It is fascinating to consider how quickly homogenisation can set in. Over just a few short years death metal went from being the outward frontier of metal to a rigidly prescribed set of rules and expectations that – when not met – buried many creative avenues before they were able to reach fruition. Fledging careers from Atheist, Winter, Demilich, and Demigod were all in part cut short due to the scene’s unwillingness to expand the boundaries of the acceptable. Whether too slow, too progressive, or just too plain weird, unbridled enthusiasm will all too quickly find rigid codification and snuff out deviant species. But this process was and is reversible, with the late 1990s seeing all manner of bizarre takes on death metal sprout up (of wildly divergent quality it should be added). But for those who could not stick out the initial period of outsiderism it was already too late.
New York’s Ceremonium did manage to endure long enough to enter the full-length game, but it’s their first EP, 1993’s ‘Nightfall in Heaven’ that concerns us today. Sitting at the frontiers of death/doom, they followed the example of Asphyx, Incantation, Cianide, and Autopsy by supplementing their doomier habits with speed and pacing in contrast to the approach taken by a Winter. This is a short EP consisting of only two tracks, yet nevertheless replete with information.
Production qualities are passable for the era. Ceremonium make a virtue out of rough and ready mixing, bending it to the bespoke needs of death doom. Both the drums and the bass cut through the mix, yet are replete with bottom end, giving the appearance of a sizeable foundation packed therein. This also grants the so-so guitar tone extra mileage when it comes to those all important droning, doomy chords. Cleanly sung chants and hints of choral tones emerge from the murk, furthering the drab aesthetic of this EP, and supplementing the run of the mill guttural death growls nicely.
The EP opens with a fairly choppy death metal riff that would be just as at home on a Suffocation or Incantation track before sinking into funereal doom riffs both muscular and mournful. The guitar tone is fat and weighty, but with enough cohesion to give shape to the riffs during the faster passages. But it is the threnody of lead melodies that take up the mantle in the doom passages, finding their true expression and pushing this music beyond a one dimensional crush of sound. These ride in perfect contrast to the low-end of bass guitar and kick drum noise as each pounding beat sounds out its death knell.
Even on this debut EP it seems that Ceremonium’s heart was in a doomier place, with the faster passages serving merely to link different segments together and mix up the tempo a little. This was a creative choice made either with the death metal audience’s appetites in mind, or simply because these musicians had not yet found a way to articulate a fully formed artistic vision through the medium of downbeat chord progressions, lower tempos, and melodies of lamentation and finality. Given the direction their debut ‘Into the Autumn Shade’ (1995) took one suspects the latter is true. Regardless, the death/doom that emerges across this brief EP is remarkably fully formed even by modern standards.
There are very few EPs scattered across metal that receive the same reverence as the hallowed album format. Metal is generally regarded as a realm where the full length reigns supreme, leaving the odd ‘Human Waste’, ‘Deathcrush’ or ‘In the Sign of Evil’ as interesting outliers, brief flashes of musical inspiration whose influence extends well beyond the amount of material on their brief runtimes. Mythic’s ‘Mourning in the Winter Solstice’ may not be quite as deserving of such lavish praise, but it remains a formidable clutch of death/doom tracks not least because – aside from the ‘Anthology’ compilation recently re-released on The Devil’s Elixir – their recorded output is so scant, with members evaporating into projects as diverse as Derketa, Behind Enemy Lines, and Demonic Christ before the Mythic entity could reach fruition.
Mythic stay close to the death/doom formula with a mix of slowed down thrash riffs and tritone based passages of downbeat murk. What is perhaps most notable across these three tracks is their injection of a punk ethic into the doom formula. Those passages where the tempo does pick up are extraordinarily direct and simplistic, and were it not for the enveloping misery of the guitars it would sound positively jaunty; a plucky bass lead even emerges on ‘Lament Configuration’ as a brief centrepiece.
The production is as DIY as one would expect of underground EPs from the early 1990s. The drums embody a rehearsal studio aesthetic, with a dry snare, satisfyingly audible bass drums, and cymbals that overwhelm all else in their path whenever Terri Heggen chooses to smash into them. Guitars are as down-tuned as pleasure will allow. The tone is relatively soft, lending the faster passages an additional edge of sloppiness that serves the punk aesthetic well. They have an almost ghostly quality to them, covering the EP in a malevolent atmosphere that was rare in American death metal at the time. The bass cuts through the swampy guitars nicely, helping to at least anchor them to the rough and ready drums and provide a semblance of rhythmic clarity. Vocals offer few surprises, with a fine balance between doom laden low-end growling with a healthy dose of monstrous aggression thrown in for good measure.
One reading of the riffs could be seen as an interpretation of death metal’s evolution from the rudiments of thrash re-interpreted from a doom perspective, with no small degree of punk influencing the various twists and turns in rhythm. One can hear the latent thrash tendency at work even within this insanely murky guitar tone. Equally we can see how this raw atonality is played off against the new “evil” aesthetic via minor key harmonics and tritones that death metal embodied by 1993. But even in spite of the shortness of this EP, the fact that these are at heart doom tracks allows the ideas to air out a little, unconsciously giving the modern listener a glimpse into how thrash metal became death metal, and how this opened up new avenues of mood and colour expressions for metal at large.
EPs such as these were largely buried and forgotten shortly after their release. But returning to them today is particularly enlightening given how popular the resurgence in this style has proved to be in the last few years. And indeed, Mythic’s back catalogue has in part benefited from this new appetite for a style that they helped to pioneer, with ‘Mourning in Winter Solstice’ receiving much belated acclaim. Where once they were outliers, largely misunderstood or ignored by a death metal world fixated on speed and technicality, they are now considered a gold standard.
In terms of a direct comparison, Ceremonium definitely pose as the true-blue New York death metal band that perhaps even felt a little embarrassed about their desire to inject an element of doom into this framework, only sheddding this hesitancy on their debut. Whereas Mythic approached doom from within the mindset itself, and looked to an older school of thought in hardcore punk and thrash in order to bring this vision to life, allowing us to witness the ensuing alchemy take form. Seen from this angle it becomes impossible not to select ‘Mourning in the Winter Solstice’ as pick of the week, for the simple reason that it feels far more at home in this setting, embracing its primitivism, malevolence, and downbeat ethos far more readily than the unsure toe dipping of Ceremonium. That being said, the decision is far closer than normal for these features, and both EPs warrant a revisit for anyone who considers themselves a fan of this subgenre today.