The legacy of Nocturnus‘ ‘The Key’ is a prime example of thoughts in hindsight serving to overcompensate, and overrule the somewhat divisive nature of the original release. Though few would suggest that the Tampa, Florida death metal band weren’t innovative minds or stunningly capable performers rather that ‘The Key’ was, for decades, treated as a side note readily poised to delight the more curious early Morbid Angel fan. With that inch of visibility to the more mainstream death metal audience they would slowly gather an odd reputation in being reference in retrospective reviews as a sort of gimmickry driven beast thanks to a triad of most interesting points: Keyboards, science fiction, and an ‘Altars of Madness’ adjacent death/thrash metal guitar tone and style. No doubt these characteristics offer a meaningful glance at the historical importance of this ultra-futuristic technical death metal band but to say they were the ‘first’ to do anything begins to disrupt the real reason we’d ever want a direct sequel to Nocturnus‘ 1990 debut: The riffs. There was a certain magic happening in those early demo days leading up to ‘The Key’ as Mike Browning would leave Morbid Angel due to a broken ‘bro code’ and it would quickly appear to be a sort of ‘Mustaine vs. the world’ situation by 1990 as Nocturnus came out with a faster, more technical, heavier, more everything death metal record with one of the more compelling lyrical themes of the Tampa death metal scene, ever. The twisted Coroner and Kreator influenced technical thrash metal riffing played at brutal speeds within is a major ‘moment’ in death metal history in and of itself but the additional atmosphere of the keyboards is the extra justification for ‘The Key’ holding up today. Therein lies the difficulty in approaching this direct sequel, ‘Paradox’, nearly a full thirty years later; Should it live up to, or move on from, the ‘in hindsight’ legacy of ‘The Key’?
The answer will place listeners into two distinct categories. Those who see Nocturnus A.D. as a meaningful continuation of Nocturnus intentioned on picking up where they left off in 1993 and those who can’t help but hear a better developed version of Browning‘s post-Nocturnus legacy preservation band After Death. I’d love to write three thousand words detailing the impressive list of albums Browning has been involved in from Lethal Prayer‘s killer cult full-length, two of the (arguably) best Acheron records, all the way back to (the other, other) Incubus‘ hallowed ‘God Died on His Knees’ demo but the one project I never could warm up to was the original material from After Death. Rasping, progressive, and wholly dramatic for their first few demos this new legacy beyond wasn’t horrible but oh man did it not make sense in terms of a continuation of Nocturnus despite featuring the original 1987 line-up of the band. Then again the Nocturnus (minus Browning) that resurfaced from 1999-2002 and released ‘Ethereal Tomb’ was all the more disappointing. For longtime fan everything from that point on, including the contested claim of the band’s name, signaled a status we see with many legacy bands where fans couldn’t expect more than cash-ins and compilations with ‘The Science of Horror’ (2014) being the only particularly respectful treatment of demo era Nocturnus thus far. Around that time it’d seem that the way forward for Browning was to shift to the Nocturnus A.D. name with the then current After Death line-up and build momentum towards ‘Paradox’. So, is it a pandering cash-in on nostalgia for ‘The Key’? I’m sure some fans will see it that way but, the material here is too refined, composed and enthusiastically delivered to malign or question. It is a fitting enough sequel for those reasons.
Though it is far less common within heavy metal the ‘sequel to a classic’ album rarely pans out within the history of rock, and has been particularly disastrous in the world of hip-hop. Did sequels to ‘Keys to Ascension’, ‘Thick as a Brick’ and ‘Operation Mindcrime’ do anything for those artists beyond cheapening their modern discography? My favorite example of it working out for the artist is probably debatable but King Diamond‘s follow-up to ‘Abigail’ with ‘Abigail II: The Revenge’ panned out well enough that it was worthwhile listening. Right, you might have to be -that- much of a fan of Nocturnus to really dig deep into ‘Paradox’ and find lasting value and in this case I am that much of a fan. Browning hasn’t written ‘Paradox’ as if ‘Thresholds’ doesn’t exist though, there is far less emphasis on shredding and technically driven work and more on the alternating currents that are distinctly related to ‘The Key’. This was initially a bit of a regression but makes sense as an intentional sequel. No doubt most anyone listening to ‘Paradox’ for the first time will instantly recognize it as a rendering of what ‘The Key’ sounds like in memory versus the actual thing. Here I reach another fork in the road in deciding how much nostalgia should reinforce my analysis of an album that is well and intentionally nostalgic. A lot, in fact it seems to be the point for better or worse.
Plenty of folks haven’t had thirty years to absorb and delight in the occult magick of ‘The Key’ so at the very least I figure it makes sense to catch up on the plot and make a case for the sequel in doing so. A war between heaven and hell favors Satan and a soul is ripped from the beyond and eventually placed in a cyborg body. He is essentially a Terminator who travels back in time tasked with killing newborn Jesus and ultimately blasts father, mother, and son into dust, making ash of the manger. From that point it always seemed like “Empire of the Sands” was suggesting that history had been altered and a great Satanic computer would resurrect the Sumerian gods and catalyze the formation of great cybernetic fortress and empire. ‘Paradox’ begins with Satan claiming throne to his world on “Seizing the Throne” and as much as I’d like to be cynical about Nocturnus A.D. continuing this ‘graphic novel’ worthy storyline I was on board from the moment this song broke into the refrain about two minutes into the first song. So many great bands give nods to classic Nocturnus but it is something immediate and special about Browning himself coming back three decades later and doing it right. Shredding waves of dueling-and-trading guitar solos over keyboard-accompanied riff changes come with Browning‘s classic sense of pace modulation in immaculate recreation of the mystic death metal of ‘The Key’, a meaningful reconstruction of a mode of writing that must have been maddening to return to.
After Satan takes his throne the plot does mimic the cadence of ‘The Key’ as a couple of detours (great blood cult, human history, and potential apocalyptic axial consequences for Earth’s shifting magnetic polarity) all appear unrelated until “The Antechamber” picks the narrative back up as the titular Key is rediscovered by the main character as a tool of enlightenment, control, and ultimately transcendence. He appears to become Yog-Sothoth, the gate of the “outer void” in line with Lovecraft mythos. I’m sure it’ll take some stretch of the imagination on my part to tie all of those pieces together from Hell to the cosmic gate of the Void with as much meaning as ‘The Key’ but, all of it comes in keeping with the style of that album. There is an admirable balance of old sounds, new ideas, and inspired shredding progressive death metal flair on hand that bring the occult esoterica of Browning‘s lyrics to life. What is missing from 1993 ’til today is that science fiction movie soundtrack influenced keyboard work which is more or less given surrogate by way of keyboard accompaniment that largely follows rhythm guitar work. This may be a natural progression of Nocturnus‘ sound (tying it in with the style of ‘Thresholds’ subtly) but I did miss some of the 80’s horror/sci-fi synth influenced work that characterized that first album. The opening salvo of “The Bandar Sign” is a good example of a more progressive approach to keyboards whereas half of the songs on ‘The Key’ (see: “Destroying the Manger”, “Lake of Fire”, “Droid Sector”) etc. open with primarily atmospheric celestial synth and sci-fi sound effects that’d helped create a defined atmospheric narrative. The rhythm guitar work is likewise less ‘forward’ and brutal by comparison but I don’t point these things out to discredit the approach of ‘Paradox’, rather to highlight that this isn’t a plain recreation of ‘The Key’ as it might seem through the gloss of nostalgia.
It becomes vital to return to the first two Nocturnus albums after hearing ‘Paradox’ and I believe this is one of the greatest successes of Nocturnus A.D. bringing back the old spirit of the original band. By energizing that somewhat dormant part of many death metal fans who’d had Nocturnus floating around in their mind for decades with an actually good ‘comeback’ record Browning does ultimately secure that legacy as his own. Is it the brutal cyclone of sci-fi death-thrashing blasphemy that I’d wanted since the long-forgotten 1993 Nocturnus EP released? It isn’t perfect but ‘Paradox’ is well above average and doesn’t at any point appear to be cheaply throttled fan service. So, does that mean there are riffs? Ah, right therein lies the real self-splitting conundrum of any ‘comeback’ death metal release. ‘Classic’ death metal albums reside in our minds and maintain replayability for decades most often because they were born in an era of high standards for rhythm guitar complexity (and groove) where albums like ‘The Key’ continue to redeem in the minds of many because it offers a brutal type of finesse that’d toy with meter and punch up complex late 80’s thrash metal structures. ‘Paradox’ gets about sixty percent of the way there in that its guitar riffs do pull from Nocturnus‘ structures past but many from Browning‘s sort of peak point of complexity in ‘Thresholds’ (see: “The Antechamber”, “Apotheosis”.) It isn’t that much of a shred album but it does come admirably close to occupying that space and feeling like a meaningful sequel to ‘The Key’ while at the same time it does begin to sound like an early Ancient Rites album here and there. It is a huge step up from where After Death started to be sure.
Though I don’t think anyone was really asking for a sequel to ‘The Key’ after ‘Thresholds’ had secured Nocturnus in the annals of distinct classic death metal the legacy of the band does not suffer any embarrassment in receiving this one thanks to Browning‘s still vital skill set and songwriting sense. To get an above average ‘comeback’ record decades in the waiting is a remarkable gift for established fans and that it inspires a deeper connection with the early 90’s legacy of the band is all the more valuable. Highly recommended, first and foremost to folks already well familiar with the ’87-’93 history of the band. For preview “Seizing the Throne” is the obvious starting point and perhaps the most energizing moment on the record in terms of resembling ‘The Key’ and shredding like hell. Otherwise I’d suggest “The Return of the Lost Key” as some of the best guitar work on the album “Apotheosis” and “Procession of the Equinoxes” as the most repeatable tracks for my own taste.
Ripping wings, smashing bones. 4.0/5.0
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