by Will York

We've been through a lot of shit," boasts Jörgen Sandström, bassist for Swedish death metal pioneers Entombed. "Lineup changes, a few managers, a bunch of bookers, fuck-ups from record labels, bus crashes...."

Add to that list of troubles defecting band members, chronic distributor woes, and trend after hostile trend within the metal underground. But like cockroaches, Lemmy from Motörhead, and death metal itself, Entombed refuse to keel over--they just keep mutating and coming back stronger.

As a death metal fan, it's hard not to root for Entombed. Sure, there are groups that are more popular, influential, and technically dazzling, but none can sum up what's cool about the genre better than these guys did on songs like Clandestine's "Living Dead" or Left Hand Path's "But Life Goes On."

Plus, for all its strange twists, their decade-and-a-half career neatly parallels that of the genre as a whole. They were one of the original bands on the preeminent Earache label, and they've sold hundreds of thousands of records over the years, even earning a few Swedish Grammy nominations. They've also been written off as sellouts and otherwise left for dead by even their once-faithful old fans.

Entombed were the biggest, baddest band to emerge from the great Swedish death metal explosion of the late '80s and early '90s, which coincided with a worldwide golden age for the gore-obsessed genre. While hair metal was fading and thrash bands like Slayer and Pantera were earning their first gold records, the death metal bands ruled the underground. England's Carcass and Napalm Death; Florida's Death, Deicide, Morbid Angel, and Obituary; and New York's Suffocation and Cannibal Corpse--these heathens took rock 'n' roll to its heaviest, most ludicrous extreme, wowing diehards and repelling everyone else with onslaughts of growled vocals, guttural guitars, and clobbering double-bass drums: The genre's popularity has ebbed and flowed since then, but it's never gotten close to garnering a cultural tombstone.

* * *

In the cult underworld of death metal, Nile are currently one of the genre's most recognized bands, alongside elder statesmen Morbid Angel and perennially tasteless popularizers Cannibal Corpse. To the outsider, their premise will probably seem a little ridiculous: Four burly guys from South Carolina writing meticulously researched songs about ancient Egypt, then delivering them in an indecipherable torrent of blasting drums and lower-than-low vocals. But it's no joke.

Egyptology obsessions aside, Nile are representative of the wave of second-generation bands--along with the likes of Brazil's Krisiun, Canada's Cryptopsy and Kataklysm, and current tourmates Vader--that came to death metal's rescue in the late '90s as the original platoon had begun to lose steam. At the time, heavy-hitters Carcass, Napalm Death, and Entombed were then moving in a less-extreme direction (to the chagrin of stubborn fans), while meat-and-potatoes standbys such as Obituary were becoming old news with the rise of the more majestic, atmospheric black metal bands from Norway. These new extreme bands helped to up the death metal ante to new levels of insanity, inspired by the bionic musicianship of pioneers Morbid Angel and bolstered by superhuman chops and stamina.

Nile in particular managed to do so while also adding layers of orchestration--chants, gongs, authentic Egyptian folk instruments--that were new to the genre and, amazingly enough, didn't sound terrible. Live, the sight of this band--fronted by a trio of grunting, growling men wrestling impossibly dense and complex riff mutations from their fretboards at warp speed--is legitimately awe-inspiring.

Asked what it was about ancient Egypt that grabbed his fascination, Nile frontman Karl Sanders responds, "I think the monumental, grandiose scale of it all--it's completely larger than life. It's probably completely more fascinating than my home state of South Carolina."

This telling quote points to the sense of spectacle--and fiction, for God's, or, uh Satan's sake--that's so important with this music. It also highlights the fact that, in death metal, it's not where you're from that matters, but how you sound. Historically, certain subgenres have had strongholds--Germany and the Bay Area for speed metal; Florida, Sweden, and upstate New York for death metal; Norway for black metal--but ultimately, a band can come from Cleveland and folks won't ask too many questions. Nile's supporting cast on this tour--Vader, German thrash vets Kreator, Swedish Viking-metal warriors Amon Amarth, and Louisiana's Goatwhore--attests to this truth.

"Death metal or grindcore music is kind of different [from other genres]," explains Marco Moriguti, who runs the way-underground Brazilian Sonic Death label. "I can have a label known by people in the U.S., France, Germany, India, Japan, Cuba, and Israel, and to my neighbors I'm just a long-haired dreamer."

And while you don't have to become a hair farmer to appreciate death metal, you do need to use your imagination--the music doesn't always make sense under close scrutiny. But like pro wrestling and Santa Claus, you just play along with it. That would be tougher to do with a band like Nile if they weren't so thorough with their presentation--there are no holes in that armor.

At least, onstage there aren't. Offstage, it's a different story. In person, Sanders is friendly and animated, more likely to talk about watching the Discovery Channel than fantasizing about hacking off some dude's phallus or unwrapping mummies. And while it doesn't show in the music, he also has a sense of humor about himself.

"I think people take death metal ideas much too seriously," argues Sanders. "We might be writing about heavy subject matter, but you cannot actually live those lyrics. You can't do it. Hello, people! It's all entertainment."

His attitude is actually the norm within death metal circles. It forms a stark contrast with the humorless early-'90s Norwegian black metal bands documented in the book Lords of Chaos--corpse-painted bands who burned churches. Leading acts such as Mayhem and Burzum represented a small subset of Hessians who felt that death metal hadn't gone far enough in its transgressions. They attempted to live out the gory evil expressed in their music, with several of them winning prison sentences for murder in the process.

"Most of these bands were death metal bands when they started," explains Entombed's Sandström, "but extreme ones that wanted it to be for extreme people only. Of course it is sad that some of them murdered people; that is never a good thing. I think it was mostly that they wanted to keep the scene underground. They got fed up with all the bands getting signed and that death metal bands showed up on TV shows baking buns."

* * *

It's safe to say that none of America's death metal survivors will be buttering buns on TV anytime soon. However, after years of nü-metal and nth-generation grunge tyranny, the popularity pendulum is finally swinging back toward heavier types of metal--if still not quite death metal in the biblical sense. After a long sabbatical, MTV2 is resurrecting Headbanger's Ball and issuing a double-disc compilation CD, which, in addition to familiar losers like Staind and Godsmack, also spotlights legitimately heavy bands Lamb of God, Mastodon, and Shadows Fall, as well as crossover-friendly, vaguely deathish Swedes such as Arch Enemy, In Flames, and Soilwork.

The last time the metal underground and the mainstream rubbed shoulders like this was in the mid-'90s. Morbid Angel had signed to Warner Bros. subsidiary Giant Records, and Earache had formed its brief alliance with Columbia/Sony, bringing with it the deathly triumvirate of Napalm Death, Carcass, and Entombed. Despite making some of the best and (relatively) most accessible music of their careers during this era, none of these bands made enough money to satisfy their new corporate bosses.

As Ian Christe's recent metal history, Sound of the Beast, notes, Morbid Angel and Napalm Death have managed to sell more than a million albums each over their careers. Meanwhile, Relapse Records reports Nile have sold an impressive 100,000 records in their mere three-album lifespan, eclipsing the Dillinger Escape Plan as the label's best-selling current band.

But in an age when even Mariah Carey can get dropped for selling a mere two million copies, these slow and steady sales obviously don't cut it in major-label land. Besides, there's a built-in limit to how many units a band can shift while staying true to its roots--illegible band logos, repulsive growled vocals, gruesome album covers.

"Death metal is one of the purest forms of alternative music," argues Nile's Sanders, "'cause you're never gonna hear it on the radio--not in a million years. So the people who are doing it are some of the most idealistically pure musicians you're gonna find. We do it because we love the music--we love what we're doing--and that's why we keep going, no matter what the cost."

* * *

Part of death metal's charm comes from this single-minded dedication to the cause that Sanders speaks about. Some would argue that the genre's expiration date is almost up (or that it's already come and gone), but the majority of the bands out there are either too committed or too oblivious to care what people think. And critics be damned, the flood of death metal releases doesn't seem to have a dam in sight.

"A lot of people don't realize that, in terms of creative output, metal's going stronger than ever, simply because all types of music are going really strong," argues Collector's Guide to Heavy Metal author Martin Popoff. He adds, "It's really cheap and easy to make CDs these days."

Others argue that more than technology has changed. "When I started Lofty Storm Records [eight years ago]," says Moriguti, "there weren't many people doing what I was doing and it was much easier to find cool bands to release. Bands are not that original anymore and prefer to follow the steps of their predecessors, [which is] just sad because there's still so much dementia to be explored. Rotten corpses and guts are just boring now. The world is still a great place for any deranged mind, because it has never been so insane and sick."

For all the press heaped on the current Swedish scene, Sandström also casts his vote for the good old days. "Back in the late '80s and early '90s, Sweden had the best death metal scene in the world. Entombed, Dismember, Grave, Unleashed, Tiamat, Desultory, Unanimated, Merciless, Edge of Sanity, At the Gates: All were releasing albums that the outside world just loved. Bands try to copy that sound all the time still, but I think it is not even worth trying. I don't think any band can redo what was made at that time."

They're not the only nostalgic ones. Last year, one of the best releases on the prolific underground-metal behemoth Century Media was an album by Bloodbath, a nostalgic throwback to the glory days of Swedish death rendered by an all-star lineup featuring members of Opeth and gloomy alt-metallers Katatonia. Meanwhile, Earache recently put out a series of LP reissues of classics like Left Hand Path, At the Gates' Slaughter of the Soul, and Carcass' Heartwork, a reminder of how much great death metal was issued way back when. In comparison, many of today's bands are merely reinventing the wheel, with better technique and fancier equipment, but not necessarily better ideas.

But even though death metal itself isn't in its freshest state, its influence on loud rock music is everywhere. Relapse's stable of forward-looking grind-metal acts, including Soilent Green, Burnt by the Sun, and the Dillinger Escape Plan, continue to skillfully twist death metal influences into a maze of hardcore, prog, math, and even Southern rock stylings. The Locust, Daughters!, and others have brought elements of death metal's complex attack to the artier noise-punk underground, while hardcore-scene graduates Killswitch Engage, God Forbid, Darkest Hour, and future Osbournes guests Bleeding Through have been giving suburban teens plenty of secondhand exposure to the joys of Swedish death metal.

Speaking of which, Entombed's own recent albums have been a lesson in how to stay relevant. Following 1998's disappointing Same Difference, an attempt at an artier, more "alternative" direction, they've bounced back in 2000 with Uprising, followed by 2001's Morning Star and this year's Inferno. Combining aspects of the band's thrashy beginnings with the bluesy hard-rock leanings of their subsequent years, these albums have been widely hailed as the band's best since Wolverine Blues.

"We are still death metal, but not in its purest form," explains Sandström, acknowledging the evolution evident in their current rough-around-the-edges sound. "We get influences from basically everywhere, and we're not afraid of showing it."

But as they've shown in the past, and as Nile have shown, death metal is about more than just a specific distorted guitar sound or lyrics about "rotten guts and corpses." There's an attitude of defiance and a commitment--a love for the game--that has to be there; otherwise, as so many pale imitators have shown, the rest of the act is pointless.

"We have been through a lot of shit," summarizes the Swede, "but we have also experienced a lot from it. And I think that has made us what we are today."

Nile, Kreator, Vader, Amon Amarth, and Goatwhore perform at Graceland on Sun Oct 12, 8 pm, $22 adv.

Entombed play with King Diamond, Nocturne, and Single Bullet Theory at the Fenix Underground on Sat Oct 25, 8 pm $12.

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