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Nocturnus > The Key > 1990, CD, Earache Records > Reviews > robotniq
Nocturnus - The Key

Enter the droids! - 93%

robotniq, June 9th, 2024
Written based on this version: 1990, CD, Earache Records

All classic death metal albums are unique. They need something to differentiate them from each other, and from all the lesser albums. "The Key" is no exception. This debut Nocturnus album was the first death metal record to feature prominent melodic keyboards (courtesy of Louis Panzer), and one of the first to use science fiction themes (Dan Seagrave’s cover art is one of his best). More importantly, it remains one of the only death metal albums that has a sense of giddy exuberance and wild abandon. This record is silly, joyful, dark and evil in equal measure, somehow.

"The Key" is quintessential progressive death metal. It dates to mid-1990 (one year after Morbid Angel changed the game with their debut album). The influence of Slayer and Possessed is obvious, but Nocturnus was surely influenced by “Altars of Madness” too (the drummer/songwriter Mike Browning was once in Morbid Angel, of course). This album is about sharp contrasts. “Lake of Fire” is a flawless opener full of pace, energy, virtuosity and aggression. Tracks like "Neolithic" and “BC/AD” (both from the demo-era) are dark, sludgy and deliberate. The songwriting is incredible, varied and distinctive throughout, which is one of the main reasons this album works so well.

The science fiction themes only arrive for the final four songs, which can be thought of as a ‘suite’ of sorts. These songs give the album a mighty sting in the tail. “Andromeda Strain" has one of the best (and craziest) openings ever, as Panzer’s keyboards drive the momentum into wild (yet melodic) intensity. “Droid Sector” and “Destroying the Manger” build on the speed and add some robotic vocal effects (and ridiculous time traveling scenarios). The closer, “Empire of the Sands” might be one of the most underrated death metal songs of all time. It brings all the album’s strengths into one epic finale (with slow and lagging riffs, shredding guitar and some intensifying keyboard atmosphere).

The musicianship is one of the album's most obvious virtues. The twin-guitar attack of Mike Davis and new member Sean McNenney is some of the best on any death metal album. Their interplay with Panzer takes everything to an extra level. Browning is a tasteful drummer who pushes the speed and rides the groove at the right moments. Being the vocalist and chief songwriter, his vocal patterns tend to lock into his beats, giving the songs extra drive and swagger (the final verse of “Neolithic” is a great example of this in action). The band's musical chemistry and relentlessness is crucial to the overall effect.

OK, the production is a bit odd. This sounds unlike any other Morrisound recording. It has one of those idiosyncratic death metal productions that takes some time to get accustomed to. The relative lack of bass is notable. One explanation for this was provided by Browning in retrospective interviews, stating that bassist Jeff Estes was unable to play and that Davis had to learn the bass lines from scratch. The absence of bottom-end results in less heaviness, certainly compared to the band's amazing “The Science of Horror” demo. However, the mix may also work in the band's favour. It somehow suits their maximalist approach to melody, providing more space for the keyboard and guitars to compete for note-shredding dominance.

"The Key" is one of the most enjoyable and original albums in death metal history, particularly the CD version which contains an excellent bonus track ("Undead Journey"). Few bands have dared to compete with what Nocturnus achieved here. It is a shame that the band imploded after this, releasing the dreadful “Thresholds” two years later, with Browning’s conceptual and songwriting influence receding into the background (and eventually to the exit). Browning has subsequently recaptured some of the vibe of this album with a couple of decent Nocturnus AD releases, but he hasn't come close to this level again.