One reading of Nocturnus’s ‘The Key’ would have us believe that it is nothing more than a signifier of death metal’s early inroads into progressive music, perhaps a little more noteworthy than other releases of the time for the foregrounded keyboards. An alternative reading paints it as a sloppy miasma of repackaged Slayer and Kreator riffs, hastily bundled together under a sheen of directionless guitar licks, superfluous synth accents, and shoddy musicianship, all thrown together for the sole purpose of a Megadethist act of vengeance against Morbird Angel for casting Browning out of the band. A third reading might attempt a diplomatic reconciliation of the first two views. Yes, it may be rough around the edges, and perhaps inferior to ‘Piece of Time’ or ‘Human’, but an important formative release for progressive death metal all the same.
What’s perhaps more interesting than any of these attempts to salvage or bury the reputation of ‘The Key’ is the metrics used to establish its worth, or lack thereof. This is the album that made death metal reckon with its valuation of musical competence. Was it to be a non-negotiable prerequisite for a release to have any chance of legitimacy? Or was this a red herring, one that would see death metal dehydrate itself into the sterile clinicalism that had taken thrash and heavy metal before it? We all know what happened next.
A brief review of death metal’s source material from the early 1980s reveals a whole plethora of amateurism. Not only that, but such low bars of access were a signifier of underground nobility, standing proud against convention, spitting in the face of heavy metal’s increasingly out of touch bombast.
From early Venom, to Hellhammer, to 80s era Bathory, to Sodom’s ‘In the Sign of Evil’, the frightening animalism of Voivod’s ‘Killing Technology’, to early Slayer, Death Strike, Death, and Morbid Angel, these invocations to the inner troglodyte were reflective of death metal’s initial impetus as a dirty engine room germinating occasional moments of accidental beauty.
Compare the sloppy occultist metal of ‘Abominations of Desolation’ with the polished safety of ‘Altars of Madness’. There is an unpredictable primalism to be found in early extreme metal that sits atop its latent compositional and conceptual ambition. These were artists with big visions and limited means, so the works sway from comedy, to farce, to horror, in a delicate and gripping ballet, the balance between acts of genius against the odds offset by the constant threat that their craft would overwhelm them, consume them in the act of creation, leading to a final descent into madness and pathos driven artistic failure. This dichotomy is perhaps best illustrated by the accidental comedy of metal’s postmodern mantra curtesy of Sarcofago: “if you are a false, don’t entry”.
Following Browning’s notorious split with Morbid Angel and the formation of Nocturnus things had changed for death metal. Nocturnus formed in 1987, but by the time ‘The Key’ was released in 1990 Browning was confronted with a very different scene to the one he was peripherally responsible for creating. This was the scene that so reviled Euronymous and the gang and lit the fuse of second wave black metal’s reclamation of sloppy immediacy. Death metal had grown up. Amateurism was now an artistic choice, an aesthetic to be applied to a given style. And from this choice grew a certain open hostility to musicians found lacking, especially within the ectoplasm of early progressive death metal.
It is from this location that we can begin to understand why ‘The Key’ is often regarded as the ugly duckling of foundational progressive death metal. A good album hampered by the physical limitations of its staff. But equally, those desperately trying to salvage its reputation by asking us to look past its ontological shortcomings often miss the point.
‘The Key’ works precisely because of its sloppiness. In revisiting the album I was surprised to be greeted not by naïve sci-fi metal, but by futurist fables of Frankensteinian scope rendered via the tools of primitive 80s death metal, comparable to Bathory’s early Viking albums for cinematic, conceptual metal seemingly held together by duct tape and the desperate prayers of the artist that the whole undertaking won’t simply implode. But unlike Bathory, an environment under the total control of one man, what glimmers of Browning’s ambitious visions are visible on ‘The Key’ are not hampered by his own musical limitations at the time, but by Davis and McNenney’s fixation on signalling their own guitar virtuosity.
The artistically rich segments of the album are cluttered with the surplus information of guitar licks, solos that sound more like finger exercises, ill-placed screams of guitar noise that pull the music apart in all the wrong ways, chopping it into an unfocused tangential network of competing sonic strands. Equally, Panzer’s keyboards crowd the mix, either mirroring the riffs with ill-fitting synth tones or pulling us out of the moment with clashing harmonics.
So, far from the drums and vocals making ‘The Key’ a failure, the album works precisely because we can hear Browning desperately trying to manipulate these unwieldy musical breezeblocks into the construction of death metal’s first sci-fi epic. His drumming is sloppy, his vocals occasionally uncertain, but where just three years before such things would not only be forgiven but praised as acts of subversive venom, by 1990 they were unforgivable indications that Browning did not belong at the helm of a death metal outfit. The spontaneous wonder of extreme metal’s early forays into cinematic story telling had been replaced by an intractable fidelity to musical competence.
‘The Key’ was released at both the chronological and the artistic flashpoint of this conflict. The death metal of a new decade – even variants with limited technical requirements – would be a slicker, more professional nexus. And for all the wonders that would be released throughout the 1990s, this was no longer an entryist friendly field, one’s craft had to undergo a significant degree of honing and self-discipline before being visited upon the public.
It is perhaps telling that the most notorious backlash to this in the form of second wave black metal was largely championed by musicians that chose amateurism, but were not limited to it. Emperor, Immortal, Darkthrone, all were highly competent musicians who consciously selected the lo-fi path. The low bar of acceptable musicianship disguises this. Just watch Ihsahn discussing how to play some of the more basic early Emperor riffs. His meticulous attention to detail over the correct strumming technique, note emphasis, and phrasing when running through the simplest two chord riff, all are technical options available to Ihsahn as a studied musician despite the simplicity of the riffs themselves.
This is worlds away from the tense musically entropic improvisations of a Judas Iscariot for instance. Yet Judas Iscariot came to fruition in a post amateurist metal environment and is frequently lambasted by critics for it. Compare this to the esteem that Bathory’s sonic universe is lavished with. It may have been held together by string and wishes yet it resulted in epic yet grassroots tracts in ‘Hammerheat’ and ‘Twilight of the Gods’.
The next moves for Nocturnus are well documented. Steps would be taken to erase Browning’s presence from the band he had fashioned in his own image. Dan Izzo was recruited to replace him on vocals. Yet before they could fully erase him from history he laid down the drums for ‘Thresholds’.
This second LP was a re-imagining of the Nocturnus project fit for the new age of professionalism. But where the undirected energy of ‘The Key’ was pocketed with possibilities both thrilling and dangerous in equal measure, ‘Thresholds’ falters and jolts between various competing uncertainties. Any bursts of speed are controlled explosions, any ambition in composition is tempered by yet more showcases of Davis and McNenney’s musical adeptness. Keyboards are again surplus and clashing sonic material indispensable only insofar as removing them would be an existential threat to the Nocturnus brand. This is a sterile environment, policed by the totalitarian stewardship of absurdist synth material, trapped by its own pigeonhole yet unwilling to relinquish control and move the music forward through acts of reckless spontaneity.
Browning’s drums are now a caged animal. For all the sloppy transitions and faltering blast-beats on ‘The Key’, the unrestrained bacchanalianism behind the performance was endlessly engaging. But ‘Thresholds’ is a gated community. Any transgression from the norm is savagely curtailed, regulated, bureaucratised into directionless and wandering compositional structures that are little more than platforms to elevate exercises in fretboard acrobatics.
Following ‘Thresholds’, death metal would make an uneasy peace with keyboards, adopting little more than a transactional relationship with the instrument, confining it to the peripheral sphere of intros and interludes. With the release of ‘In the Nightside Eclipse’, the instrument’s true potential within an extreme metal setting would be recast, leaving the likes of Summoning, Dimmu Borgir, and the fledging symphonic metal scene to contest the space unhampered by death metal’s ruthlessly hierarchical complexities.
The ambient norms of the contemporary moment tends to warp our understanding of history. The standard of musicianship today is higher than it has ever been. Metal is so often characterised as a genre that places great value on virtuosity that it’s easy to forget that there was a time when sloppy musicianship was not only the norm, but actively encouraged. The last two holdouts for entryism in black metal and stoner are telling enough. With the former retaining Ihsahn’s studied amateurism rather than Judas Iscariot’s will-and-a-prayer approach, and stoner suffering from a conceptual sterility so strangling as to moot any discussion of raw technical standards.
The reason ‘The Key’ has come under increasing scrutiny recently is precisely because it remains a vector for people to signal what they believe a death metal band should look like. ‘The Key’ was the apex of the genre as it was in the 1980s, proudly defined by its ugliness, monstrous and wild, but beginning to acquaint itself with ambitious compositional forms, musical techniques, and heady conceptual material. Just a year later in 1991 Atheist would release ‘Unquestionable Presence’, and find a way to contain the swirling chaos of ‘The Key’ and refashion it into short bursts of euphoric energy. The abrasive and decidedly negative ethos behind death metal was recast as an ecstatic intoxication so invigorating as to begin to look like the construction of new axiomatic truths.
Some can never forgive ‘The Key’ for being an attempt at an ambitious, technical, progressive death metal album from musicians that had no right to do so. Others doggedly defend it as a work that succeeds in spite of its ontological failings.
Neither are true. It is a work that belongs to an older brand of death metal. It is perhaps the more worthy sequel to the ‘Abominations of Desolation’ project than ‘Altars of Madness’ ever was. ‘The Key’ retains the edge, the bite, there is still a sense in which anything can happen, that events are completely beyond the control of even the musicians themselves, the blind fury and indiscriminate rage of the playing would simply not be possible in today’s self-conscious and studied age. But injected into this constricted and constricting space is a project of world building, a compositional ambition that heralded the arrival of a new school of death metal that was still in its infancy in 1990. For all the engaging riff tessellation and fluidity of ‘Altars of Madness’, it remains a mechanistic beast born of geometry and mathematical models over an animalistic urge, constructed as it is from templates and agreed forms as opposed to the pre-conscious dynamism of ‘The Key’.
‘The Key’ works as the culmination of the early death metal project, and the signalling of a new remit and purpose for the genre. Therefore, it functions in defiance of its technical or progressive elements, which are so much surplus noise over and above the vision Browning was attempting to conjure from thin air.