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The Key to All Mysteries of Life and Death - 100%

bayern, April 15th, 2018

Provided quite early, if you think of it, in 1990 AD… Just when death metal took a fuller, more tangible shape at the dawn of a new decade came this album to provide an early culmination of the whole death meal cohort’s endeavours, in the form of keys, lakes of fire, Andromeda strains, and other weird, totally unexpected configurations… incredible, but a fact.

The strives for more complex ways of expression in the late-80’s started within the thrash metal realm logically led to similar urges in “the new kid” on the metal block, death metal that is, and before you know it both genres formed several quite impressive intricate bonds: Vacant Grave’s “Life or Death”, Hellwitch’s “Syzygial Miscreancy”, Incubus’ “Beyond the Unknown”, Atheist’s “Piece of Time”, etc., some carefully plotted and meticulously arranged, others charmingly chaotic and dishevelled…

But all aiming at loftier horizons where musical mediocrity and complacency simply couldn’t be tolerated. Their purpose was to just draw the line that was to be followed in the years to come until a logical completion of a journey that was inevitable under the circumstances. Only that said journey had a huge, quite unexpected as well, stopover in the form of two albums, the one reviewed here and Atrocity’s “Hallucinations”, the Germans taking care of the awakening process on the other side of the Atlantic; both provided very, very early before anyone could even get mildly sweaty from the efforts made. Yeah, these ”nocturnal animals” from Tampa, Florida, who didn’t show that much promise on a demo stage, paraded for a bit as the true keepers of the key to all technical/progressive metal mysteries…

A prodigiously mature effort for the time, this album also had the audacity, or even the temerity if you like, to insert keyboard sweeps into the still developing death metal template. A heretical decision, to put it mildly, but one that is so marvellously pulled off here that if we remove the keyboards right now this opus may not be considered the colossal triumph that it actually is. Fortunately, they’re here to stay, and not only, but their very tangible presence at the very beginning is already a firm statement of intent although the listener wouldn’t have to worry about them for very long as the infernal guitar duels of Mike Davis and Sean McNenney commence with all the technical grandiosity and virtuoso Shrapnel-like dexterity that the initial keyboard sweeps would be the fan’s least urgent agenda by the end of “Lake of Fire”, a superb dramatic progressive shredder followed by fireworks of leads and riffs that announce the coming of a formidable death metal roller-coaster with supreme technical walkabouts, haunting melodies, and classically-inspired lead guitar work.

Its price of admission handsomely paid from the very first piece the album, free now of the “newcomer’s early promises (un)fulfilled” pressure syndrome, carries on with a carnival of exorbitant technical shreds the more dramatic build-ups requiring a couple of more officiant stomping decisions those overwritten, however, by fabulous fever-pitch crescendos. Contrasting vistas will one come across on the amorphous “Neolithic” where morose pounding motifs “tussle” with the only blast-beating outbursts on the album to a further dramatic effect with the keyboards featured more prominently, creating captivating epic atmosphere the latter cancelled vehemently by the furious speedy skirmishes on “Undead Journey”, the keyboards still finding their way into its hyper-active structure on the more laid-back sections. A more subdued, sinister minimalistic mid-pacer (“BC/AD”) ensures the calm before the storm that “Andromeda Strain” is, a whirlwind of supreme vitriolic crescendos, the guitars duelling with the keyboards nearly the whole time for a wild thrilling, also addictively melodic, ride.

Such a feat would be tough to beat, but “Droid Sector” is no sloucher despite the overlong ambient/electronic etude at the beginning, the otherworldly riff-fest continuing on full-throttle with classical virtuosities provided all over, some of which even go beyond Helstar’s “Nosferatu”’s grandeur, with short spastic leads carving burrows into the listener’s mind. More robotic/technical ecstasy with “Destroying the Manger”, a progressive metal masterpiece with some of the most fabulous hectic, abruptly applied time-changes in the history of metal that alone have served as the template on which acts like Theory in Practice later built their entire repertoire. All roads inevitably lead to Rome… sorry, “Empire of The Sands” which adeptly sums it all up into one cavalcade of gorgeous melodies and frenetic technical vortexes, the keyboards indelibly giving their contribution to this most enchanting epitaph, the exuberant classical-fixated finish siding with the best from the mentioned Helstar magnum opus again, and Yngwie Malmsteen’s arsenal.

Despite his sincere efforts behind the mike, Mike Browning simply can’t possibly impress anyone with this exquisite musicianship around although to these ears the man’s forceful, but intentionally muffled semi-recitals are perfectly fitting into the magical soundscapes, never obstructing the musical goings-on, and yet instilling intimidating authority when in action. It beats me why the guys decided to replace him with another, not nearly half as suitable, vocalist (Dan Izzo) on the sophomore... Anyway, the guy, alongside his comrades, had left a most striking vestige in the music archives with this feat here, a work of art that beggared belief back then, and even nowadays one can only marvel at the extraordinary creative swing exhibited. A flash of genius after another are served in such a quick, dizzying succession that the fans have no choice, but to absorb this opus with their mouths gaping wide, already thinking about how many more times they’re going to listen to it in the next few days before all this comfortably settles into their brains; cause the late-80’s/early-90’s fan was hardly fully prepared for such achievements as this wasn’t jazz-peppered mathematical equations ala Watchtower and Deathrow; neither was it based on elaborate hyper-active vortexes ala Realm and Toxik... For a while I thought that the description “the deathly mutated offspring of Helstar’s “Nosferatu” and Coroner’s “No More Color” “spoilt” with keyboards” would be a fairly adequate one, but the more I listen to it, the more I deem any such short summaries not doing it justice whatsoever…

Cause this was an entirely different interpretation of the musical canons at the time, and not only because of the keyboard implementation. Mentioning the keyboards time and again, it’s understandable why they attracted, and still do, so much attention; radical innovations within an already familiar metal structure were generally frowned upon back then, especially with so much happening on the field at the time, with the technical/progressive thrash movement already confusing the regular fan, with the up-and-coming death metal wave, with the alternative/grunge flourishes, with the rising groovy/aggro tide… A lot to try out and not much time to leave for all these new gimmicks to sink in. The album reviewed here by all means raised a few eyebrows upon release, but the concentration on it wasn’t inordinately big with so many other musical detriments… sorry, innovations rushing in.

Still, the death metal brotherhood paid all the attention needed, and duly took notes; attempts at emulating this opus’ manic grandeur didn’t follow suit immediately, but it did inspire the other practitioners, those who followed their own path, to outdo themselves with Atheist bringing the extraordinary “Unquestionable Presence” to life, with Death producing the inhuman “Human”, with the Canadians (Gorguts, Martyr, Cryptopsy) breaking the ice over there and instigating the dazzling brutality movement among other unearthly delights, the “suffocating” contribution of their US brethren Suffocation also well documented; the conquest on the other side of the Atlantic spearheaded by Pestilence’s “Testimony of the Ancients”, with hugely talented newcomers like Baphomet, Decision D, Pavor, Chemical Breath, Polluted Inheritance, to just name the more obvious ones, all making waves any which way they could…

Yes, “The Key” got the job done, to propel the good old death metal to heights deemed impossible at the beginning, and to make it the most musically proficient and demanding metal genre. Copies of said “key” are to be found, outside the two earlier mentioned ones, some of which quite faithfully reproduced and by all means worthy as substitutes, as a matter of fact; the majority can be found in the Theory in Practice discography, key-masters of nearly nocturnal... sorry, infernal, proportions… and yet, I would also strongly recommend another one, with the uncommon “made in Austria” label, created by the obscure “sorcerers” Korova in the ancient 1995 AD, and esoterically disguised under the “A Kiss in the Charnel Fields“ name. The most recent, truly distinguished copy will take the dedicated seeker back to the Scandinavia who will find it meticulously reproduced by the Norwegians Ram-Zet on their “Intra” (2005) saga…

Keys turned to kisses, secret Scandinavian practices, Egyptian deities, strolls along the Austrian fields… the mind boggles; what else would befall the poor metal head during his/her nightly somnambulistic wanderings, that even the Almighty Keeper of the Seven Keys would find hard to foresee.