There's such a fine line between stupid and clever.
-- David St. Hubbins, This Is Spinal Tap
Metal has never been a genre of music generally associated with rocket scientists, but perhaps no band in the past quarter-century better illustrates the central truth of the above quote than the meatheaded, massively influential British group Venom. With a Neanderthal combination of limited instrumental skills, high-octane tempos, and a single-minded dedication to flogging the name of its lord Satan, Venom rose like a batwinged behemoth from the U.K. metal underground in 1980. Widely reviled by critics and a perennial readers' poll champ for Worst Band and Worst Album awards in English music mags, the trio nevertheless created a brutally abrasive new template that launched the thrash-metal revolution and helped inspire legions of extreme bands still trying to up the satanic ante of Venom's seminal sophomore effort, Black Metal.
So how did this threesome of spike-and-bullet-belt-sporting lager louts from Newcastle manage to become the Velvet Underground of modern metal and change the course of heavy music? The recent lavishly packaged boxed set MMV (Sanctuary Records) focuses mostly on the early years of Venom's original lineup -- bassist, vocalist, and all-around ringleader Cronos (Conrad Lant), guitarist Mantas (Jeffrey Dunn), and drummer Abaddon (Anthony Bray) -- and goes a long way toward illustrating just how simultaneously brilliant and retarded the outfit was in its prime.
Musically, the sonic vitriol spewed by Venom could barely be contained on the poorly recorded demos that wound up being the band's earliest releases for Neat Records. Outside of a nod to Motörhead's locomotive pummeling and the raw intensity of British hardcore contemporaries like Discharge, there was little precedent for Venom's corrosive assault on the ears. The galloping riffs, ham-fisted lyrical sacrilege, and growling, rapid-fire vocals heard on classic tracks like "Bloodlust," "In League With Satan," and "Countess Bathory" put the evil in the evolution of metal. Metallica, Slayer, and Exodus would eventually surpass the pioneering trailblazers in terms of musicianship and global impact, but initially it was Venom that gave those bands a path to follow while shepherding the young American upstarts through tours on both sides of the Atlantic early in their careers.
For all the noisy mayhem and constant shout-outs to Lucifer and his minions, the blasphemous antics delivered by the pasty, spandex-clad members of Venom back in the day now come off more like goofball burlesque -- especially in light of the well-documented murders and church burnings committed by the 1990s generation of black-metal disciples in Norway. The boxed set's accompanying booklet offers ample evidence, starting off with the hilarious explanation Cronos gives for adopting stage names when the band formed: "It would have been daft singing about Satan and demons and all those dark things and then for me to say 'Hello Jeff!' We'd have felt like twats." There's also a wealth of truly ridiculous promo photos to enjoy. Apparently, Venom would not take a picture without cranking up a smoke machine to full blast and renting a truckload of totally incongruous props, including skulls, battle axes, samurai swords, nunchakus, and the occasional racing motorcycle.
Considering the minutiae the boxed set revels in -- including no end of alternate versions, outtakes, intro tapes from live shows, and even a radio advertisement for Venom's epic concept album At War With Satan -- you'd think that someone would have included some of Cronos' amazing between-song onstage banter. A recording of the bassist's brilliantly moronic exhortations at a 1986 concert in Trenton, New Jersey, actually got released as a single on Thurston Moore's Ecstatic Peace label and was famously sampled by the Beastie Boys ("You're wild, man . . . WIIIIIILD!!!"). You can get a taste at this link, and believe us, it's worth it: http://blog.wfmu.org/freeform/2005/08/youre_fuckin_pr.html.
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