Nocturnus AD – Where the Past Meets the Future

Sunday, 9th June 2019

Many today are quick to cite the influence on Nocturnus’ 1990 release, The Key. A unique album, arguably ahead of its time due to the usage of more science fiction elements and the heavy incorporation of keyboards in the very death metal framework. Even now, listening to the album evokes the sensation of hearing something that is a bit out of this world – unlike the more popular acts in the genre, no one has really ever tried to copy and paste the Nocturnus formula. Enter Nocturnus AD, which is a merger of drummer/vocalist Mike Browning’s work with said act and what he moved onto with After Death.

Paradox is the spiritual successor to The Key, and with it comes some anticipation. Given the unique qualities of its predecessor, one simply can’t retread the past. In speaking to Browning himself one night just prior to release, we discussed all of these things, along with his thoughts about how drumming has evolved in extreme music, the merger of science fiction and metal, and even some chat about A.I. and the future.

Dead Rhetoric: Given the direction of death metal today, do you feel The Key was ahead of its time?

Mike Browning: It’s really strange. When you are writing something, you don’t really think that way. Sometimes after it is finished, you sit back and listen to it and go, “Wow, did I do that?” [laughs]. You think, “This is a really strange recording.” It is like nothing else out there, because it turned out different from the first and second demos. When The Key came out, it sounded completely different from the first and second demo. Everything kept progressing and changing. We didn’t really do it on purpose; it was more of a natural progression of things. After you have recorded and sit back and listen to it, it sounds a bit different to you.

Dead Rhetoric: The Key itself sounded a bit different compared to what was coming out at the time. How do you feel it was received back in the early ‘90s after its release?

Browning: Way better than what I had expected. To me, I’ve always done what I have wanted to do, and made albums the way that I wanted them to sound. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen with it. A lot of what I was listening to when I was growing up in the ‘70s – Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple were called metal and that was what I listened to. People in Europe had it a little better because they had a lot more to choose from, and it’s different – people are a little more into the music and the bands. They know the people in the bands and the stories behind it. People in the US, there’s a huge crowd but it’s very commercial-oriented. The charts push what they want to push – it’s stuff like pop and all that. In Europe, metal is bigger than pop. It’s kind of different. So I grew up listening to the older style of metal, and when we wrote The Key, I thought there was still a lot of thrash in it. We wanted to play some fast parts, but it didn’t seem like it was that weird to me.

Once it got recorded and stood on its own – nothing else sounded like it at all. But a lot of bands, like Nasty Savage – nobody sounds like them. Back then, nobody sounded like Death either. Nobody sounded like Morbid Angel. It was so early in the scene, nobody was even trying to copy anybody. We all loved metal, and we didn’t have all these subgenres like black metal, death metal, doom, tech metal…whatever you want to call it. There’s a million names for metal now. Back then, everything was metal. You were metal or you were a poser [laughs]. You were metal or you weren’t. That’s how everybody looked at a lot of the music. Everybody got along and worked together, played shows together, and then in the ‘90s things began to separate and people began to start competing with each other for things like speed, craziness, and extremeness [laughs].

In the ‘90s, death metal became more of a competition than anything else. Everyone was worried about how fast they could play. In some ways, it’s still quite a bit there. The idea that more important than writing the music is being fast. That’s just not what I was brought up on with drums. Listening to rock bands from the ‘70s my whole life, I tend to like the slower stuff. Even when you go to a show, take Obituary. They have huge crowds. They have been doing their thing the whole time – they don’t have one blast beat, they don’t have anything really super fast, but they have a great crowd. But then you take one death metal band, and they don’t play as fast as anyone else, they are weak [laughs]. I don’t understand that – the way that subgenres put themselves.

Obituary is a death metal band, but they don’t blast. A lot of people love them, and no one says anything bad about it. But another band blasts, but not as fast as other bands, and they get ripped apart for it. It’s just weird. The competition thing in music is something that I really hate. I’ve never thought about competing with anybody. I just want to do my own thing and put it out. If people like it, that’s awesome. But I have to like it first.

Dead Rhetoric: I know you’ve stayed busy with other bands through the years, why go back now and revisit Nocturnus’ legacy?

Browning: I realized that the other guys were finally to a point where they aren’t going to get back together and try to do anything. People just kept asking me to just do it again. I felt that if I just used “Nocturnus” again, it would also connect me back to all the other things they did after me. Doing Nocturnus AD is my own resurrection of that material, and I want people to know that it is different. I want people to know it is not the original Nocturnus. Otherwise people would ask us to play things from different albums [in Nocturnus’ discography]. They put out Ethereal Tombs, but I wasn’t on that. What about those albums if I called the band Nocturnus? It didn’t make sense, because music had been released when I wasn’t in the band. I did always want to separate that.

Back in ’99 I had three original members: myself, Richard Bateman and Gino Marino. Three of the four people who were on the first demo, and we were going to call it Nocturnus again, because it was the original band and then I got a letter in the mail saying I couldn’t use the name. It was crazy back then. It came to the point where I had talked to a lawyer and I had forgotten that the first Nocturnus demo was copywritten under my name, but also under the name Nocturnus, because it was a self-titled demo. This entertainment lawyer told me that it showed legal proof that I had the name in 1987, and the name was not trademarked by Louis Panzer until 1992. So if they were to take me to court, I would have enough legal proof to say that I had the name first, and I could counter-suit them. So I decided I had nothing to lose at this point. I know what I have is legal too, so it totally proves, along with having a record contract before 1992 – we had a product out in the stores. But I had to prove time before that, since the people who own the name are also on that product. Before that, they weren’t. They weren’t on the first demo.

Until I realized about the copyright being there, I didn’t have any proof to say that it was real. You need legal proof for these things. So I didn’t want to use Nocturnus, since it would have connected me to the stuff they did after me, so I took the approach of doing Nocturnus AD and skipping over everything except The Key.

Dead Rhetoric: Did you feel it was important for Paradox to at least partially link to The Key, both musically and lyrically?

Browning: Yes, for sure. I knew it was going to from a lyrical point for sure. The Key story is really the last four songs from The Key. You can take the whole thing as a story, but it really isn’t since a lot of those songs were written separately before that. But “Andromeda Strain,” “Droid Sector,” “Destroying the Manger,” and “Empire of the Sands” are The Key story. So for the new album, I took four songs to continue The Key story.

Since the four songs are on the second half of the album on The Key, I put those four songs on the second half of the album on Paradox as well. So Paradox starts off with a song called “Seizing the Throne.” The Key started out with “Lake of Fire” and “Standing in Blood,” which were two interconnected songs that tell their own story together. So I wanted to write a song that connected those two to Paradox. “Seizing the Throne” connects to those two songs and tells that story. Then I had “Neolithic” on The Key and we have “Paleolithic,” which is the next era and we describe that one on Paradox. There’s not just The Key story, but two other songs that also connect back to other songs on that album.

Dead Rhetoric: What do you think stands out with the orchestrations/keys and the death metal base?

Browning: I think it is kind of different. People don’t really consider us black metal with the way that we use the keys. They are more atmospheric, like the way they would be used in movies. Of course, there are parts where the keys work like in a regular band like Deep Purple or something. But a lot of the keys are textures. The keyboard player in both Nocturnus and Nocturnus AD does play along with some of the guitar rhythms, but much of it is in textures and weird stuff in intros. I always thought, you’d get these demos back in the ‘90s and you would get this amazing intro. All of this crazy stuff going on sounding like the pits of Hell, with keyboards too. But then all of a sudden the band would start, and they obviously recorded the album in a garage [laughs].

It sounded completely different from the intro. The intro would sound really good, like it was recorded in a real studio, then the band would kick in and it would sound not even close. I always hated it because I expected the band to sound like the intro. I understand that you could only do what you could with the money available, but I wanted an intro but have a band keep going and sound like that. When it came to doing the old Nocturnus stuff, Mike, Sean, and Jeff – the other original members. They all went to school together and they knew this guy that played keyboards: Louis [Panzer]. So they told him to write two intros for two songs. So he did it and came to our warehouse and hooked his keyboard up to the PA. He did the intro and it sounded cool, and we tried playing it live with the keyboard intro and then he started playing some parts with us during the song. It sounded amazing. It was what I was looking for. So we ended up getting the keyboard player a month before we did the second demo. He was originally going to just do two intros but ended up playing on the whole thing. It all kind of clicked at that point.

Dead Rhetoric: So what do you feel you tried to push farther with Paradox?

Browning: I think it’s a combination of some extra stuff – this time we have a keyboardist that can also play guitar and drums. He’s a really good grindcore drummer, and he is a really good addition to the band. When we got him a year ago now, he just upped our ante of being able to play things. He did things that we couldn’t do with other keyboard players. In two songs, we have some keyboard leads, which is something we’ve never had. Now we have some leads on the keys, which is cool. The intros will be played live, and there’s just more parts. Some of the Nocturnus parts, Louis didn’t play through everything, but this guy plays through 98% of everything. So the keyboards have stepped up.

I think the two guitar players that we have, their soloing is different. In Nocturnus, everyone would say that Sean was similar to Mike. Mike did all of the writing. With this, the two guitar players have completely different leads. They didn’t know each other before joining the band. I’ve been working with Demian [Hefttel] longer than Belial [Koblak]. I picked them both for their style of leads that they do. Demian is more of a heavier, crunchier kind of guy, and Belial is more into the Pink Floyd-y, weirder metal stuff. With them together, it was a good mix.

Dead Rhetoric: What makes sci-fi and death metal go together well?

Browning: It just does, for some reason. Even take a band like Voivod. They aren’t death metal, but they are metal and it works out well for them. We do it too, but it doesn’t sound anything like what Voivod does. Even if we both do the same sort of thing. Sci-fi has it’s own mystique to it. It has had different areas that you can explore. You have monster realms, alien realms, demon realms, space sci-fi – all different aspects of it. With death metal, the intensity fits with it. Putting weird sounds with heavy rhythm just makes it feel sort of special I think.

Dead Rhetoric: I think it has taken off a bit in the last 15 years or so too, with bands shying away more from the death and gore aspects that were the dominate form of lyrical angles for a while.

Browning: Yeah, you can only kill somebody so many millions of times in a song [laughs]! I wanted to do something different from the beginning. I have always liked science fiction. I grew up watching Star Trek and things like that. By the time Star Wars came out, I was a little older. I like Star Wars, but I really liked the older stuff. To me, the original Star Trek, Space: 1999, UFO…things like that were what I grew up on and they were a little more serious in their sci-fi programming. That was the kind of stuff I wanted to put into the music. I always liked stuff like Night Gallery. If you could mix Night Gallery with The Outer Limits, then you had something really crazy!

I thought that if a band did science fiction and horror together, it would be really cool. That’s what Alien is. That was one of the first mixes of sci-fi and horror, and what a movie it was. When they mixed sci-fi and horror, no one had seen it that way before. You had aliens in War of the Worlds back in the 1950s, but nothing hit like when Alien came out and they mixed extreme horror and science fiction. That was something no one ever saw before. That stuff, like Giger and Alien – I wanted to have a band that sounded like. That was where I got a good idea of what I wanted to do.

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