Nocturnus - The Key

Nocturnus - The Key

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(1990, Earache Records)

When a Metal subgenre builds a base of patterns and musical ideals that define and explain it, then you can say it’s rightfully called a ‘genre’. And then comes a band or two or more that pour in a new prospect while also using the aforementioned roots and you end up wondering if the genre can tolerate new (or sometimes called ‘alien’) ideas or if these new bands can be labeled as charge d'affaires of the genre. Quite complex, huh? Well, not that much. It has happened in Hard Rock, in traditional Metal, in Doom or Power or Thrash and – as years passed by – each and every Metal genre has seen innovative outfits standing on the crossroad of typicality and progression. Something like this happened to Death Metal some more than two decades ago.

Keyboards in Death Metal? Come again: KEYBOARDS IN DEATH METAL?

The rise of the 90s saw the establishment and further recognition of American Death Metal owing a lot to growling deathlike vocals, faster-than-thrashin’ speeds, twisted hallowed over-heavy guitar riffs and some profound zombie-friendly sound and bands like DEATH, OBITUARY, MORBID ANGEL and DEICIDE have now historically claimed to be the first heralds of a style that gradually incorporated Grind (US) or Doom (UK/Sweden)  elements in order to spread its rotten wings to the worldwide audience in search of more extremity in Metal music. And then, one band from Florida steps in and creates so much buzz in the extreme Metal circuit with something that no one ever would imagine, a symbol of betrayal and an emblem fighting the axioms till then instituted. Yes, keyboards.

NOCTURNUS formed in Tampa, Florida somewhere in 1987. Early offering a first element of surprise, the band’s mainman Mike Browning (ex-MORBID ANGEL) was both the drummer and vocalist. Their self-titled demo in 1987 did not reveal that much of the band’s upcoming profile but – after a series of lineup changes – it was the “Science Of Horror” 1988 demo (produced by none other than SAVATAGE mainman Jon Oliva) that created a murmur in the underground trading circuit. Trey Azagthoth (a real Metal futurist) helped the band securing a contract with Earache Records and as soon as the debut album was recorded and released it was obvious that NOCTURNUS was something different, something the Death Metal genre would have to work hard and accept.

“The Key” – recorded at Morrisound Studio and produced by Tom Morris and the band – introduced the band’s music to an audience left in awe. The music definitely is Death Metal but it’s not only about low-tuned guitars and growling vocals here. Keyboards are an instrument having each one share, with multi-layered backups and lead themes, while the guitars compete in shredding and progressive melodies/harmonies. The rhythm section comes up with variety in speeds and the vocals are deep and apocalypse-clad. The lyrics themes are sci-fi related and tie with the music so well that you can hardly believe this is a deathsters’ making. “Lake Of Fire”, “Standing in Blood” and “BC/AD” stand out as eternal Death Metal diamonds in a set of equally excellent songs having no fillers included. Even if the term is now saturated, NOCTURNUS was really a progressive extreme Metal band back in 1990 with this album. The technical complexity aimed by the space-age atmosphere and the ambiguous sound created a total of nine tracks (I think the CD format has one more number) that sum it up to a perverted journey in space and time, something quite atypical for a Death Metal band at the time.

The vocals of Browning are not something outstanding, but he successfully acquits developing the lyrical foreground for some difficult-to-play music that combines virtuosity (in the guitars parts mainly) and musical foresight through the (back then) tight Death Metal standards. The bass is quite low in the mix but I think this was done on purpose since the musical output was already quite vogue and some hardened grim should be preserved. One element of surprise is the fact that the songs do not offer only headbanging moments; in specific, I think the absence of lyrics reading in parallel to the first (at least) audition shall omit a lot of the band’s mastery in your ears.

Needless to say, NOCTURNUS saw their name rising high in the Death Metal charts and another album (“Threshlods”) came up a couple of years later, bringing forth an even broader spectrum of influence and songwriting. Sadly, lineup conflicts and some lack of steady aiming resulted in the band calling it quits in the mid-90s with a revamped lineup recording the “Ethereal Tomb” LP in 2000 but without any sings of further vision. Nevertheless, the impact of “The Key” in the way Death Metal would sound in the future was quite huge and it’s no wonder many extreme Metal bands refer to NOCTURNUS with big words as one of the first bands to broaden the extends of Death Metal with only one album. You see, musicians are not like fans when it comes to artistic perception. That’s why, remember to not blame the instruments or the music. Never. NOCTURNUS is the eternal paradigm.


01. Lake Of Fire
02. Standing In Blood
03. Visions From Beyond The Grave
04. Neolithic
05. BC/AD
06. Andromeda Strain
07. Droid Sector
08. Destroying The Manger
09. Empire Of The Sands


Mike Browning - Vocals, Drums
Mike Davis - Guitars
Sean McNenney - Guitars
Jeff Estes - Bass
Louis Panzer - Keyboards