Album Review: Nocturnus AD – Unicursal

Album Review: Nocturnus AD - Unicursal

Album Review: Nocturnus AD - Unicursal
Reviewed by Sam Jones

The name of Nocturnus A.D. should be familiar right now as other giants of death metal, having formed initially in 1987 under the original name of Nocturnus, hailing from Florida, United States. Following two Demos, Nocturnus would unleash their debut full length album, The Key, in 1990 which went on to become an absolutely seminal work of extreme metal, foremost for its heavy implementation of science fiction in death metal which wasn’t prominent back in the day. Thresholds succeeded that two years later in 1992 yet the band would break up just a year later. While the band would reform and release Ethereal Tomb in 1999, the engine had run dry for the band and thusly, the curtain was closed on Nocturnus in 2002. But, in 1999 also, following his departure from Nocturnus after the release of Thresholds, Mike Browning went on to form Nocturnus A.D with failed startups, first collapsing in 2000, then again the same year though nothing came of it before disassembling again in 2013. Finally, come 2017, Nocturnus A.D were poised for a comeback and in 2019 unveiled the Nocturnus-styled record in decades, Paradox, a record universally praised and adored by critics and fans equally. I loved this record to pieces and played it cover to cover so many times over that, upon the band’s announcement of a second full length record, Unicursal, I was more than happy to grab it. So, let’s take a full look at Nocturnus A.D.’s first album in five years, out May 17th through Profound Lore Records, and see how it measures up not merely as a comeback record, but a continuation.

I love how the production applied to Unicursal sees the band refusing to alter what made their earliest records way back when so memorable. In this day and age there’s no shortage of cleaner or tidier production, but Nocturnus A.D. stay true to themselves and ensure this new album roars with the familiar sound longtime fans are used to. You don’t just listen to this record, but you’re thrown right into the wall behind you the minute the first real track starts playing for the band’s soundscape is this sinister maelstrom that collates all its elements together into a single mass, throws it your way, wishing you good luck. Whether you work it all out on your first listen is left up to you, which is why the band’s muddied production benefits repeated listens as you’ll know, upon the first listen, you can’t experience or discover every little thing in one sitting. After numerous cleaner albums this year, it’s nice to encounter a band in 2024 who haven’t shifted away from the messier style of mixing things aren’t so cleanly defined and, owing to the band’s songwriting, the production helps instil their performance with a huge swathe of power.

The band’s songwriting is classic death metal but, under band founder Mike Browning, they’ve always possessed a little unique quality. Whilst their riffs are chunky and their solos ripping, the direction they take regarding continued track progression is very different. We may hear a good section where the riffs are the conventional sort we’re expecting to hear, but then the band launch into a much more technical, almost avant-garde approach of playing, that sees their songwriting take on a newer dimension. Much like their implementation of keyboards, it complements Nocturnus A.D.’s identity beautifully, for the band have never shied away from the more outlandish death metal riffs and, delving deeply into science fiction, their soundscapes are simultaneously eerie and ethereal in a way many sci-fi oriented bands don’t touch. It’s not merely that their soundscape evokes imagery of robotics or civilisations but ponders the question on what that imagery might be like should it transcend.

Album Review: Nocturnus AD - Unicursal

But talking of immersion, Nocturnus A.D. continue to surprise, even thirty-four years after their The Key; keyboards are a huge part of this for removing them from the band’s repertoire of components would be akin to displacing the peanut butter from the chocolate, the two fuse together too well to ever be dreamt of being separated. Furthermore, their keyboards aren’t kept in a quiet corner whilst the rest of the band are playing in the limelight; take the keyboards throughout “Mesolithic” as not only do they bolster the band’s mystique and presence, but they’re given the full treatment of being just at the forefront of the band’s performance as much as any riff or drum strike. But, you also have within the same track the inclusion of tribal drums not merely because it’s something different to keep audiences engaged, but because it makes sense to put them on a track concerning bygone human beings. Returning to the keyboards, it’s fascinating how the keys’ songwriting has been applied with the same approach as any riff sequence; it’s not just ambience but actual writing that’s gone into them so as you’re listening, and the riffs have a lull in between, you’ll find keyboards often filling the space. Though the record is far from typically suffocating, the band have seen to it not an ounce of air escapes the record, and since you know you’ll be with Unicursal for some time, it makes for a truly immersive, captivating experience.

Upon an initial listen, it appears Unicursal is a record poised to send your head and senses into freefall where everything is seemingly coddled together without form. But, upon further listens, and deeper into the record, the way you interpret the record effectively straightens out and you start engaging it not as some ball of limitless energy but something that has been smoothed out. Like unfolding a crumpled paper and laying it out flat, removing all the creases until it’s returned to its refined and original shape, Unicursal embodies the same philosophy. This is all the more apparent during the band’s longer pieces in face, for they understand they’re throwing a good smattering of elements at their audience but it’s never done in a way that it becomes overwhelming for them. Once you get an idea of what their songwriting is all about, it makes perfect sense as you start it as the rigorously planned, sequenced product that it is. I feel Unicursal isn’t as busy as Paradox, so there are fewer things the band need to juggle for their songwriting to work which thus results in a cleaner and more regimented record where the listening experience isn’t so breathless.

In conclusion, Nocturnus A.D., returning with their first full length in five years, hit the landing running with a record that not only continues the band’s legendary atmosphere but actually refines it in more places than one. It was always going to be difficult to write a follow up album to Paradox, one of my favourite records in years, but Unicursal, for all its length, manages to maintain our engagement all the way through. It’s a curious thing that the band can launch this album at you with zero fanfare, and while it seems like a lot at once, the record seemingly changes shape for you whereby you have a full understanding of what’s occurring. I do believe repeated listens are the way to go with this album still; it may be a more refined record than Paradox and doesn’t jut put so unexpectedly, but multiple playbacks are the route by which fans will discover every niche and hidden thing Nocturnus A.D. harbour herein. For all its madness, it’s extremely coherent, and it’s longer tracks stretching upwards of nine minutes are as approachable as any shorter track they have in store for us. This is a record I’m bound to return to on numerous occasions upon release because it just feels good to listen to it, and though I understand there’s a lot going on it never felt like it was at risk of becoming too much for me. A grandiose-scaled record that manages to keep its feet to the earth.

For all the latest news, reviews, interviews across the heavy metal spectrum follow THE RAZORS'S EDGE on facebook, twitter and instagram.