A Tomb With a View

Drumming for death metal's Nile is a back-breaking job.

Nile's George Kollias (left), with Karl Sanders (center) and Dallas Toler-Wade.
Nile's George Kollias (left), with Karl Sanders (center) and Dallas Toler-Wade.
The trouble with being a pharaoh in ancient Egypt was that it was impossible to forget the untimely end of your predecessor. Just ask the dude who succeeded King Tut.

George Kollias, the drummer for Nile, finds himself in a similar spot, yet he has willingly assumed death metal's most dangerous throne.

Pete Hammoura, Nile's previous percussionist, pounded 250-beats-per-minute rhythms that were as labyrinthine as pyramid passages. After he enjoyed several years as a godlike figure, worshiped with slack-jawed awe on drum-related message boards, Hammoura's shoulder finally collapsed.

"He gave his shoulder to metal," singer Karl Sanders solemnly told Pit magazine.

That left the job open, for anyone willing to ignore the ominous chalk outline behind the drum kit. Kollias stepped up.

Speaking into his cell phone from a Houston tour stop, Kollias discusses potential injury in grave tones. He hasn't arranged insurance for his rotator cuffs or feet -- due to the brutal pedal work that blast beats entail, podiatric policies are common -- because he finds the possibility of life after death metal too depressing to ponder.

"If something will happen, I will [commit] suicide, because drumming's my life," he says.

Growing up in Korinthos, Greece, Kollias found few friends who shared his interest in such groups as Death and Angel Corpse. And no teacher had the chops to teach him how to play "cruiser" (his term for exceptionally fast drumming).

Using trial-and-error techniques, Kollias played along with his favorite records and joined the band Extremity Obsession as a teenager. In 1998, he started working with Greek jazz-fusion master Yannis Stavropoulos. The next year, he moved to Athens to give his own lessons.

"Composing is so much important for a drummer, and not only speed," he says. "It's more natural for me to be able to play 250 bpm, and that's really impressive for younger drummers, but they forget about the point of drumming."

Kollias' next band, Sickening Horror, incorporated his newfound jazz chops, resulting in stuttering syncopations and Latin splashes executed at blitzkrieg speed. His work with this group as well as the more traditional heavy outfit Nightfall, attracted the attention of drumming titan Derek Roddy, who knew that Nile, with whom he served a brief stint, was seeking a new rhythmic backbone.

With 1998's Amongst the Catacombs of Nephren-Ka, the South Carolina-based Nile revived a genre that was becoming creatively moribund. The English press anointed the band as death metal's savior, a designation Sanders greets in interviews with a dramatic rendition of a Life of Brian line: "I'm not the messiah!"

Divinity aside, this is an outfit that has become more musically and intellectually ambitious with each album. In Their Darkened Shrines, the most recent release before Kollias joined, includes an instrumentally encyclopedic four-part title track and an expanded section of liner notes, featuring historical annotations for each song.

Nile's guitarists Sanders and Dallas Toler-Wade mailed Kollias a demo of the in-progress song "Chapter of Obeisance . . ."

"We sent it with no drums at all, just an impossible, confusing click track," Sanders writes in the liner notes to 2005's Annihilation of the Wicked, the album on which the track appears. "Many of the song's guitar riffs are 'odd time polyrhythmic,' and when heard with only a simple click, make absolutely no sense on their own."

Undaunted, Kollias arrived in America for rehearsals with a relentlessly evolving stream of rolls and fills that matched, and even surpassed, the composition's complexity. Unlike previous Nile drummers, he was invited to participate directly in the songwriting process.

"I am too lucky, because we have a good chemistry between us," he says. "It's so good for me in a musical way, and in my life as well."

The members of Nile share a house, and Kollias felt secure about his decision to leave Greece when he saw Sanders' original lyric sheets, printed in authentic ancient script on papyrus scrolls.

"That's exactly what I imagined," he says. "I love his lyrics, man. They have something magical."

Nile's music retains a mystical feel, thanks to archaic melody structures, anachronistic dialects, and exotic instruments (tablas, tamburas, sitars). But the band's obsession with authenticity doesn't translate to traditional garb onstage, which means no replica tombs or members dressed as mummies. The only special effects come from the gale force of fans setting their billowing manes in motion. Even that spectacle has its pragmatic side, since it's likely that Nile's members would collapse from heat exhaustion without a powerful cooling device.

"No band playing death metal will ever have an Iron Maiden budget," Sanders says. "Even if it could happen, I don't know if that's tied in with the spirit of death metal. Nile is more focused on the music, and we're just there to play our music."

Without gaudy distractions, spectators tend to focus on Kollias' mammoth drum set. It's impressive, but not ostentatious -- he actually uses the gong.

"My drum kit for Sickening Horror is much, much bigger," he says. "I used to play with 20 cymbals, and now I have 15, because we don't need more."

Kollias plays a signature snare drum from Gabriel, making him the first death-metal drummer to earn that honor. He promises exponentially more elaborate rhythms on the next Nile album -- he's composing many of these drum parts on guitar -- and plans to release an instructional video this spring. If he makes it through this Nile tour unscathed (so far, "No pain, no tired," he says), perhaps he'll pursue his most daunting challenge yet: A seat with a Greek jazz ensemble.

Says Kollias: "I would love to, but to be honest, I don't think I -- how you say? -- have the balls."