Friday, May 21, 2010

Nocturnus - Ethereal Tomb

Nocturnus - Ethereal Tomb
1999, Season of Mist/Necropolis

After a very lengthy absence (how long has it been - eight years?) Nocturnus return to grace the underground with another very well-planned, played, and otherwise executed slab of Florida death metal, done completely in their own original style. It is so refreshing, speaking personally, to hear this style of music again (albeit in an updated fashion): meaning the American version of prototypical death metal, circa '89-'92. It comes as an enormous relief from the virtual tidal wave of NWOSDM/Gothenburg At The Gates/Carcass worship that has been infecting the underground as of late, and plaguing all the magazine writers that I know. To all the small European labels out there, on the behalf of my fellow 'zine editors: enough is enough! If only the sound on 'Slaughter of the Soul' could have been patented, eh?

What the band bio I received with this CD emphasizes and the people that I have talked to over the years about this band always stressed were the keyboards - their place in the music, their original or innovative function, and the ability they had (in this band) to widen the sound and power of the music considerably. Nocturnus were innovative in that aspect - they were probably the first extreme metal band I ever saw play live with a keyboardist (a headbanging keyboardist, no less), and while that instrument was muted considerably in performance, on record it (and the man who played it - Louis Panzer) really had the opportunity to shine, creating new atmospheres or soundscapes to swallow the technical guitar riffing, and often offering themes or little intro segments that potently illustrated the lyrics. On this album, though, the keyboard music has been changed drastically - perhaps in response to all the synth styles in the scene now that Panzer supposedly influenced. Instead of flying ahead, over, and through the guitars, the synths (for the most part) march resolutely in the background, adding tints, tones, and shades to influence the path of the band's sound. It might just be the production on this album, but it sounds to me like the keyboard playing was given a much lower priority this time around - or maybe the new style they are playing doesn't call for strenuous synth workouts in the way their old material did.

However I was always attracted to the guitar playing in this band, both the bizarre and abstract nature of the frenetic, fast-paced, overtly technical rhythm riffing and the swarming leads that Mike Davis and Sean McKenney unleashed to devastating effect. On this new album, the technical virtuosity of the guitar playing (the shred factor, basically) has been toned down a few notches, for whatever reason. There are still the screaming leads (Mike Davis' spectral examples being the most impressive, seemingly sent over a COMSAT link from another planet) and the rhythm guitar work is never boring, but the pace has been slackened a great deal - they have seemingly lost (or got rid of) the insane level of energy that marked their earlier releases, and this album progresses through songs that are much more somber, darker, and emotional than what we have heard from them before. This could mark a new level of maturity in their song writing, or simply a change in style or intent. Good examples of this are to be found in the third track, the doom-laden 'Edge of Darkness', the fifth, the otherworldly 'Search for the Trident', and especially the summary piece 'Outland', the last track on the record. In any case, the guitar playing on this album is excellent in all respects, effectively weaving the chilling atmospheres that the themes of the songs call for, and adding all the little touches, trills, and musical comments on the main riffs that this band is known for. The lead melodies in 'Edge of Darkness' and the sixth song, 'Paranormal States', are especially beautiful. Instead of a manic competition between the guitarists, we have a very well orchestrated trading-off of lead and rhythm duties, and the measured cadence of a band that is secure in their material and concerned only with the gradual unfolding of its power or potential. This is not a strangling transport to alien worlds, suffocating in its density, the way their first two albums were; but rather like the time-tested tales of a voyager who has returned from the cold vacuum of space to relate what he found there.

I avidly recommend this album for those of you who were impressed by this band's earlier efforts, or the death metal enthusiasts out there who are eager to hear something new. And to the band: it's good to have you back!