Nocturnus: The key
12/10/12 || Sokaris
If you’ve ever wanted a band that was basically a more technical Morbid Angel under the influence drugs and science fiction VHS tapes (and who fucken hasn’t!?) then you’re in luck because the metal world was bestowed with such an act; the briefly mighty Nocturnus.
Eventual drummer/vocalist of Nocturnus Mike Browning began his death metal career pulling the same double duty for the aforementioned Morbid Angel, recording two demos and the then unreleased full length “Abominations of desolation” (which, interestingly, featured his vocal replacement David Vincent as producer) before inner-band drama, culminating into a fist fight between he and Trey caused his split. Not one to waste time, Browning took Morbid Angel bassist Sterling Von Scarborough with him, adding future Nocturnus member Gino Marino to the mix on the six string. The trio began recording as Incubus. No, not that Incubus, the death metal one. No, not the Christian Incubus, the evil one that only put out 11 minutes of badass material. Anyway that act lived fast, died young and helped pave the way for the band at hand, Nocturnus. Browning and Marino added Richard Bateman (coming out of a stint with much less aggressive metallers Agent Steel) and future Acheron mainmain Vincent Crowley to the lineup and recorded a four track demo. After a lineup overhaul (which included adding a keyboardist to the unit, an unheard of move in extreme metal at the time) another demo was recorded with Savatage frontman Jon Oliva. As the Florida death metal scene began to absolutely explode, the band underwent one last guitarist swap before Earache picked up the band (ironically at the insistence of Trey Azagthoth) and “The key” was brought into existence. Though it sold relatively well, the album’s always been overshadows by some of Nocturnus’ peers that went on to have more prosperous careers and more active tour schedules. In the years since, Nocturnus has become somewhat of a cult act due to their unorthodox instrumentation and atmosphere.
9. If Morbid Angel were dark occult horror then Nocturnus were kind of B-movie sci-fi. I never use “B-movie” as an insult, by the way, give me a passion project over a sterile studio product any damn day. Moving past general aesthetic, Nocturnus provides a technical (in a very shreddy, ever-so-neoclassical way) twisted form of highspeed death metal with bizarre synthesizer effects sprinkled in throughout. Some might be put off by some of the more “out there” elements but every fan of this era of metal owes it to themselves to seek out “The key” and judge for themselves.
8. The low-end of the guitar could use a little more meat to it, though this allows the leads and keyboard parts to cut through more efficiently. The drums have a nice organic sound aside from the snare and the instruments all mesh together well. The cymbals are a little overly loud but generally speaking whatever quirks the production has tend to compliment the overall atmosphere rather than take anything away.
10. Since Nocturnus never touched the dizzying musical zenith of “The key” again it’s really a shame that neither Sean McNenney nor Mike Davis made anther splash into the metal scene. The solos are just goddamn unhinged, unpredictable and absolutely deadly sounding. They’re generally placed unconventionally and only last a short time, taking the listener by storm again and again. The riffs here are extremely memorable even when the band kicks it up to breakneck speed.
8. It’s honestly a little uncanny how much Mike Browning sounds like David Vincent on this album considering the circumstances. What’s genuinely odd is that Mike didn’t have as similar tone when he was actually in Morbid Angel. Anyway, his voice isn’t quite as low as Dave’s but the general deliverance and cadence is almost spot on. As I said, uncanny.
5. Apparently bass was recorded mostly (or even completely) by Mike Davis since bassist Jeff Estes was showing up to sessions drunk. The bass might’ve gotten more attention with a dedicated player, but as is it’s bas(s)ically just there to be there.
10. Damn, Mike Browning was really a maniac. In my research I found he wasn’t really a fan of pushing the speed and technicality the way the other guys were but that didn’t mean he couldn’t keep up. He’s really all over the place, doing intricate high hat work, employing syncopated snare hits, frantic double bass, quick bursts over the kit and even extended fills where he utilizes roto-toms. The fact he was doing vocals as well just blows my mind.
Really it shouldn’t work the way it does. There weren’t a ton of full time keyboardists in metal bands in 1990 but there were some precedents to adding synth elements. Nocturnus didn’t give a shit about what worked before and just went goddamn nuts with crazy spacey sounds. And somehow it worked like a charm.
6. There’s a song about utilizing time-travel to kill baby Jesus (That was always my favorite episode of Dr. Who), robots, zombies, Satan, computerized warfare… it’s just so over-the-top and fits the band’s unorthodox approach. That said the lyrics aren’t necessarily well-written on their own.
7. It’s weak for Dan Seagrave but weak for Dan Seagrave is still pretty badass.
3. Eh, I appreciate that they went for something that wasn’t spiky but its tricky to do wavey letters and still have a badass death metal logo. Thanatos pulled it off but Nocturnus not so much.
6. Fairly classy design. Simple, lyrics over faded out over reviews of the album (this is the 2000 reissue) and a few band photos. The photos themselves aren’t bad but I think hockey hair might’ve been going around their rehearsal space. Remember your vaccinations kids!
Overall and ending rant
As I said before, Nocturnus exhibits a general sound reminiscent of Morbid Angel but their inclusion of keyboards and a more consistently frantic set of tempos makes them a little less accessible and probably more divisive. However they’re a unique little gem of a band that really had some balls and an interesting take on the genre during its golden age. The album sold well in its heyday and Nocturnus are definitely a band you’ll run into if you’re actively looking through the genre (Mike Browning’s involvement, the fact they were on Earache, etc) and that’s all and good but to me for one glorious album Nocturnus were right up there with the best in the scene. And that’s saying a lot when your scene has Obituary, Death, Deicide and Morbid Angel, just to name a few.
By the way, Global Dominator deluxe Habakuk’s regular review of “The key” is a recommended read as well.
- Released: 1990
- Label: Earache Records
- Website: Nocturnus MySpace
- Mike Browning: vocals, drums
- Sean McNenney: guitars
- Mike Davis: guitars
- Jeff Estes: bass
- Louis Panzer: keyboards
- 01. Lake of fire
- 02. Standing in blood
- 03. Visions from beyond the grave
- 04. Neolithic
- 05. Undead journey
- 06. Before Christ/After death
- 07. Andromeda strain
- 08. Droid sector
- 09. Destroying the manger
- 10. Empire of the sands