Home > Music > Nocturnus – The Key (1990)

Nocturnus – The Key (1990)

FolderSimultaneously more advanced and more primitive than Mike Browning’s later project After Death, The Key should perhaps be called The Keyboards, as it’s notorious for being an early work of death metal to not only use prominent synthesizers, but to properly incorporate them into the local songwriting. It’s also got a weird mix of occult and sci-fi themes in its lyrics and packaging that was novel at the time. Needless to say, it took a while for anyone else to imitate this approach in full. In the mean time, Nocturnus, everyone!

Even with the synthesizers and electronic effects on hand, Nocturnus tends towards the thrashier, earlier forms of death metal popularized by bands like Morbid Angel as opposed to some of the more downtuned, sludgey stuff that would come out only a few years later. Given Mike Browning’s status as a Morbid Angel alumni, you shouldn’t be surprised. Guitar solos are pyrotechnic and flashy, but they retain a sense of melody and consonance that you don’t often see in old death metal records. In general, the melodic aspects here are more pronounced than pretty much every death metal recording I’ve listened to before The Red In The Sky Is Ours … maybe that doesn’t mean very much, since there are still some pretty gaping holes in what I’ve listened to. The key here is that Nocturnus has more to their sound than the obvious keyboard patches.

However (and this is a big however), the idea to explore synthesizers and sci-fi has irrevocably altered what’s on display here. The keys often tend towards either ambient ‘pads’ (complicated, “evolving” sounds) or sound effects, although they occasionally take up the role of melody, such as in “Neolithic”. Combine that with the songwriting, and you have one artificial sounding album – Nocturnus avoids verse/chorus in favor of what is often called the “riff salad” approach, where every section of a song brings in new phrases to repeat. This is one of those albums with abrupt transitions, but here I would argue it can actually work due to the intended aesthetic. That’s a relatively subjective position, given that the band was still young and the sci-fi elements were actually quite new to them; the next album (Thresholds) really delved into this, but I digress.

Given that Morbid Angel had a lot of proto-black metal ideas in their early recordings that would later be explored by that genre’s musicians, and that Nocturnus doesn’t otherwise deviate hugely from MA’s formulae, you could say that The Key is something of an evolutionary cousin to black metal. The next works I’m aware of to explore similar territory are the Timeghoul demos, but those saw very limited distribution at the time of release, and I don’t know if Nocturnus was a direct inspiration for them. This album remains in unique and fertile territory, and that’s lead a lot of people to overlook the (admittedly limited) flaws of this work.

Highlights: “Lake of Fire”, “Neolithic”, “Andromeda Strain”, “Droid Sector”

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