As someone who had long given up on Nocturnus ever getting their shit together and giving us the followup to The Key that I've always desired, Ethereal Tomb was both a shock and a letdown. The shitty cover art and replacement 'logo' are among the most amateur crap I've ever seen, thus the aesthetic pleasure of their debut was not in the cards; and the music seems to lack the brutality of the formative Nocturnus. Yet, for all its flaws, this unexpected opus does one thing right: it sounds authentic, as if the band had never written the sophomore effort Thresholds and leaped straight into this. Not that the album is superior to that one, it comes up slightly short, but for at least a few songs, this was what I had long hoped to hear...
Louis Panzer remains within the band, as well as guitarists Mike Davis and Sean McNenney, so you can expect a lot of the same punchy, dark guitar tones and cheesy but moody atmospheric synthesizer pads strung out in the background. A lot of slower, grooving death/thrash rhythms comprise the better tracks like "Orbital Decay" and "Apostle of Evil", and the band is right to create breaks in the tension as with the intro to "Edge of Darkness". Much of the album does grow monotonous as it operates at a similar, sluggish tempo, but where the band experiments with their chugging backbone, in the warlike gait of "The Killing" or the proggy "Search for the Trident", the tracks seem tasteful if tame compared to the debut. The instrumental "Outland" is another strong point, though not without predecent ("Nocturne in Bm" from Thresholds), arches of vacuous guitar melodies curving against the synthetic landscape.
Conceptually, the band still wraps their imaginations about sci-fi, horror and archaeological subjects, and I'm rather glad they haven't abandoned this terrain, since its perhaps their most distinctive characteristic around the turn of the century. The lyrics are pretty good. The use of the keyboards was not quite so novel by this time as it was in death metal with The Key, yet it's also a positive that the band persist in using them atmospherically rather than noodling like Janne of Children of Bodom. The production here is functional, though not much better than Thresholds. All told, Ethereal Tomb is a substantial enough experience if you enjoyed the first two albums, but let it be said that more care could clearly have been placed in its packaging and details. The biggest drawback is that band so capable of progressing and expanding beyond their prior borders has done no such thing here: it's more of the same, a little less crushing, playing it timid. Playing it safe.
Verdict: Win [7/10] (leaving scored bones)