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Sunday Old School: Nocturnus

For decades, heavy metal fans have pointed certain things and debated as to whether they are or aren’t, "metal." Haircuts, elements of classical music, or indeed most other forms of music, these are a couple of the targets, but one of the first things to shock some fans of metal music was the use of keyboards. In his book, "Hell Bent for Leather," author Seb Hunter mentions the time when he first heard British legends, UFO and recoiling when he realised they were using keyboards. Metal has certainly evolved since the days of UFO and keyboards have been used on many metal records, especially in the symphonic black metal genre, but one of the first bands to bring the instrument to extreme metal music was a group from Tampa, Florida named Nocturnus.

Nocturnus began life in 1987 after drummer/vocalist, Mike Browning and guitarist, Gino Marino’s previous band, Incbus folded. They recruited Agent Steel bass player, Richard Bateman and a second guitarist named Vincent Crowley, recording and releasing their first demo later that year. This self-titled demo would prove to be their only recording with Crowley, who left soon afterwards to form, Acheron and was replaced by Marino’s eighteen year old cousin, Mike Davis. Bateman would also soon leave the group to join Nasty Savage, whereupon Nocturnus hired a new bassist, Jeff Estes and most famously, a keyboard player named, Louis Panzer, whose inclusion helped to set them apart from the ever growing Florida death metal scene, as it was practically unheard of at the time to utilise keyboards in extreme metal.

This new sound was soon heard on the 1988 demo, "Science of Horror," which earned a cult following and is still a highly thought of demo today. It marked their last demo recording with Marino however, whose place was taken by the highly skilled, Sean McNenney, a friend of Davis’ who synced well with him, with their technical, duelling solos soon becoming another talking point amongst metal fans. Friends of Mike Davis proved to be helpful to the band in more ways than one, as it not only gained them a new guitarist, but perhaps also a record deal, as Morbid Angel guitarist, Trey Azagthoth, another friend of Davis, recommended the group to Earache Records, who soon snapped them up.

Nocturnus then entered the studio to record their first full length album, which was released in 1990 under the title, "The Key." The record was highly acclaimed and sold well, with many enjoying the unique elements the group brought to death metal, not just in sound but also lyric wise. "The Key" was a concept album, telling the story of a cyborg which travelled back in time and eliminated Christianity, as heard on the track, "Destroying the Manger" and establishing his own empire. Other tracks on the album such as, "B.C./A.D." and "Standing in Blood" became favourites amongst the death metal crowd and the band soon brought their science fiction orientated brand of extreme metal on the road supporting Bolt Thrower, before perhaps most notably teaming up with Morbid Angel, Napalm Death and Godflesh for a package tour.

Whilst recording "The Key," however, Estes has begun to develop a drinking problem and was replaced by Jim O’Sullivan, who would only last a few tours before also being let go. Without a bassist, the band decided to start work on their sophomore full length, though they had decided, with much encouragement from Earache, to bring in a new vocalist so Browning could concentrate on his drumming. Former Tortured Soul singer, Dan Izzo came into the fold and the group brought in session bassist, Chris Anderson to work on the new effort.

The new album, "Thresholds" was recorded and released in 1992 and dove deeper into the science fiction area of lyrics, as evidenced in such songs as "Aquatica" and "Gridzone," as well as notably the song, "Subterranean Infiltrator," which was inspired the Metal Gear video games. In terms of individual contributions, "Thresholds" was considered a step up from "The Key," with many critics praising the technical flair displayed by Browning and the two guitarists. Overall however, it didn’t receive quite as much recognition as its predecessor, though it still regarded as a very good album, containing a number of fan favourites.

After coming home from tour, bitterness and differences began to rear their heads. The band were unsatisfied by the lack of promotion they felt they had received from Earache and Browning’s vision for the band conflicted with the other members, leading Davis, McNenney and Panzer to secretly secure the rights to the name, Nocturnus, firing Browning from the band shortly afterwards. He was replaced by James Marcinek, with whom they began working on material for a third album, however they were soon dropped from Earache and so were unable to release the intended effort. They did, however, release a self-titled, two track EP through Moribund Records in 1993, which contained the new song, "Mummified," as well as the song, "Possess the Priest," which was a re-worked version of an old song. With no label support, Nocturnus effectively broke up after the EP’s release when several members left.

A return of sorts took place towards the end of the millennium however, when after working on new music together, McNenney and Panzer decided their material fit in with the Nocturnus catalogue and so resurrected the name, bringing back Mike Davis and bass player Emo Mowery and released the band’s third studio album, "Ethereal Tomb" in the year 2000 through French label, Season of Mist. The record had more of an ambient vibe than their previous work and once again was well received by the majority of fans. Two years later however, the band decided to break up once more.

Although Nocturnus has been effectively dead for the past twelve years, Browning and his band After Death have performed under the Nocturnus name on several occasions, mostly when appearing at festivals. This trend will continue of sorts this year, as After Death has re-christened themselves as Nocturnus A.D. and will be appearing at the Maryland Deathfest, where they will perform, "The Key" from start to finish. Although it seems unlikely that a full reunion will take place, fans at least have the chance to see the name being carried on and will once again be able to hear the music of one of the most inventive death metal bands of an era when the genre was at its peak.

Nocturnus - "Lake of Fire"

Nocturnus - "Visions From Beyond the Grave"

Nocturnus - "Droid Sector"

Nocturnus - "Alter Reality"

Nocturnus - "Subterranean Infiltrator"

Nocturnus - "Aquatica"

Nocturnus - "Search For the Trident"

Diamond Oz's avatar

Ollie Hynes has been a writer for Metal Underground.com for four years and has been a metal fan for ten years, going so far as to travel abroad for metal shows.

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2 Comments on "Sunday Old School: Nocturnus"

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Malevolent6's avatar

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1. Malevolent6 writes:

Nice coverage of Nocturnus. Just got into them a month ago really interesting and brutal music, I think that keyboards in heavy metal is just as important as the bass, drums, guitars and vocals. Mike Browning is one sick vocalist/drummer

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Diamond Oz's avatar

Senior News Correspondent

2. Diamond Oz writes:

Thanks man. Glad you liked it.

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