[Roadrunner; 2020]

Exactly the kind of band to bring the curtain down on their former selves in a very public fashion – as they did at the end of the touring cycle for Eternity, In Your Arms in late 2018 – Southampton sextet Creeper have always had a flair for the dramatic. But, in recent years, they’ve had to contend with the sort of real-life turmoil that could well have finished them off: alcohol dependency, personal tragedy, and personal bonds being tested as keyboardist Ian Miles was hospitalised after a psychotic episode. The wheels threatened to come off behind the scenes as the band lay dormant after taking their debut album on the road for a solid 18 months. It was in this volatile soil that the seeds of its follow-up were planted.

Sex, Death & the Infinite Void draws upon the chaotic circumstances of its creation, strengthening the foundations of its time-honoured concept – essentially the tale of two doomed lovers in the fictional American town of Calvary Falls – with autobiographical detail and an over-arching apocalyptic narrative. Will Gould and Hannah Greenwood’s vocals are a natural foil to each other, as highlighted on the windswept duet “Four Years Ago”, and they work well enough together that the record could arguably have used more of their interplay. But, while Greenwood stays out of the spotlight here for the most part, her presence is keenly felt.

Despite mostly being conceived by Gould and Miles over the course of a turbulent year, these songs are fully fleshed-out by their six-piece formation and move into more expansive territory than the band’s previous work. It’s a delightfully camp listen, dialling up their debut’s theatrics in a manner that may prove too much for some, but that flamboyance is something they’re keenly aware of. Glam rock flourishes and unexpected turns abound; they capture the spirit of Meat Loaf with poetic interludes, and there are additional vocals provided by Patricia Vanian of Creeper’s goth-rock forebears The Sisters of Mercy and The Damned (used to damned fine effect on the waltzing “Thorns of Love”), all while readily moving away from the sound of their debut.

The influence of preceding album Eternity, in Your Arms lingers on “Born Cold” and the anthemic surge of back-half highlight “Napalm Girls”, but you don’t draw a line under an era of your band in this pointed a fashion (“smashing it to the ground”, to quote Gould) if you’re just going to repeat yourself, and these high-energy cuts are the outliers. This is an album focused on experimentation that incorporates some unexpected influences along the way. There are touches of Roy Orbison on Southern Gothic serenade “Poisoned Heart”, and flashes of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds on “Paradise” – not to mention the stark closer “All My Friends”, written by Gould while Miles was hospitalised and his life was going off the rails.

In-universe, “All My Friends” acts as a post-script to the story’s climax on “Black Moon”, and it’s one of the album’s most prominent examples of Creeper fully committing to expanding their musical horizons. They do so in a manner that’s as all-encompassing as the main characters’ escapist hedonism, memorably summed up thusly on “Annabelle”: “Between the smoke and drink and getting high / I’d shed a tear if I could find the time.” This track best expresses the defiant, all-or-nothing drive that runs throughout the record, delivering one of the album’s many gold-plated choruses in the process.

For all its indulgence and fluid musical expression, Sex, Death & the Infinite Void doesn’t even crack 40 minutes in length. Creeper accomplish a lot in that time, and their new record is a suitably triumphant return – the odds were stacked against them and their story almost cut short, but they have prevailed with an album that’s their most expressive statement yet.

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