In literature there are entire careers dedicated to the study of what does or does not constitute a literary canon. Unlike other academic fields, it is generally agreed upon that the very concept of a Q.E.D-approved canon is impossible due, in no small part, to literature’s historical bias towards western concepts and the patriarchy. Music, however – in this case metal – has a very definite certified canon. There are few scenes that have been as instrumental in expanding metal’s horizon as Florida’s death metal explosion. Toiling towards the top of the totem has always been Nocturnus. Their debut album The Key will irrevocably remain a personal favorite and one of the genre’s canonical greats. Thanks to the incessant efforts of drummer and vocalist Mike Browning (of early Morbid Angel fame), the band has endured a tumultuous rebirth as Nocturnus AD. But can new album Paradox survive the curse of contentious re-branding and do justice to the band’s own lofty genesis?
For the uninitiated, the sound of Nocturnus, and thus AD, can best be described as a combination of Atheist and pre-Covenant Morbid Angel. What made the band unique was their high-concept sci-fi theme instead of the usual zombie ritual. To further their quantum quest, Nocturnus were also one of the first acts to heavily utilize the keyboard without sacrificing the genre’s requisite heft. The Key and the somewhat inferior follow-up Thresholds, pushed boundaries with innately progressive thrashy rhythms and ubiquitous trilling solos. Paradox is Browning’s attempt to craft a proper continuation of his debut’s legacy. To this end, the record follows The Key‘s concept and tells the story of Dr. Magus, a scientist ravaged by disease in the aftermath of a war, who creates a bio-suit to stay alive. The results do not disappoint.
Although the album can’t quite replicate the magic of classic tracks like “Lake of Fire” it certainly doesn’t want for quality. “Seizing the Throne” and “The Bandar Sign” showcase the album’s capacity for fluctuating time signatures and eastern-flavored hooks respectively. Nocturnus always had a penchant for immediate choruses, and their anno domini brethren continue the tradition. “The Antechamber” is packed to the mutated gills with huge verse rhythms and a shout-along chorus. Browning’s grizzled vocals remain as charismatic in their narrative as ever, while guitarists Damian Heftel and Belial Koblak define the best compositions with their frenetic lead work. The impressively technical “Apotheosis” is arguably their best moment, but closing instrumental “Number 9” is certainly their most immersive. The song spans elegiac harmonies and fantastically emotive leads. It’s a great end to a potent album.
Paradox is extremely self-referential by design, even down to the complimentary, but undeniably retro, production. This represents a particularly vorpal double-edged sword. “Paleolithic” is adjacent to the original “Neolithic” and “The Return of the Lost Key” surely needs no explanation. Even the band name references The Key‘s “BC/AD.” This mirroring, coupled with the material’s thematic desire to do the same, feels less like a continuation of the work started almost thirty tears ago, and more like a celebration of it. This is no bad thing, but homage isn’t progression. The fact that Paradox remains consistently entertaining throughout its run-time, despite some occasional homogeneity, is to the band’s absolute credit. Particularly keyboardist Josh Holdren, who underpins each and every sidereal sequence with his eerie tones, cementing the progressive tendencies that made Nocturnus so original to begin with.
Paradox hearkens back to a time when death metal was both fun and violent. If it ever required it, the album confirms The Key‘s chief status in a genre canon that so reliably tickles my nethers. Although I might have liked to have seen the entropic envelope pushed a little further than the comfortable 80’s space age, these cosmonauts have successfully lauded a staple of the scene by plundering their own considerable legacy. Because Nocturnus AD have seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. They have watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments have been captured in time, like tears in ice. And through Paradox, Nocturnus AD lives!1