riff.

SANDERS The intro riff for this song [FIGURE 10] is a descending, Rusty Cooley–style lick bastardized into death metal. The third time around it goes to a higher position and the notes change a little bit. Then the main verse riff is built by using a bastardized Paul Gilbert–style lick, like what Dallas talked about earlier [FIGURE 9]. We wind it up nice and fast, but the important thing is to emphasize the groove by muting certain notes or chords and letting up on the muting for others. We’ve discovered you can give life to a musical phrase by playing close attention to how it’s articulated and muting or unmuting selectively. It really makes the phrase jump out of the speakers.

GW There’s a cool descending minor triads break in the song, too. How do you play that part?

SANDERS For that section [FIGURE 11] we’re playing wide-interval voicings of minor triads, with a root/fifth power chord on the bottom and the minor third voiced above it on the next higher string, which makes it a 10th. I then double the fifth and root and octave higher above that on the top two strings to create a stacked voicing. We also give it a little vibrato to make the minor chord stand out. I mean, it is death metal, so it has to have a minor tonality.

TOLER-WADE That section is a prime example of the benefits of having the scalloped fretboard, because Karl’s actually shaking the whole five-string minor chord voicing. He’s able to barre and shake the top three strings, whereas on my guitar, with its nonscalloped fretboard and thicker treble strings, I can’t do that full chord shake. Instead, I just finger and vibrato the bottom three notes.

GW Karl, tell us how you play the sweep-picked arpeggio lick in your solo.

SANDERS As I mentioned, I play this solo in regular drop-D tuning, and the idea for it is a straight D minor arpeggio swept across the strings in a couple of different positions, but I end on the flat five [Ab] for some terrifying dissonance [FIGURE 12]. To name-drop another one of my friends, it’s really a run in the style of Jeff Loomis.

GW You use discordant chords to create tension. Can you point to any artists that inspired you to explore the power of dissonance?

SANDERS Classical composers and soundtracks use a lot of dissonance as a device to evoke suspense, terror and mystery. So we’re just doing that when we play the discordant chords. In this example, [FIGURE 13] I’m just taking a stacked power chord shape across all six strings and moving the higher notes up or down to create some really jarring #11, b9 and b6 sounds.

GW You guys also seem to strike a nice balance in your music between flashy and tasteful, which is sometimes lost in extreme metal.

SANDERS If you use the right lick at the right time, only then can you make music. As guitar players, we all want to play the fastest licks we can, but it can be a bit much for the average fan and listener. Saving the killer lick for the right time is kind of like Kung-Fu: You want to do the right move at the right time to achieve the most efficient result. So make that shit count!