Saturday, April 1, 2017

album review: 'eternity, in your arms' by creeper

Before we begin, let's go back about a decade to the pop rock scene in 2006-07. These were the years of My Chemical Romance, Panic! At The Disco, Fall Out Boy, and the peak of the mainstream emo boom that would turn about a third of teenagers scene that year. Now as I've said in the past, I wasn't really one of them - I was knee-deep in symphonic and power metal at the time, clearly I was embracing darker, heavier material - but that didn't mean I wasn't aware of or appreciate the music that was getting airplay. But it became a little hard that beyond the catchy, radio-friendly melodies, mainstream pop rock was embracing a certain image that was a little more baroque, for lack of better words, drawing on horror kitsch to craft a plainly theatrical image. 

And of course this was not new - the mainstream music scene has a habit of pulling on horror trends to construct weird or creepy instrumentals, often using the theatricality to blunt things from getting too weird - with the exception of the 90s alternative scene, of course, which frankly got away with a bewildering amount. But it tends to come in waves of popularity, often crashing hard at the point of overexposure, which last time in mainstream emo and pop rock around 2009. 

Fast-forward to now and the debut of an English horror punk band called Creeper, who had been building some buzz in their native country with a few EPs since their formation in 2014. Now I had heard good things going in - not just inspired by My Chemical Romance, but also calling back to glam rock, the Misfits and even Meat Loaf in their embrace of theatrical bombast. Now the last time I had heard someone adjacent to this vein cite some similar inspirations was Kyle Craft, and his debut album last year Dolls of Highland was a criminally underappreciated masterpiece, and thus I had a lot of curiosity going into this, especially as it's been getting frankly astounding amounts of critical acclaim. So with Eternity, In Your Arms, are we on the cusp of something big here?

Well folks, there are some reviews that require a lot of deeper consideration and complex thought, that demand a rewrite or two to get precisely at what I want to say, for albums that demand a dozen listens to understand. Creeper's Eternity, In Your Arms is not one of those albums - indeed, this might be one of the easiest reviews I've put together in some time, and it's because for once, from the first listen I knew exactly what this album was trying to do. And none of that is saying this is a bad record - far from it, I'd easily go on the record saying this album is a ton of fun and is too top-loaded with terrific hooks and absurd bombast to not be great... but there's also a part of me that recognizes high camp melodrama when I hear it, and thus there's a limit to how seriously I can take this.

And since I'm certain what I just said is going to end up getting misunderstood, let me take a bit of time to explain camp and melodrama. The latter is easier: where drama often appeals to character reason or at least progressions that make logical sense, melodrama plays more on emotional logic that can fly against common sense. Now there's a place for melodrama in art - for me, they tend to work best when they pump up the bombast or go for an overheated, oversexed, often theatrical picture, which is where camp comes in. More of an aesthetic style than a genre, camp often plays up the cheesiness and big emotions in garish or exaggerated tones - and yet for all of its wild silliness when considered from a distance, if a great campy melodrama can suck you in it can be just as emotionally viable or as deftly insightful as proper drama. Now my immediate go-to example of how this can work masterfully - beyond an extended list of musicals which have embraced the style - is Meat Loaf's classic record Bat Out Of Hell from 1977. And yes, I said classic because between Meat Loaf's completely committed and fiercely passionate delivery and Jim Steinman's brilliant writing and arrangements, they still managed to smuggle an impressively detailed, nuanced and textured picture of the heights of teenage emotion into the package of an absurd, overblown melodrama. Kyle Craft's Dolls Of Highland works in the exact same way, as do so many of the metal records that inevitably make my year-end lists, particularly the power and symphonic metal variety, and also - though I know some diehard fans will refuse to admit it - so does My Chemical Romance's The Black Parade. And again, that's not taking away from the viability of the emotional experience or its lurid power, but come on, it's been a decade since, take a step back with any self awareness and especially when you look at the lyrics it's a classic example of campy gothic melodrama, and arguably one of the best.

And man, you can tell that Creeper wants to fit in that mold so badly. Frontman Will Gould doesn't shy away from a howling, outsized Meat Loaf imitation on a fair few tracks with perhaps a bit more of a punk edge to compensate for not quite having the same range or huge presence, and in a choice I'd argue is outright inspired they have Hannah Greenwood sing the Ellen Foley counterpoint and even take the lead altogether on 'Crickets'. I'll come back to why this works so damn well when we talk about the content, but the funny thing is that when you break away from the theatrical vocals, this is actually a pretty straightforward punk record. Sure, 'Black Rain' opens with the pianos and there are definitely points ease back for rattling bass and using the slightly bigger mix to emphasize that darker theatricality, but outside of some strings that show up on 'Crickets' or the piano on the closer 'I Choose To Live', this is a surprisingly lean record. The drumwork is aggressive, the bass grooves are tightly balanced against the sharper, more melodic guitar lines, and this record doesn't waste any time with grandiose instrumental digressions or solos, more willing to shift up the tone entirely to fill time instead. And yeah, some of these tonal shifts do hit with an audible thud for me - 'Poison Pen' is almost so furious it can't change direction easily, the darker pivot on 'Down Below' doesn't really work as well, and for as much as I loved the edge of 'Room 309' the shift to get to the outro was almost an audible thud. But again, that's not saying the hooks we do get aren't amazing, because they definitely are: 'Black Rain', 'Suzanne', 'Hiding With Boys', 'Darling', even the ballads 'Misery', 'Crickets', and 'I Choose To Live' are all great songs... almost to the point where you realize they could have been so much bigger if Creeper had opted for more in the arrangement. This record is a lean thirty-seven minutes and it could have easily been longer to emphasize some of that gothic grandeur or to give the guitarists a little more time to show off - the melodic hooks are tight enough that they could hold up going into longer territory, especially when you do spot the Meat Loaf lyrical callouts.

And that's the other thing: when I said this record is lean, I refer to the writing as well. Basically, it plays out like a particularly bad breakup with all of the overheated melodrama that comes with it, from the partners screaming at each other in the rain to hooking up with new people to the desperate plays to get the other back. It becomes pretty clear early on that the girl dumped our protagonist and you can definitely see him playing every wounded, manipulative card in the book in order to get our sympathy... and yet this is a melodrama that tips its hand early, because for as human as he is, our protagonist isn't exactly likable. This is why 'Crickets' is easily the lynchpin of this album, because it's a chance for the girl to unload back against all this guy's projection, admit her own flaws in going for condescending and arrogant dicks like him, but also make it abundantly clear she's not taking him back. And at the end of the day, the guy comes to acknowledge he was a dick, she clearly has left town, dating girls who are just like her isn't doing any favors, and he pulls out of the downward spiral. Really, the text and subtext of this record is resoundingly strong - but again, for as strong as it is, I'm not sure it has the level of detail and flavor to rise above. This is where greater song length could help Creeper, give them the room to add more lyrical detail and metaphor beyond just the barebones, make the writing have a little more poetic edge. Again, fantastic foundation, but when looking for more beyond it, it can feel a bit bare overall, and that can hurt the melodramatic swell it's clearly trying to achieve.

But as a whole, this is easily a great record. I definitely like where Creeper is going, this style is a very easy sell for me. I do wish the writing had a little more detail and flair to it to go along with all of the gothic touches they keep trying to nudge in, and again, it's very clear where Creeper drew from to build their sound, almost to the point where you wish they would have diversified more - again, I keep pointing at Kyle Craft's Dolls Of Highland, in comparing debuts even on a thematic level there are stark parallels. But still, this is an easy 8/10, high recommendation, definitely check this out, it's a lean and potent punk record from a really promising group - I definitely want to hear more.

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