Nocturnus AD – Paradox Review

Way back about a billion years ago, the first version of Nocturnus was formed when drummer / vocalist Mike Browning split from a young Morbid Angel. After a pair of demos and a shifting line-up that eventually saw the addition of keyboardist Louis Panzer, this Floridian quintet dropped a classic in The Key in 1990, alienating the too-cool-for-keys crowd at the same time that they proved that keyboards work surprisingly well within the framework of tech death. Panzer’s sci-fi sounds and eerie voicings lent a sheen to Nocturnus’ dazzling display of riffery that was equal parts Hammer horror and classic science fiction, fitting perfectly against Browning’s lyrics that bounced between Satan and the occult and the Andromeda Strain.

Still, even as The Key would prove to be one of early death metal’s most distinctive efforts, the label wasn’t happy with the drummer-as-frontman situation, so Dan Izzo was added on vocals for the follow-up, 1992’s underrated Thresholds. That even more technical offering saw Nocturnus moving away from Browning’s occultism towards the science fiction half of their formula. Browning would subsequently split, forming his own band under the updated name Nocturnus AD, although that newer outfit would quickly re-christen itself After Death… for a little while, at least. In 2013, After Death again became Nocturnus AD, and … well, here we are…

Release date: May 24, 2019. Label: Profound Lore
Paradox picks up where The Key left off, both in terms of the logical extension of that album’s sound and in terms of its themes.  A conceptual album that is apparently about a plague-ravaged doctor kept alive in a bio-suit, these songs are rife with occult and pseudo-scientific references — hidden chambers beneath the paw of the Sphinx, pole shifts, magicks, speaking in tongues, dark robed figures, and all the various trappings of eeeevil occult lore crossed with post-apocalyptic science fiction.  This is Nocturnus, after all…

Guitarists Belial Kobluk and Demian Heftel blaze through twisting riffs, just as in the days of yore, each subsequent one turning in strange ways, dancing this way and that way, never resolving in the obvious manner and yet each strangely catchy and perfect in its convolution. For all the talk of Nocturnus’ historic use of keyboards, it’s always been these riffs that shored up the classic likes of “Lake Of Fire” and “BC / AD,” and here as there, the same rings true. Discordant twin-guitar runs skitter through all of these tracks, winding and unwinding like smoke tendrils floating above some ancient ritual, while Browning’s drums bounce beneath, balancing oddly timed turns with fills to follow those dancing guitars. Though Josh Holdren’s keys certainly add that same creepy sci-fi-horror atmosphere that characterized The Key, and though he can undoubtedly play — the closing instrumental “Number 9” is a wonderfully fun prog noodle — these keys again serve more as an ethereal underpinning than a lead instrument, often framing out chord structures and counterpoints beneath Kobluk and Heftel’s finger-bending fret burning.

On the vocal front, Browning’s barking growl was not the most powerful component of early Nocturnus’ sound — quite the opposite, actually, hence the late entry of Dan Izzo — and that remains true here. For Paradox, his growling is scaled even farther back, towards a thrashier snarl, often barely qualifying as a growl at all. The vocals are always clearly intelligible, punctuated rhythmically to match Browning’s drumbeats in a nearly chanted manner, and even as the voice remains the band’s weakest musical link by far, it never crosses the line into being a negative point.

Of course, none of that matters at all if the songwriting doesn’t hold up, and therein lies the most pleasant surprise of Paradox: After 28 years, Nocturnus can still write an album that fits neatly alongside their undisputable classic. Is Paradox as good as The Key? I won’t say that, and that’s really beside the point: Paradox is a great record from a reborn band, re-energized and reconnecting with their past, and tracks like “The Antechamber,” “Precession Of The Equinoxes” and “Aeon Of The Ancient Ones” are absolutely worthy of the name and logo attached to them, even if both of those sport two additional letters now thanks to long-standing legal battles within the Nocturnus camp…

I’ll admit I’m a ready-made sucker for sci-fi Satanic tech death, and I’m a long-time fan of The Key, but I certainly didn’t expect Nocturnus to make a record this strong nearly three decades later. Paradox is a strong contender for a year-end list slot, so let’s hope the next one doesn’t take 1/10th as long to get here…

Posted by Andrew Edmunds

Last Rites Co-Owner; Senior Editor; born in the cemetery, under the sign of the MOOOOOOON...

  1. Cool review. Looking forward to hearing this record. Also, why do you use ellipses so often?

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  2. Amazing how little the band seems to have aged here. Obviously the technicality has been ratcheted up some, but the core sound established on The Key is very much alive. Mike Browning has clarity of vision on this that many comeback albums are lacking. The nostalgia factor is almost too much, as I find myself wondering why I’m not just listening to The Key. But I think that’s because I’m an asshole.

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