Mike Browning is a living legend. Together with Trey Azagthoth, he founded MORBID ANGEL in 1983, with whom he recorded several demos and the album “Abominations Of Desolation”. Mike was also the driving force behind INCUBUS, a true cult band with whom he recorded the infamous demo “Incubus” in 1987. The same year also saw the birth of NOCTURNUS, a band that uniquely combined Death Metal with keyboards, something unheard of at the time. The groundbreaking debut album “The Key” and a 1991 tour with BOLT THROWER as support act put NOCTURNUS on the map. However, quarrels regarding the rights to the band name, as well as various line-up changes subsequently put a hold on the band. Since 2013, however, NOCTURNUS – now operating under the name NOCTURNUS AD – is back on track. And with “Unicursal”, a new and great full-length is released that effortlessly picks up the thread with its predecessor “Paradox”.

The feedback on “Paradox” was very positive. Many people regard that album as the righteous successor to “The Key”.
“Indeed. In 2014, the organisers of Maryland Deathfest contacted me, asking if I would be interested in playing at their festival. I had just renamed my previous band AFTER DEATH into NOCTURNUS AD at the time. They wanted us to play the album “The Key” in its entirety with the band. I didn’t have to think long about it then. Maryland Deathfest is the biggest festival in the US in terms of extreme Metal. With that gig, everything started rolling at the time.”

You recently said in an interview that you and NOCTURNUS AD practice every Saturday in your rehearsal room. Have you been able to keep doing that over the past few years?
“Everyone in the band lives around here. There were about three months where we weren’t able to do anything, as nobody was allowed to go anywhere at that time. Nobody knew then what exactly was going on and how long it would last. We had several festivals planned, everything was going very well. And then suddenly there was the pandemic, and everything just stopped. Consequently, in that two-year period, we didn’t practice that much. We did as much as we could, but everyone in the band except our guitarist eventually got infected with COVID.”

“Unicursal” was mixed and mastered by Jarrett Pritchard at the New Constellation studio. Jarrett is the sound engineer for all of Tom G. Warrior’s bands. He also did DARK ANGEL’s sound for a while. Consequently, Jarrett is often on the road. Did that make “Unicursal” harder to record?
“Actually it did. It took us about eight months to make the new record. We started recording in October. Jarrett has a studio in Orlando. We all live in Tampa, which is about an hour and a half away. We usually drove there a couple of weekends in a row, and did some recording each time. When Jarrett came back from a small tour, we listened to the drum tracks and the guitar parts. A few weekends later, we did most of the guitar parts and keyboard parts. Jarrett still had a tour ahead of him after Thanksgiving. As a result, we weren’t able to pick up the thread until February when Daniel did the bass parts. Daniel only played bass on half the songs. He had some personal problems in his life, his mother had also just died in December. Our guitarist William did the bass on the other half of the record.”

Has Jarrett shared any interesting CELTIC FROST related stories with you?
“To be honest, we’ve never really talked about that. However, when we played at Maryland Deathfest, Tom G. Warrior also played there with two of his bands. We were there all weekend, and we saw both his bands’ sets. Jarrett mixed both concerts, so we were able to hang around at the mixing board and watch Tom G. Warrior do his thing. That was pretty cool. We also met his bandmates afterwards. The cool thing was that we got to see André Mathieu again. He used to play in the band PUNISH, we toured together with that band in the past.”

You have a new bassist – Kyle Sokol – who, along with three guys from ATHEIST, also plays in TILL THE DIRT, as well as NASTY SAVAGE. Kyle moved to Tampa in 1989 and has been active in the scene for a long time. Did he still co-write any songs on “Unicursal”?
“No, Kyle joined the band after the recording of “Unicursal” was completed. By the way, Kyle also plays in another band these days, WADE BLACK’S ASTRONOMICA. That band is pretty much the successor to CRIMSON GLORY, they just did some shows in Greece. Kyle is always pretty busy, but he’s a fantastic bass player. I had met him before in Tampa, but I didn’t know him very well. However, our guitarist Demian Heftel was good friends with him, and he knew that Kyle is a big fan of NOCTURNUS. When we were looking for a new bass player, we invited him for an audition. When he came along, he had the bass parts of some songs all written out on paper. When we had played about three songs together for the first time, everything fit right from the spot. He can’t be heard on “Unicursal” yet, as I just said, but he’s definitely going to be part of the next record.”

Bassist Richard Bateman also played in NASTY SAVAGE for some time after NOCTURNUS. It’s funny how history seems to repeat itself.
“It is indeed a bit strange when you think about it. Richard has since sadly passed away, but he even played in AFTER DEATH for a while. Richard was a very good musician, I liked him. NASTY SAVAGE and NOCTURNUS AD are totally different bands, but we’ve both been around the Tampa scene for a very long time. We get along well, we’ve also played together several times.”

I have the feeling that “Unicursal” is musically easier to digest than “Paradox”.
“I think you are right. “Unicursal” is definitely different from “Paradox”. I personally think the album is more cohesive. The songwriting was completely different compared to “Paradox” as everyone in the band contributed to the album. We wrote the songs on “Unicursal” together with the whole band. When we were in the rehearsal room, one of our guitarists would play a riff that we would work on with the whole band. Then our other guitarist would play a riff, and we would put everything together. The whole process went back and forth in a certain way until a song was written. In most bands, one particular band member writes the music, presents it in the rehearsal room, and then the band starts rehearsing it together. We don’t do that. Every song on “Unicursal” was written by the whole band together in the rehearsal room. When we recorded “Paradox”, I mainly threw ideas into the group because that album was supposed to be the follow-up to “The Key”. You have so many haters today, who are constantly spewing their bile via the internet. So I was a bit wary at first, but “Paradox” has done much better and has been received much better than I initially expected. I always wanted to make a sequel to “The Key”. I always wanted to continue the story of Doctor Magus that started on “The Key”, but I never got the chance to do so before. When the second NOCTURNUS album “Thresholds” was released in 1992, many things had changed in the band and I was not able to do it back then. When we renamed AFTER DEATH to NOCTURNUS AD in 2013, it seemed like the perfect time to finally work on it after all these years.”

What is actually the deeper thought behind the title “Unicursal”, because I haven’t really found a correct translation for it?
“The word ‘unicursal’ is a term for a line you can draw through a certain pattern without stopping. The term goes back to the Golden Dawn and Aleister Crowley. There is something called ‘the unicursal hexagram’. You can draw a five-pointed star without stopping. That’s what unicursal means and what it stands for… a line that connects everything. The basis of “Unicursal” is The Tree Of Life, a symbol that represents the cycle of life. It will probably take two or three more albums to complete that part of the story, because I only took the bottom half of The Tree Of Life to write new songs. There are 11 spheres in The Tree Of Life, connected by 22 paths. You can follow those 22 paths without stopping. There are several ways to do that. The 22 paths in The Tree Of Life are each connected to one of the 22 tarot cards. It’s a closed system and a very interesting symbol, I think.”

The first half of “Unicursal” are all songs that stand on their own. You told us earlier that you have a huge collection of books on Egypt and the occult. You must have been able to use those as inspiration for the album’s opener, ‘The Ascension Throne Of Osiris’.
“Indeed. That song is actually a story about Cheops’ pyramid. Most pyramids have a throne room. The throne in the throne room of Cheops’ pyramid is made of iron. However, that iron was extracted from a meteor. So that throne was actually built with material from another world from outer space. Many pyramids have air shafts. Many of these air shafts – like the pyramids in Giza – align with the stars at certain times. The light from a particular star then shines right through that shaft, into the pyramid and the throne room. The pharaoh sitting on that throne at that time could then travel to that star and communicate with aliens. That’s pretty much what that song is about.”

The band made a tremendously cool video for the track ‘CephaloGod’. We know you often experiment with making videos yourself. Did you make that video yourself?
“No. I got in touch via Facebook with someone who calls himself Wizardhead. He has made a few videos for MESHUGGAH, as well as “Sesame Street”, “Teletubbies” and commercials for various television shows. I love what he does immensely. I immediately felt that his style would be perfect for a Lovecraft-like song. ‘CephaloGod’ is actually another name for Cthulhu that I came up with myself. I always wanted to write a song about the return of Cthulhu, and that’s what ‘CephaloGod’ is about. When I contacted Wizardhead, it turned out that he was a fan of NOCTURNUS. We talked a lot about what we could do. A friend of mine filmed us playing the song. We then sent that footage to Wizardhead, he edited it and he put effects over them.”

There are a lot of H.P. Lovecraft influences in that video. I have the feeling that H.P. Lovecraft is more popular than ever. There are many bands these days making songs based on his work. H.P. Lovecraft’s writings are more than a hundred years old. It is remarkable that his work still holds up that well.
“That’s right. When Lovecraft was alive, he was not popular at all. He wrote only for small pulp magazines as most of his work consisted of short stories. The science fiction series “Amazing Stories” started in 1926, and he wrote a lot for that. Lovecraft didn’t get paid much for his stories. I don’t think Lovecraft ever released a book while he was alive. It was only after his death that everyone started to realise how good his work is, as well as the amazing way he created an entire universe. There are things in his work that no one had ever done before. I think Lovecraft’s legacy will only continue to grow. I have always been very interested in his work. For me, it all started with “Necronomicon”. That book is fiction, but it is based on real Sumerian texts. There are many artists whose work becomes known and appreciated only after they have died. Many painters of the 14th and 15th centuries are much more popular now than they were then.”

The song ‘Mesolithic’ continues in the tradition of the songs ‘Neolithic’ and ‘Paleolithic’. ‘Neolithic’ was loosely based on prehistoric stuff. ‘Paleolithic’ and ‘Mesolithic’ are based on real studies.
“The song ‘Neolithic’ was something Mike Davis wanted to do. He came up with the title and gave me a few lines of lyrics to work with. We were very young then. There was no internet and we didn’t have computers. I didn’t know much about that era, and I just used his words and his information back then. It would have been better if the song had been called ‘Prehistoric’, because the period the song is about is actually a bit before the Neolithic (laughs). It’s about the ice age coming and things like that. Anyway, it is what it is. When we were working on “Paradox”, I was looking at the different eras and I thought it would be interesting to continue that as well. I did a lot of research on what happened in the Palaeolithic era. I knew the Mesolithic era would be next, so when I wrote that song, I did the same. The interesting thing about ‘Mesolithic’ is that the drums you hear in the beginning are real drums played by the whole band. I have quite a large collection of drums. I brought eight of them to the studio, and played a rhythm on a djembe. Then everyone in the band put a rhythm on top of mine, and played on a drum they liked and had chosen themselves. That intro might be a bit long, but we all play there together on real drums.”

The story behind the song ‘Organism 46B’ is quite fascinating. Organism 46-B was an octopus-like creature with all sorts of tentacles that was allegedly captured by a Russian scientific team in a lake located more than three kilometres under the ice in Antarctica. The creature could release a poison into the water to paralyse its prey from a distance of 150 metres. It could also change shape.
“When I first read that story, I was immediately fascinated by it. I did a lot of research, and the more I read about it, the clearer it became that the story is untrue. That’s a shame, of course, but I find the whole thing very interesting. The story behind Organism 46-B just seems to be made for a cool movie, but it would probably bear a lot of similarities to John Carpenter’s classic. Although, this is about a sea creature. You could put a lot of action scenes in the film that take place underwater. That was not the case with “The Thing” (laughs).”

‘Andromeda Strain’ – a song from “The Key” – is based on the film of the same title. The film is based on the novel by Michael Crichton, the author who also wrote “Jurassic Park”. I saw “Andromeda Strain” for the first time recently. That film is only about 50 years old. Nevertheless, films like that – just like “2001: A Space Odyssey” – are not being made anymore nowadays.
“Absolutely. Mike Davis loved science fiction films from the 1970s immensely and so did I. Movies like “Westworld”, “Planet Of The Apes”, “The Terminal Man” and series like “Star Trek”. It was Mike’s idea to write a song about the film “Andromeda Strain”. I had seen the film a few times, and I thought it was very strong as well, so I thought it was a good idea. Mike came up with the titles for the songs ‘Droid Sector’ and ‘Andromeda Strain’, and he gave me some leads. I put the whole song together in terms of lyrics, but Mike gave me a beginning. That song was also the starting point of how we put elements of science fiction into our songs. It’s also one of the main reasons why we called our second demo “The Science Of Horror”. It was a mix of science fiction and horror.”

What do you think of the remake of “Dune”?
“I know the second part is still running in cinemas, but I haven’t seen that one yet. Neither have I seen the first part for that matter. I never had much with “Dune” if I’m very honest. In the 80s and 90s, the whole approach to many horror and sci-fi films started to change. Suddenly there was often a lot of comedy in those films as well, which kind of ruined it for me. Nowadays, most science fiction films contain really idiotic stuff, with characters making a lot of jokes. I don’t like that. If you take a film like “Alien”, it was very influential for me, because it was the perfect combination of horror and science.”

Fans of NOCTURNUS know that the last four songs on the album “The Key” make up a story, namely the journey of Doctor Allen William Magus. In the song ‘Droid Sector’, he finds a key in a crashed spaceship that he uses to start a time machine. The last four songs on “Paradox” picked up the thread of that story. Doctor Magus uses the found key to start a machine that opens a portal to another dimension. That portal sucks him in, and takes him to a Lovecraft-like world where the Ancient Ones are preparing him to become their emissary on Earth. On “Unicursal”, that story continues with ‘Mission Malkuth’.
“Indeed. We have just been talking about The Tree Of Life. The ten central spheres of The Tree Of Life start at the bottom. The three spheres at the top are supposed to be incomprehensible to the human mind. I thought it would be interesting to have Doctor Magus travel through The Tree Of Life, starting at the bottom, Earth. As he leaves Earth, he moves up through the various portals further and further into other planets. Each portal he passes through, he must conquer. Doctor Magus must also realise what it is and what it stands for. Each time he manages to overcome a challenge, he receives a sigil that he puts in his chest, with which he gains more and more knowledge.”

Have you actually already completely worked out the story of Doctor Magus? Do you already know how the story will continue?
“The story I have in mind offers at least enough material for two or three more albums. I grew up in the 1970s and read a lot of comics as a child. You had a series like “The Fantastic Four” that went on and on. I look at the story of Doctor Magus a bit the same way. It almost became a kind of comic book story that kept going on and on to the next album. I didn’t want the whole album to revolve around that concept. I think otherwise it could become too boring and also too much. I didn’t want to write eight or nine songs that were all about the same subject. That’s why I always only take the second half of an album to continue the story of Doctor Magus.”

The last line in the closing track ‘Netzach, The Fire Of Victory’ is intriguing… ‘Victory! My Soul Is Now Free!’
“That is the moment when Doctor Magus reaches the seventh sphere. He meets a kind of ethereal goddess and she teaches him that he is actually his own god. The ties with all other religions are severed at that moment, and he is free. It is a kind of victory over any organised religion. Every religion has something you have to worship. From the moment you realise you don’t have to worship anything, you are free and you can basically do and be whatever and whoever you want.”

During the recording sessions of “Unicursal”, you also re-recorded the song ‘Nocturnus’. The new version is titled ‘Nocturnus Will Rise’ and is truly phenomenal.
“Thanks! As you may know, the songs ‘Lake Of Fire’ and ‘Standing In Blood’ are connected, which also forms a story. With ‘Seizing The Throne’, I wrote a sequel to that on “Paradox”. I felt there should be a sequel to that on “Unicursal” as well. I was listening to the very first demo of NOCTURNUS from 1987 again one day, and I suddenly realised that the song ‘Nocturnus’ would be ideal for the fourth part. However, I didn’t want to put it on “Unicursal” because the song is already very old. I wanted to put only new songs on “Unicursal”. We ended up recording ‘Nocturnus’ as a bonus track, and we gave it a new title… ‘Nocturnus Will Rise’. We added some keyboard parts and solos and changed some details here and there, but the lyrics remained completely the same.”

A band that has also been around for quite a few years now is BLOOD INCANTATION. I have always had the impression that their concept is very inspired by NOCTURNUS. Are you familiar with that band?
“Definitely, I really like their music. I first heard BLOOD INCANTATION a few years ago when their second album had just been released. I thought what they were doing was really cool. There is a Polish band – COSMIC CARNAGE – which is also very interesting. That band just released their debut album (you can listen to it here). Their music is completely instrumental. Some songs are a bit faster, but it’s definitely not Death Metal. When I first heard that band, I was really impressed. They also have some elements in their music that remind me a bit of NOCTURNUS. The cover of their debut album also resembles a 1930s comic book, with a Cthulhu-like creature rising from the sea and an astronaut running for their lives. Definitely worth checking out!”

We know you love animals very much, with octopuses in particular. You used to have an aquarium in which you kept several octopuses. Do you still have those animals?
“No, unfortunately not. In October 2022, we had to deal with a hurricane here in Tampa. We were without electricity for five days. I tried to keep my aquarium going with battery-powered pumps, but it was just a disaster. I couldn’t get enough oxygen into the water, and I lost all my octopuses back then. It was really heartbreaking. The aquarium I had, they don’t make them anymore, unfortunately. The pump is also broken. Octopuses generally live only a little over a year. Giant octopuses can only live a maximum of three years, which is really terrible. If you buy an octopus and you put it in an aquarium it is already half full grown, and then you can keep it for eight months at most. That really sucks, because octopuses have their own personality. They are incredibly intelligent. If you put them in an aquarium, and they realise that you don’t want to harm them and that you are going to feed them, they come out all the time. When I entered my living room, they kept waving their tentacles at me. You can communicate with them and play hide-and-seek with them, so to speak. If I put a ping-pong ball in their aquarium, they kept trying to take it to the bottom, but those balls just keep going to the surface because they don’t sink (laughs).”

When I saw the film “My Octopus Teacher” four years ago, I was really surprised how much I was touched and moved by it. It also made me realise what amazing creatures octopuses are.
“I also saw that film, and I totally understand what you mean. So you can probably imagine what it must be like if you have an octopus in your own house, and you see that animal every time you walk into your room. And then suddenly it dies. It was like I had lost a friend. There is a very interesting book that sort of captures the atmosphere of “My Octopus Teacher”… “The Soul Of An Octopus”. It’s written by Sy Montgomery. The writer went to several sea aquariums to take care of octopuses. She wrote about how each one had a different character and personality. She looked after the big octopuses there, which are about two metres across.”

In 2008, you toured through Europe with AFTER DEATH, NOCTURNUS AD’s predecessor. If we are correct, that was the last time you guys toured over here in Europe. Some European festivals were planned after the release of “Paradox”, but they were almost all eventually cancelled back then because of the pandemic. Are any new European shows planned?
“We have since played twice at the Brutal Assault festival, as well as some other festivals like Hellfest, among others. But we’ve never done a really long and big tour again, that’s true. We all have steady jobs which doesn’t make touring very easy, but we hope we will be able to come to Europe again for some shows to promote “Unicursal”. NOCTURNUS AD is big enough to play on festivals, but obviously not as a headliner. What we will probably try is to play at two festivals on a weekend, combined with a small club show. We can do something like that a few times a year. That’s the most feasible thing.”

When MORBID ANGEL was touring the US in April 2023, there was the terrible incident where the roof of the venue in Illinois collapsed due to heavy wind and a visitor of the concert died. Did you talk to Trey Azagthoth about that afterwards?
“Trey is a very introverted person. MORBID ANGEL played in Tampa about five years ago, and a mutual friend of ours took me to that show back then. It was a bit strange at first because I hadn’t seen Trey for a long time. Trey was a bit distant at first, but by the end of the night we were just hanging out. Since then, we text each other sometimes. When that incident happened during that tour, I saw MORBID ANGEL a few days later in Tampa. Trey then collapsed on stage during that concert. Trey has been suffering from his back for quite some time. His back had become blocked during the show, preventing him from standing upright. They had to help him off the stage in the middle of a song. When I visited Trey backstage, he was doing much better because he had had a chance to relax a bit. As a guitarist, you’re moving around a lot. If your back suddenly locks up and you can’t stand, you are helpless. Everyone speculated about the whole thing afterwards, claiming that Trey was drunk or had taken drugs. But that’s absolutely not true. I spoke to him afterwards, and he was fine. If he would have taken anything, I would have noticed.”

www.facebook.com/nocturnusad, www.instagram.com/nocturnusad, https://nocturnusad.bandcamp.com

Pictures provided by Mike Browning
Interview: Steven Willems

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