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Finally, a record worthy of following "The Key" - 84%

robotiq, November 8th, 2019

Visionary drummer/musicians have been responsible for some of the best death metal ever (Nicke Anderson and Chris Reifert spring to mind). Nocturnus seems to be another example. Mike Browning had substantial input on their legendary debut (“The Key”) but denies having much input on their awful second album (“Thresholds”). Almost 30 years later and Browning has brought a different group of talented musicians together under the name of Nocturnus AD and released this album ("Paradox"). Browning is the only musician in common across this record and the debut, yet he has managed to capture the essence of the debut in a way that “Thresholds” never did, case in point.

"Paradox" will feel familiar to anyone who knows “The Key”. It has the same atmosphere, the same fast thrashing moments, wild keyboards and an emphasis on concepts and themes. The feel of existential occult horror (absent on "Thresholds") has also returned. Browning has brought new elements too. Some of the choruses remind me of King Diamond as he develops and delivers the narrative, Browning's vocals even sound like King Diamond’s low register on occasion. I can hear Deceased, a band who mined equivalent conceptual territory on “Fearless Undead Machines” and “Supernatural Addiction” (and were also led by a drummer). I can also hear Sindrome (Chicago) in the diction and vocal delivery, and they were a near contemporary thrash/death metal band to the original Nocturnus. Vocalists/lyricists like King Diamond, King Fowley and Troy Dixler deliberately made their vocals intelligible because they wanted you to hear what they were singing. Browning does the same here.

Opener “Seizing the Throne” sets the tone with lots of riffs and changes, Slayer-esque dive-bombs and squeals. Unfortunately it is the weakest song on the album with some awkward and disjointed transitions. Things improve from here. “The Bandar Sign” is awesome. The first half of the song is a brooding, slow/medium paced affair which sounds like “Neolithic”. Suddenly at around 2:45 there is amazing keyboard attack and it speeds headlong into a frenzy. This moment captures everything I love about Nocturnus, the ability to conjure darkness and then blitz it with over-the-top experimental madness. The next two songs (“Paleolithic” and “Precession of the Equinoxes”) are solid, intense and jarring technical death metal. They may lack the hooks of the album’s best moments but they contribute to the album's sense of foreboding dread.

The second half of the record feels different. The songs are more evocative and expansive, less crushing and less claustrophobic, and the narrative/conceptual elements are more obvious. These higher ambitions sometimes work (and sometimes don't). “The Antechamber” is the undisputed highlight of the album. All the band's tricks are on display here: a narrative chorus reminiscent of "Abigail", the ever decreasing riff-circles which sound like something from "Seven Churches" (e.g., 1:21), the short bursts of lead guitar interjecting the riffs, a great solo. It all builds to a perfect dead-stop climax. “Apotheosis” is another gem, growing from a solid mid-paced section before hitting hyper-speed. This song is perhaps the best example of free-flowing melodic lead guitar on the album. The instrumental section (beginning at 4:27) slams the breaks and then builds to a suitable finale, complete with inventive use of pinch harmonics.

The other two songs “The Return of the Lost Key” and "Aeon of the Ancient Ones" don't work so well. They are not bad songs (I don't skip them). There are several great ideas in each one, but they also drag a little. The former never becomes the grand masterpiece it promises to become (returning to the chorus one too many times). The latter meanders around and has a spooky keyboard section which sounds out of place, whilst the fast parts showcase the album's only production flaw (slightly over-processed bass drums).

Still, I can't deny that "Paradox" is a triumph. I never would have expected anything this good at this late stage. Death metal comeback albums are usually a waste of time, but this proves that Nocturnus was unfinished business. The wrongs of "Thresholds" have now been righted. "Paradox" is the perfect follow-up to their classic debut and has enough fresh ideas to avoid sounding like a tribute act. Science fiction themed death metal might even be fashionable in 2019. Let's not forget who the originators were.