My other favorite album of all time. 100%
Duckman | Drifting in the Cosmic Sea | 07/10/2010
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Before I go off reviewing which is what I believe, to be the perfect album in parallel to Morbid Angel's "Altars of Madness," I'll share a little history with you about my first encounter with this album and Nocturnus.
My first encounter with Nocturnus was some years back on a muggy November afternoon after coming home from work and I look in the mailbox, I see a media package containing the copy of Nocturnus's "Ethereal Tomb," which I ordered about a week prior. I opened the package and put the CD into my CD player, I listened to about 2-3 songs and while I thought the music was decent, I felt the overall sound was too dreary for me, a guy who tends to like his death metal more on the thrashy and aggressive side. Fast forward about 8-9 days and the copy of Nocturnus's "The Key" arrives. Because of my past experience with "Ethereal Tomb," I didn't have high expectations for "The Key," but after I put it in my CD player, I was completely floored by how awesome the album was; so much so, I listened to the whole thing four times that evening and several dozen times more as the years progressed.
"The Key" is a death metal fan's dream come true. It was innovative for its time (back in 1990), had stellar musicianship, had catchy song structures, and had solid production to bolster the fine sound of the instruments and vocals at play.
"The Key" was innovative because prior to this album, virtually no death metal bands used keyboards as a "full time instrument," but only for intros and outros of songs. The keyboards themselves are used pretty differently than what most of you would be familiar with because instead of it being used in a more classical fashion like that featured in much more popular bands like Dream Theater and Children of Bodom, Louis Panzer uses the keys to create a dark ambient sound-scape to supplement the thrash-based guitar riffs and solos, along with creating sound effects akin to alien spaceships and futuristic computers. Personally, I think the best keyboard work has to be the keyboard melody featured at the 3:04 mark on the song "Neolithic" because it's so memorable and has such a creepy yet ethereal feeling to it; it wouldn't be out-of-place if it were featured in the Doomed Megalopolis soundtrack. Another innovative feature of "The Key" is that it was probably the first death metal album to feature a unique fusion of satanic/occult themes and sci-fi themes in their lyrics, which was a really refreshing break from the cool but typical gore and satanic lyrics. Drummer and vocalist Mike Browning wrote the songs that were strictly occult while lead guitarist Mike David co-wrote with Browning the songs with occult and sci-fi in them. The lyrics are quite insane because it's not everyday that you come across a death metal song ("Destroying the Manger") which focuses on going back in time through a time machine to murder Christ moments after his birth.
One of the strongest parts of "The Key" is the great musicianship, especially with the guitars. Mike Davis and Sean McNennery (especially Davis) crank out some of the best and most unique riffs and solos because unlike the modern tech-death scene that constantly dishes out wanky guitar solos with cookie-cutter riffs, Davis and McNennery blast out ear-grabbing tech-thrash riffs not very dissimilar to early Coroner and to supplement them, they (especially Davis) churn out sporadic and short yet very technical solos in the songs and instead of them being in the designated solo spot (usually after the second verse), they pop up everywhere in the song. The best example of this would be for the opening song "Lake of Fire." As stated before, most of the solos are short, but they're really impressive explosions of notes that don't overpower the riffs. THIS is how you make great technical death metal; by first writing great riffs then writing impressive guitar solos to supplement them. Out of the two axemen in this album's lineup, Davis is certainly the best because he unleashes the most solos and tends to have the flashiest between the two. Some of the more die hard Morbid Angel fans have complained that Mike Browning doesn't have the technical mastery of Pete Sandoval, but I don't really care because Browning's drumming is really well done here and I was pleased with his performance, also taking into account that he had to growl for this album as well (drummers usually don't do vocals in bands). The only thing that some people may complain about is that the bass in this album is nearly impossible to hear, but I don't really mind because the music sounds perfect as it is. Also, Browning himself stated that on the morning the band had to go to Morrisound to record "The Key," bassist Jeff Estes was really drunk and couldn't play, so Davis had to play the bass. Browning's vocals fit this album like a glove because instead of using the typical "Cookie Monster vocals," he opts for a more sinister raspy growl somewhat reminiscent to David Vincent's vocals in "Altars of Madness." The raspiness of the growls perfectly accentuates the thrash-based death metal sound.
GREAT SONG STRUCTURES
The songs in "The Key" in a technical sense, are progressive in the sense that the song structures don't really repeat as the song moves along, but sounds nothing like your typical progressive metal album because while typical prog-metal tends to have a more bright and optimistic atmosphere to them, Nocturnus's "The Key" is a monstrous flesh-eating cyborg. While the songs are progressive for the above reasons, the riffs themselves have just the right balance of complexity and simplicity to them without going overboard in complexity as to loose memorability or have too much simplicity in them to make them dull. Concerning the guitar riffs and solos, they share almost equal space in the songs without sounding at all overly flashy. The construction of the songs as stated before, makes them really unique and virtually none of the newer tech-death bands have tried to copy Nocturnus's unique style of playing.
Tom Morris at the godly Morrisound Studio did a fantastic job engineering this album because everything (minus the bass) is mixed perfectly so that you can hear everything without one instrument overpowering another. The mixing of the guitars is especially superb because they sound gritty and sharp without sounding at all like the "white noise" you'd usually hear on an early 90's Norwegian black metal album (that's not a bad thing at all, just not really fit for death metal), the riffs and solos come in perfectly clear with the desired "harshness" old school death metal fans like myself salivate over. The keyboards are perfectly mixed because they do what they're supposed to do in a metal album, supplement the guitars, NOT overtake them. In most cases, when I'm listening to a metal album, the thing I want to hear the most is the guitars, and thankfully, Tom Morris kept this in mind when mixing this godly album.
Finally, Dan Seagrave's album art for "The Key" is not only really amazing with how detailed it's portrayed, but how fitting it is for the music. You can't beat an evil droid holding a disk with the pentagram and lightning bolt, using it to access possibly some high-tech occult weaponry. I might also add that the painting itself was really inviting for a potential listener because cover art with such a dark and evil feeling to it should get any respectable metal head to purchase it and bang their heads ferociously to the godly music.
If you want a metal album that will give you some fantastic, headbanging bliss all while dishing out fantastic musicianship and unique themes and song structures, then buy "The Key" now!!"