NOCTURNUS — The Key (review)

NOCTURNUS — The Key album cover Album · 1990 · Technical Death Metal Buy this album from MMA partners
5/5 ·
siLLy puPPy
While forever destined to go down in metal history as the ugly stepchild of Morbid Angel, one of the Tampa scene’s most enduring legacies and possible greatest product of the thriving Florida death metal scene, NOCTURNUS was a very strange extreme metal band that despite being lumped into the technical death metal crowds, really existed in its own little world. The band was started by ex-Morbid Angel drummer (1983-86) and vocalist Mike Browning in 1987 after the breakup of his short-lived band Incubus (no, not that one!) however guitarist Gino Marino tagged along for a short while and after many lineup changes the band found stability with the team of Browning (vocals, drums), Mike Davis (guitar, bass), Sean McNenney (guitar), Jeff Estes (bass) and Louis Panzer (keyboards). The band cut a couple demos and then set out to create one of the most unique extreme albums of the entire era.

In the nascent years when death metal was just taking its first steps with the likes of Death, Morbid Angel, Obituary, Atheist and Autopsy introducing the world to a ramped up unforgiving style of relentless heavy metal run amok, NOCTURNUS were looking way ahead to the next level. The band stood out like a sore thumb with one of the earliest uses of an atmospheric keyboard player in the midst of a brutal guitar, bass and drum orotundity that was all the stranger for developing highly sophisticated sci-fi concepts about an evil overlord from the future sending a cyborg back in time to assassinate Jesus Christ so that the tenets of Christianity would never be allowed to take root and thus allowing the seeds of evil to gain the upper hand on a much earlier timeline. Sounds like someone was watching the Terminator movie just a wee bit much, huh?

For all its seemingly cheesified subject matter, the band’s debut album THE KEY released in 1990 is a stunning powerhouse of highly developed technical extreme metal that was not only looking ahead by incorporating new aspects of metal yet to be accepted by a wider audience but was also mining the past, thus THE KEY not only fits in that awkward moment when the difference between the thrash and death metal sub-genera was a bit fuzzy but also displayed moments of neoclassical power metal as well as highly complex elements from progressive rock that were only recently finding their way into the metal paradigm. The results of this unusual for the time amalgamation of sounds is that NOCTURNUS created an unrivaled style that has scarcely been replicated even several decades after this album’s initial release. Likewise the occult themes and atmospheric accoutrements portended the evolution of the black metal scene that would find its heyday in the 90s and beyond.

While the keyboard sounds which are used for intros and subdued atmospheric grounding rods of sort get the most attention as this was unprecedented at the time, the true strength of THE KEY is the dual technical guitar attacks of Davis and McNenney who combined a hefty Morbid Angel styled barrage of riffing coupled with thrash metal techniques introduced by both Metallica and Megadeth. Add to that the exquisite virtuosity of the many different sections of neoclassical soloing and it doesn’t take long to realize that the guitar aspects of the album are by far the dominant features. With a very few exceptions such as the clean guitar arpeggiated intro of “BC-AD,” the album provides a ferocious stampede of pummeling percussive drive and high octane guitar orotundity all glazed over by the lush ethereal keyboards that more often than not fade into the background but at key moments provide the main rhythmic stomp as the soloing frenzies are let off the leash. The only instrument that seems to be buried for the most part is the bass but there are moments when it finds their own voice and emerge from the deafening din.

NOCTURNUS’ debut album may not be one that sinks into your skin instantly. It certainly didn’t for me. This album took quite a few spins before its magic really grabbed me and pulled me into its idiosyncratic sci-fi imbued extreme metal soundscape and really smacked me in the face. While superficially existing in the early 90s timeline with the heavy extreme guitar riffage and Marty Friedman-esque guitar solo workouts, the intricate constructs of the progressively infused compositions takes THE KEY to an entirely new level of sophistication. This was a case where the band was a little bit ahead of its time and although NOCTURNUS released a sophomore album titled “Thresholds” in 1992 and an eponymously titled EP the following year, the band would call it quits in 93 but would reform for a third album several years later. THE KEY dishes out everything i love about old school death metal but with progressive and atmospheric twists that use the sci-fi narrative as their guide. The album is exquisitely performed and there are literally no weak tracks on this magnum opus. A slow burner for sure but one that has been gaining more steam over the ensuing decades.
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siLLy puPPy wrote:
28 days ago
Jazz drumming has a huge history covering the entire 20tth century so as you can imagine there is a multitude of different styles. Much of tech metal's percussive magic is derived from one or several of these styles (as is prog rock). The delivery is clearly in the metal realms but the techniques are very much from the jazz playbooks.
UMUR wrote:
28 days ago
To my ears Browning´s drumming is the exact opposite of what I perceive as jazz drumming.
siLLy puPPy wrote:
28 days ago
Ah, i don't know why certain growly vocals work for me and others don't but i'm a jazz lover so angular drumming takes it to another level for me.
UMUR wrote:
28 days ago
Way ahead of its time because of how the keyboards are used, but most of the basic parts of the music is pretty basic old school thrash influenced death metal. I enjoy this one, although I was never too impressed by drummer/Singer Mike Browning. Neither his staccato delivered semi-growling or his angular drumming.

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