A cult classic of death metal, Nocturnus’ The Key often elicits outwardly moderate yet intense praise from connoisseurs of the genre. Reading online reviews and commentaries on the album one realizes that these praises are based on a three points. The first is the prominent use of keyboards throughout the album, then there is the ubiquitous, ripping guitar solos and last, its supposed resemblance to Morbid Angel, which is mainly based on the fact that Mike Browning took charge of the vocals on Nocturnus but also on the so-called thrash/speed-death amalgam this style is supposed to be. Let’s shoot each of these down one at a time.
The much-mentioned “pioneering” death metal with keyboards is an example of how too much of the metal critique is bent on praising novelty. Not only is the use of keyboards in the album amateur but it is often gimmicky, half of the time being out of place, the other half being completely extra and unnecessary — not strongly integrated into the music except in a very few places (“Neolithic” has a gesture in the solo section that shows promise). There are very good reasons why you do not hear keyboards often in death metal, and it goes beyond the fact that most death metal musicians are not learned enough to integrate them and would rather just make “pummeling and brutal riffs”. Style has to accommodate instrument choice. As it stands, The Key only crams keyboards wherever it can, but it is little more than a gimmick. Overall, a metalhead should look up to In the Nightside Eclipse for a better example of keyboards in underground metal.
On to the much lauded guitar solos in this album. What can I say? Besides being mindlessly infantile and trivial in their transparent scale runs, the solos throughout this album are, like the keyboard sections, often out of place and come off as being only superimposed on top of the rest of the music rather than composed within it. On their own and apart from the discussion on whether they fit into the music or not, it is not the messiness of the solos but their complete lack of character that would give one a good reason to ditch them and never think about them again.
Regarding Nocturnus sounding like a “Morbid Angel on steroids” or “an improved version of Morbid Angel”, we can say it comes from extremely superficial comparisons and a complete lack of discernment concerning composition quality. While Nocturnus perfectly exemplifies the brand of speed metal that wants to be death metal but is not quite there yet, early Morbid Angel was known as “death-thrash” only as a result of the audience’s ignorance. In this respect and given that The Key was released in 1990, when death metal had already solidified as a genre, we can say Nocturnus’ music is retrograde gimmick. The distinction between the death metal of Morbid Angel and the harsh, late-speed metal of Nocturnus lies in the phrase construction of the first that becomes the central development of the music, while the latter produces riffs to carry the voice that end in hooks. Death metal is progressive-symphonic phrasal music, speed metal is still heavy metal of a pop nature. Rather than compare them to Morbid Angel it would be more fitting to compare them to that other famous retrograde and gimmicky act called Death.
All in all, The Key still captures the imagination despite its amateur character and its great faults. I believe the reason for this is that in spite of its immature musical notions, its concept is very clear and this comes through in a very strong manner, outshining the blunders it houses. For the sake of metal, its future and the education of the audience, it is important to give albums like this their correct place. This is enjoyable and fun in much the same way that Sharknado is. You know it is silly, you know its appeal comes from its exaggerations and awkwardness, but a focused awkwardness with a clear idea in mind.
Masturbate on the throne of god
Crucifixion of a thousand saints
Stakes are mounted with the heads of angels
Nocturnal spells are casted,
Heaven begins to bleed
Early death metal barely made it out of the shadow of speed metal before. We call it speed metal, not thrash, because it was a direct extension of NWOBHM using some punk technique, not an outright punk hybrid like thrash. Speed metal represents one of the most varied sub-genres in metal, running the gamut from percussive (Exodus) through traditional (Metallica) and all the way to adventurous stuff like Voivod, Anacrusis, Coroner and Sacrifice. It is in that latter category that The Science of Horror begins.
This demo re-issue will be — for now — limited to 100 copies pressed to vinyl that incorporate two demos, The Science of Horror (1988) and Nocturnus (1987). These show both a band looking for a balance between the early death/speed hybrids and its future as a technical death metal band, and the personal vision that Mike Browning has been refining since this time through the present day with his current band, After Death. This vision unites the progressive with morbid rock and extremity, aiming for a theatrical presentation as much as musical obscurity, and never afraid — unlike too many prog bands — to use a primitive riff where it is effective. Like many progressive-inspired bands, there is a high degree of internal variation in these demos, Nocturnus and After Death, used like an ancient storyteller might use an extensive vocabulary. The theatrical nature of this approach means that the songs on these demos, which are mostly duplicative, take an atmospheric approach to a genre in transition that was otherwise more inclined toward all-ahead aggression. But like Anacrusis, Voivod and Coroner, Nocturnus adapted its songs to use both death metal technique and speed metal but creating a sense of rhythm of its own that emphasized frequent transitions and complex patterns without drifting into other known genres.
Several of the song segments used here show similarity to what appeared on Morbid Angel’s early work, notably its 1986 Abominations of Desolation, and feature the same flexible rhythm that nonetheless approximates the chorus rhythm without doing so in trope, leaving plenty of space for instruments to work independently. Like speed metal, much of this material aims for discrete chords in repetitive patterns, but especially on the second demo, use of tremolo to create smooth transitions gives this material a new aura of mystery and suspension of belief. As a document of early death metal, The Science of Horror both emphasizes the creative possibilities of metal at the time and reminds us how weirdness was once more front and center and how it did the genre well. On another level, this music provides pleasurable listening at the nexus not only of two genres but also several compositional styles, and the change from the first to later demo shows the incorporation of keys in the way that would later define Nocturnus and be expanded to become a fundamental part of the technique as a way of creating spacious, atmospheric death metal. With any luck, this pressing of the demos will see CD release later this year, as despite being the same tracks twice this recording serves well for casual listening as well as historical examination of death metal.
Tracklist The Science of Horror Demo 2 (1988)
1. Before Christ – After Death
2. Standing in Blood
4. Undead Journey Nocturnus Demo 1 (1987)
6. B.C. – A.D.
7. The Entity
8. Unholy Fury
Mike Browning: Drums, Vocals
Mike Davis: Guitars
Louis Panzer: Keyboards
Jeff Estes: Bass
Gino Marino: Guitars
Mike Browning: Drums, Vocals
Richard Bateman: Bass
Vincent Crowley: Guitars
Gino Marino: Guitars
Classic Florida progressive death metal band Nocturnus, famous for spidery riffs interlaced with outer space keyboards, dominated the metal world’s appetite for bizarre and uncompromising music back in the 1990s, but their music is now out of print.
Their label, Earache Records, wants to re-issue the Nocturnus classic Thresholds, but there’s a catch: the fans have to pay for it in advance. Unlike the usual underground pre-orders, where individual fans order the album and when there’s enough cash the label takes it to print, Earache is using a Kickstarter page to launch the funding request.
If demand is met, Thresholds will be pressed on 100 clear, 200 green, 300 purple and 400 black LPs with the recording taken from the original DAT master. For more information, visit the Nocturnus Thresholds re-issue Kickstarter page.
We previously posted an article about Mike Browning being disgruntled over some happenings with David Vincent and his wife. DeathMetal.org has offered to give Mr. Browning an outlet to shed some light on the happenings of the early days of Morbid Angel, as well as clear up any confusion that may be encircling the metal underground.
Not many people have such an extensive resume when it comes to being involved with innovative bands in Death Metal. Mike Browning helped mold Morbid Angel, then he helped to create Nocturnus. He has also played and recorded with Incubus, Acheron and After Death.
We are fortunate that Mr. Browning has given us his time to answer these questions.
Hi Mike. Thank you for your time. I have often thought of early Morbid Angel as Slayer on steroids. Why did you guys decide to take the music in such an extreme manner?
It was really what was just coming out of us naturally. Back then we weren’t trying to do or be anything other than an evil chaotic band that was real. We literally did Necronomicon rituals before we played invoking the Ancient Ones and then with that energy we would start playing. We even did it for rehearsals as well as live shows.
There have been confusing recounts of the Abominations of Desolation recording session. Was this Morbid Angel’s first official album? If so, why has the band referred to it as a demo?
Abominations of Desolation was the first Morbid Angel album recorded. We signed to David Vincent’s label Goreque Records and we went to North Carolina to record and David even hired the legendary Bill Metoyer to engineer the record. So even though it was not released until later, it really is the first Morbid Angel record and not a demo.
I don’t know why the band says it’s only a demo. You would have to ask them that. They also claim that Sterling Scarborough played bass on the recording, which is not true either. It was John Ortega.
After Abominations of Desolation was recorded you returned to Florida and Trey stayed with David Vincent in North Carolina. Why did he stay there?
Yes the rest of the band went back to Tampa after we recorded while Trey stayed alone with David to do the mixing. It was told to us that it would be cheaper to just keep Trey there for the mixing, but when Trey came back he acted like a completely different person. He said we had to fire John Ortega and that David had found a new bass player for us which was Sterling Scarborough.
What was the actual reason for your departure from Morbid Angel? I heard that there was a physical fight with you and Trey.
Yes that is what happened. I stopped by his house one afternoon on my lunch hour from work and saw my girlfriends car there so I kicked the door in and found them on the couch kissing and I beat up Trey pretty bad. We were all pretty young back then so that is how I handled it by kicking his ass, but by doing that it caused the band to split up and that is when Richard and Trey moved to North Carolina and started playing with David, Wayne Hartsell and Sterling. I got Gino Marino and reformed Sterling’s old band Incubus.
Morbid Angel appear to be twirling into Skrillex influences more than Death Metal. Their last album Illud Divinum Insanus has been mocked by fans from all over the world. Why do you think they recorded such a weird album?
Well from what I heard that most of the music was written by Trey and he let David do all the lyrics. I’m not really sure if that is the truth, but it came from a pretty reliable source.
David Vincent has signed on to be in a film about pornstar Vaness Del Rio. What are your thoughts on this?
I don’t even want to have any thoughts about it!!! Seriously though I think it will only damage his reputation with Morbid Angel, but hey I am sure all he cares about is that he will make money and maybe turn it into a new career for himself.
Gen Vincent (David Vincent’s wife) has gotten you banned from the nightclub ‘The Castle’ in Ybor City. Why has she gone to such measures?
It’s because I made fun of David and their last album, but of course I didn’t start it all. There were so many people already making fun of it before it even came out that when I finally heard some of it I started making fun of it too. But I guess since I live in the same town and actually just a few blocks away from his house and that I was actually in the band that it was me that started all the jokes about him and the last album. So I guess Gen thought she would try to get back at me by having me banned from the local Gothic club because Gen is very personal friends with the owner of the club. I rarely go there anymore. Just once or twice a year when they have the bigger yearly events there, so it’s no big deal being banned. It was more about the point of it.
Thank you for clearing up some of the confusion that has been encircling the metal community. What are your plans for the near future?
Just staying busy doing both After Death and some live Nocturnus shows. There has been so much interest in people wanting to see the old Nocturnus stuff live that my band After Death has learned the whole The Key album and we are doing these shows and playing the entire album straight through. Then we’re throwing in some old Morbid Angel songs from Abominations of Desolation versions for the encores.
I also want to say THANKS to everyone who has supported all the music I have done over all these years and hopefully I will be able to continue the chaos for many more!
Thresholds, the second offering from Mike Browning’s (ex-Morbid Angel) sci-fi death metal tour de force, is an uneven, messy, fusion-inspired, lurid and occult death metal album. The best bits on here such as the sparkling, baroque, Mozart-ian lead guitars on “Aquatica” and the super-addictive chug and rhythmic chant on “Climate Controller” will stick to mind but at times the observation leaps through that Browning & co. are nowhere near the composers that for example Azagthoth & Brunelle were. The polyphony of the looming synthesizers is mostly awkward atmosphere building instead of solid thematics incorporated with the guitars. Browning does have an uncanny primitivistic yet accurate touch with the drums, one he obviously is going for, even naming a track “Tribal Vodoun”. All in all, it was probably a disappointment for many who bought it back in the day simply because Trey Azagthoth was always wearing a Nocturnus shirt in promo pictures. Nowadays as a rare and seldom heard item it has both nostalgic cult value and alongside the equally fusionistic, strange but compulsive “Spheres” by Pestilence shows imaginative directions where death metal could have followed if it hadn’t been abandoned to the blind flocks with their “brutal chugging” and “melodic wanking” trends.
Polish death metal band Cortege released a music video for “Hallowed Be They Name” off their album Touching the Void. Cortege are inspired by Morbid Angel, Nocturnus, and Immolation and the album features a guest solo from Spider of Vader.
Not to be confused with the Incubus that Mike Browning played in between his tenures in Morbid Angel and Nocturnus; this Incubus (who changed their name to Opprobrium almost a decade later) was formed by Brazilian immigrants to the USA and fits well with the plethora of bands halfway between extreme speed metal and early death metal in the late 1980s. They’re probably most notorious these days for their pro-Christian, almost crusade oriented lyrical themes; as far as I know they were one of the first to bring such into extreme metal. Historical trivia aside, Relapse’s reissue showcases some remastering work that generally makes the album sound sharper and treblier and appears to be based on the original, as opposed to the 1996 edition with rerecorded vocals.
As mentioned in our first article on the topic, the “first album” from Morbid Angel remains a vague category because the band recorded two first albums, each given a name starting with the letter A which fits into the alphabetical sequence to which their albums have conformed to this day. We took a few moments to speak to original drummer/vocalist Mike Browning (Nocturnus, After Death) about Abominations of Desolation versus Altars of Madness as the true first album of this essential band…
You were one of the original players on Morbid Angel’s Abominations of Desolation (referred to as AOD), which was released before most of the publicly acknowledged death metal classics. What was the band lineup for AOD? How does it feel to have participated in such a historic and musically intense recording?
The line-up on the AOD album was:
Mike Browning -‐ drums and vocals
Trey Azagthoth -‐ guitar
Richard Brunelle -‐ guitar
John Ortega -‐ bass
At the time back in 1986 everything was just still called metal and it didn’t matter if you were more on the death or power metal side, it was still all considered Metal and the Metal crowd was unified and everyone got along for the most part, so to us back then we were just recording another new metal album and we weren’t concerned with being the fastest or the heaviest, we just did our own thing and kept it as original as possible. Back then the main thing was to be real and not fake in what we were doing.
Was it intended to be the first Morbid Angel album? How do you know? Was this fact …inconvenient… for anyone?
It still amazes me that this is even questionable, but here is the thing, we were offered a RECORD CONTRACT to record an ALBUM under the name MORBID ANGEL by Goreque Records, a label owned by David Vincent and his partner Mark Anderson. We signed the contract and Bill Metoyer of Metal Blade producer/engineer that recorded and mixed more albums than I can even think of, was hired to engineer the album.
So Goreque Records rented us a UHaul truck and we packed up our gear and went to a studio in Charlotte, North Carolina. We were furnished with hotel rooms and I met David Vincent and Mark Anderson for the first time face to face and the next day we started to record the album, after about 5 or 6 days there we were finished with the recording and David Vincent sent all of us but Trey back to Tampa and kept Trey there by himself for the mixdown, little did the rest of us know that the whole time David Vincent was really brainwashing Trey and telling him how bad the album was and that he should quit the band and come join his band. When Trey came back from the mixing, he acted like a completely different person and everything went downhill from there.
What was the reaction to its release at the time (1986) and five years later in 1991?
Well that is the thing, the album never got released because I ended up catching Trey with my girlfriend and I beat him up for it and that was the end of me being in Morbid Angel because Trey and Richard moved from Tampa to Charlotte and did get in a band with David and his drummer Wayne Hartsell. I know that John Ortega had a copy of a rough mix that we had at the point that we all left to go back to Tampa, so when Trey got back he said that David Vincent told him that the bass playing was so bad on the album that we had to fire John Ortega if we wanted the album to still come out on his label and replace him with Sterling Scarborough, we didn’t even know who Sterling was, but again it was David’s idea for us to replace Johnny with Sterling, so Trey did it and the band only lasted a couple months once this happened.
When [AOD] came out in 1991 I think it confused a lot of people as to what it was because there was no information or pictures as to who was actually playing on the album, except for a couple of lines in the front right corner of the cover that said it was AN ALBUM that was recorded in 1986, but never released, so even on the Earache version it says that it was an unreleased album, not a demo, it just also didn’t give any info on who was on it!
When did Morbid Angel decide to record Altars of Madness (referred to as AOM), and what were the changes between songs on that album and AOD?
I guess about two years later, so they had two years to actually work on most of those same songs and make them tighter and faster, they only changed a few words here and there to most of them and a lot of the drum parts were similar only faster.
When Earache released AOD, did they make any changes to the original recording?
I really don’t think they did, of course it never really got released back in 1986, so there is nothing to compare it to except the rough mix that John Ortega had and released as a bootleg.
Who is Sterling von Scarborough?
John Sterling Scarborough was his real name, but he went by Sterling Von Scarborough. He was a bass player from Atlanta that had a band called Incubus and David Vincent knew him and told Trey that we had to replace John Ortega, so he recommended Sterling and so Sterling came to Tampa and tried out for us and became our bass player. He was never on the AOD recording and he joined the band after we recorded the AOD album. We only did one live show with him at a place called The Volley Club in 1986 and Ammon (now Deicide) opened for us that night. Unfortunately that show was never recorded and it was the last show I ever played with Morbid Angel as well.
Why do you think Earache released AOD in 1991, five years after it was originally recorded? Why do you think they chose to claim AOM as the first album instead of AOD?
From what I heard was that they released AOD in 1991 to stop all the bootleg versions of it that were being made, from that one tape that Ortega had, all the bootlegs of it were made from that, so generation after generation they got sounding worse and worse. Earache and David and Trey made a deal to release the AOD album because David had the master reels, so he sold them to Earache and they gave Trey some money as well and they released it to stop the bootlegging.
Funny thing was I was on Earache Records at the time in Nocturnus and they never even told me that they were putting it out, I didn’t even find out about it until after it was already out and in the stores. That album has, guitar, bass, drums and vocals and I am doing 2 of those 4 things and I was never even told that it was gonna be released!
Did Morbid Angel take a different compositional (choice of notes, not production or vocals) direction with AOM versus AOD? Why did they do that? What did the original direction offer that the new one did not?
Well it was a couple years later that they had quite a bit of time to work on those songs and a few more and with everything but the guitar being new, of course it was going to have a new and different sound, especially when you change vocalists. And if you notice, David tries to sing a lot more like me, but he gave that up and went for a completely different style on Blessed Are The Sick. They also had a big budget and recorded the album in Morrisound which is a studio known for Metal, that studio that we recorded AOD in was actually some kind of a country music recording studio, so the guys that ran that place had never even had any type of metal band even in there before, so of course you are gonna have a huge difference in the production because of those things alone.
Rumor has it that you formed a band named “Ice” with Trey Azagthoth, pre-Morbid Angel. Wow… a moment in death metal history! What did you want to do with that band, and what was inspiring you at that moment?
Trey and I met in high school back in 1981 and I even remember his mom buying him his first guitar, a wood colored Gibson SG and we started jamming together in my mom’s back room of my house, so we put a little high school band together and even played the high school talent show. It was literally the beginning of what would become Morbid Angel.
I find that musical “inspiration” extends beyond other albums, but includes them. Were there any non‐musical experiences, books, ideas, plays, movies, thoughts, etc. that influenced you, and how did they parallel what you found in the music that influenced you?
Both Trey and I were into the occult, so when he moved into my area of Tampa and started going to school at my school and we met and started talking about what we were both into and we both were musicians that liked the occult and most especially we were both into a book called The Necronomicon and we really believed every bit of that book was true and real, so we decide to put a band together that was based on music that would please these Sumerian Gods that were in The Necronomicon. We were totally serious about what we were doing and the whole purpose of the band was to make music that would bring forth these Ancient Ones back to the Earth.
Did you and other members of Morbid Angel meet in high school, as is the rumor? Where was that? What was it like (hell?) and how did that help you bond?
It was only Trey and I as far as that ended up in Morbid Angel that knew each other in high school. Morbid Angel itself started around 1984 with me, Trey and Dallas Ward on bass.
The High School we went to was called HB Plant High school and it still is in South Tampa, there was an area where all the cool cigarette smokers and hippy type people hung out at the high school called The Alley and everyone would hang out there before school and at lunch and we met there and would always talk about music and The Necronomicon.
As “Ice,” what kind of material did you play? What songs did you cover? How did they mold your style? What was your practice schedule like? Did this influence how Morbid Angel did things later?
We really only played cover songs at first, like Judas Priest and Scorpions and Black Sabbath, because there was no Slayer or Celtic Frost or even Hellhammer yet back then. We did start messing around with some original stuff, but when I graduated from high school, Trey moved again at that time to the North end of Tampa, so for probably a good 6 months I didn’t even see him, so I started jamming with some other guys playing metal covers and Trey met Dallas and Charles, a singer and they had a drummer that was older than all of them and he lived in another town north of Tampa and he only came into town on some weekends to jam with them, so when I started talking to Trey again I decided to quit the cover band and start playing with Trey and these new guys Dallas and Charles and they already had a name for the band and it was called Death Watch. The singer got arrested and went to jail, so that is when we became a three-piece and Dallas was singing and we called the band Heretic, but we quickly found out that there was already another Heretic, so that’s when we finally became Morbid Angel.
How do you conceptualize death metal? Was progressive rock an influence? What about classical or jazz?
I don’t really think most of the music I have done was only considered to be death metal, because it had a lot of different elements to it, especially with Nocturnus. But I would say that death metal is a very heavy, fast and aggressive type of music with lyrics mainly focused on death, gore and a lot of anti-Christian themes. For me progressive rock has always been an influence, I really liked Rush when I was in high school and they were about as progressive as you could get back then. I also liked classical because I had been in the school band, from grades 6-‐10 playing percussion, so I learned to play all kinds of percussion like tympanis and bells playing classical and marching band music. I never really got into the jazz style of music, although I wish I had now, because jazz has some of the most amazing drummers and really off timing drum parts.
Your musical style is both highly proficient and idiosyncratic. How did you learn to play? What deepened your understanding of music? How important was the rising death metal scene in changing how you understood music?
It started even before that though because my mom had a 70s rock band that she sang for and they used to practice in the same back room that Trey and I ended up practicing in and I was only about 9 or 10, so I used to sit back there and watch them rehearse and I always liked watching the drummer play the most, so when they offered band when I got in 6th grade I wanted to take the drums of course!
Playing that style of music like marching band and classical stuff and also seeing my mom play in a band really gave me the early understanding of what it was like to play music and be in a band. I was into bands like Led Zeppelin and Styx when I first started and then I got into heavier stuff like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple and then Judas Priest and Iron Maiden and from there I discovered Slayer, Venom Mercyful Fate, Hellhammer and I wanted to be in a band like that, but I also wanted to be different, I have never been into copying anyones style and being like someone else, so I guess why even today I still kind of just do my own thing whether it makes money or not has never been a concern to me, I only play music because I get enjoyment out of it and if other people like what I do, then that is awesome to me!
How was AOD recorded? It sounds rough but preserves the texture of the instruments, instead of trading detail for loudness and polished sound like AOM. What made you choose to record it this way?
Back when we recorded AOD in 1986, we really didn’t know much about recording or what equipment was best for recording, so even though we went into a real professional 24 track studio, we still weren’t that prepared to do a well polished album. I had only been singing a couple months and some of the songs were just put together and we were also under a time constraint because we were in another state recording in an unfamiliar place and we only had so much studio time to get it all done.
If we had better equipment and more knowledge on recording, it probably would have sounded much better, but we were just a bunch of crazy kids with a record contract! I was also never included in the mixdown of the music, so all I got to hear was pretty much the raw unmixed tracks until Trey came back with the album mixed and finished. At least the album has a certain energy to it that was still able to come through, even with all the problems that we did have.
Can you tell us about your current projects, such as (but not limited to!) Afer Death 666? How are these efforts different from typical death metal, AOD and AOM? If people want to find out more about what you’re up to these days, where should they go?
Right now I have 2 bands with the same members in both bands, one is Nocturnus AD, which is a continuation of what I wanted to do with Nocturnus after we recorded The Key in 1990, it is much more technical sci-fi stuff than what is on AOD and it has keyboards and it is tuned in E-flat which is what Nocturnus was tuned in back in 1987‐1992 and the other band is just called After Death and as I mentioned it does have the same members, but After Death is a little heavier on the occult side of things and the music is less technical and more atmospheric and tuned in D.
The thing I keep up with most is my Facebook page, which is just under Mike Browning and it has the most up to date info on it, but we also have Facebook pages for Nocturnus AD and After Death and we also have a website www.afterdeath666.com , which has info for both bands on the site.