A Dutch of evil….because touch, sounds like…Everyone seems to agree that the Netherlands often gets overlooked as a death metal hotspot, usually in favour of Sweden or UK grindcore. But when we look to the likes of Pestilence, Asphyx, Sinister, Thanatos, and Gorefest, the output of our friends across the open sea made a significant impression on the shape death metal to come. Maybe we only think the Netherlands gets overlooked because these bands never formed a uniquely reginal sound that could be neatly packaged for marketing material. They all boast (or at least boasted) a pronounced identity of their own, immediately recognizable as “them”, and not just a generic iteration of a particular region; see Sweden’s Grave as an example of what I’m getting at in terms of a very generic regional sound. And this point applies just as much to these two artists, who are perhaps passed over owing to their scant output when compared to the household names of Holland.
Creepmime offer an interesting demonstration of what progressive doom metal sounds like when played by a death metal band. Their second album, 1995’s ‘Chiaroscuro’, is actually a worthy example of what latter day Death could have been if only Chuck had the compositional chops of many of his followers. But it is Creepmime’s debut ‘Shadows’, released in 1993, that concerns us today. This is certainly the more obviously doom influenced of their two releases, but certainly not in the unbearably downbeat direction of Winter or diSEMBOWELMENT. This is doom in the classic, melodic sense of the word. Think the malevolence of Demigod with the melodic sensibility of early Paradise Lost for an approximation of many of the riffs on display here.
The production is spearheaded by Patrick Mameli, who in taking on the job thankfully decided to drop his ambitions to roboticism on ‘Spheres’ released the same year. Instead we are given a classic early 90s mix of crisp yet organic drums, meaty guitars with plenty of body and clarity to them, and straightforward vocals set tastefully low in the mix. It’s all pleasingly straightforward, acknowledging that the strength of Creepmime is their pronounced sense of melody, so much so that it really needs very little aesthetic adornment to give it legs. The vocals are a mid-range monstrous bark, which takes on an almost romantic vibe when set to riffs that borrow from excitable heavy metal stylings as much as they do fully fledged death metal.
As mentioned, the packaging of this release is fairly homogenous, which is just as well as the riffs themselves take us on a wild ride through metal’s history to that point. There is the malevolent drone of Demigod, which sees glum melodic inflections carried along by deep, ringing chords and mid-paced drum patterns. There are more elongated passages where the lead guitars move away from the confines of sequential riffcraft and attempt to articulate extended and freeform melodic passages in a similar manner to Paradise Lost of the time. Then there’s tracks like ‘Chinese Whispers’, which takes us on a tour of heavy metal riffing, only to culminate in an almost euphoric guitar solo set to a chord sequence so satisfying it would work as a standalone piece of music. It brought to mind the outro to ‘Fade to Black’ in its release of pathos and catharsis without falling into the overtly sentimental.
It’s this mastery of light and dark that makes this album special. For instance the next track, ‘Soon Ripe, Soon Rotten’ sees them flex their gothic muscles further with dark and rich melodies and whispered vocals. Accenting many of these moments is that all important ambiguity at the heart of death metal. Creepmime will work in odd and unexpected chords to throw the listener off balance, flexing their progressive chops, but also lending the music a sense of transcendence beyond a pure good/evil binary. This would put it on a par with many of the best releases of this era were it not for the weaker structure across the album, with midpoint and closing finales left somewhat underdeveloped. This small detriment aside however, ‘Shadows’ is an overlooked triumph of 90s death metal. Atonality, traditional melody, dissonance, tonal ambiguity, all are deployed by Creepmime to create a unique sonic space with its own individuality. This is an act of world building, and stands in direct contrast to many contemporary releases for simple reason that all too often modern musicians become slaves to technique, letting it dictate the entire colour and character of the music, and thus losing any sense of idiosyncrasy in the process.
Creepmine may be too far on the fruity side for some archival monks of death metal’s lost lore. So for the vanilla warrior in you there is Ceremony, who, although active today, putting out the full length ‘Retribution’ in 2019, only managed one LP back in the day, 1993’s ‘Tyranny from Above’, before splitting two years later. This is a short bludgeon of an album concocted of low-end guitars, guttural vocals, and dominated by the percussive dictates of a domineering and thick drumkit. This album sees death metal indulge its thrashier side, but demand that it reach for more ambitious musical heights with frequent tritone play, minor key harmonies, and dense chromatic riffing. Again, this reaches for rich and dark atmospheres of Finnish death metal in Demigod and Adramalech, but it is supplemented by a near constant impulse toward speed and aggression a la Sinister, at times reaching for heights of technicality that call to mind early Gorguts.
The production is murky, yet somehow able to accommodate the restless and shifting speed at the heart of this music. Guitars are bass heavy, down-tuned and swamped in dirge. But as the majority of the riffs are constructed from power chords, their percussive qualities are what counts, leaving the melodic inflections to the higher fretboard meanderings that swamp the mix with rich textures and a characterful sense of melody. Drums have that classic 90s death metal colouring to them, which largely came about because produces and recording studios were never quite sure how to capture the frantic kick-drum barrage of death metal and square it with the equally over the top guitars. Although each drum and cymbal are clear enough, they exist just on the right side of the line between clicky and heavy, able to flesh out the muddy punch of the music and grant it rhythmic solidity without sacrificing the actual power ensconced as potential within the rest of the music.
And walking lines is what ‘Tyranny from Above’ seems to do best. One moment we are presented with an atonal, percussive barrage of high-octane thrash riffing that trades on contrasts of tempo and choppy rhythms alone. The next we are being presented with an eerie but oddly tender guitar lead that cuts through the churn with ease and demands we stop and reflect. And churn is really the key word here, because every moment of this album is dense and rich with musical information. Take the closing number ‘Tribulation Foreseen’ which opens with a fairly standard marching chord sequence and soaring guitar harmony, which after only a few bars jumps into a stilted Slayer style power chord barrage. And from there Ceremony are really a law unto themselves, cutting to hyper fast blast-beats and chaotic chromaticism, to falsetto clean vocals that essentially serve the same effect as an extra quirky guitar lead.
Each track follows a similar but unique direction, jumping between styles and techniques without warning, with unexpected projectiles of guitar leads or rhythmic shuffles thrown in to keep us off our balance. But all is folded together under the dictates of brutal and fundamentally simple death metal structures that keep all these other elements at bay for the sake of the integrity of the whole. It’s as if Ceremony want to be the simplest, bluntest version of death metal available in 1993, but are constantly obeying more experimental whims which find a voice – however brief – to couch themselves in these tracks. The music fights itself, constantly being tugged from the demands of rigorous traditionalism and unbridled musical freedom.
It’s always good to compare two albums not so wildly different as to make the comparison obsolete, but each shining a light on the different strengths that death metal is capable of. Ceremony take the raw chaos and impetus to primitivism and use it to smuggle in their own will to experiment. By compressing these more adventurous elements into a such a rigid and strictly primal format however, they not only allow the experimental elements to shine, but also end up with a work of cohesion and relentless focus. Creepmine, by contrast, have no problem indulging their musical whims. But so pronounced is their sense of melody, and their ability to compose and arrange a focused, flowing piece of melodic metal, that the end result is tight and efficient as opposed to garish or tasteless. There is a grace and charm to their melodic identity that justifies a certain indulgence of quirks to the point where they seem thoroughly appropriate in the context of ‘Shadows’. For this reason Creepmime is my pick of the week. But it’s been a close-run thing, with Ceremony’s ‘Tyranny from Above’ coming it at a close second.