Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Venom - At War With Satan (1983)

In March 1983, less than six months after the release of Black Metal, Venom released their third L.P. At War With Satan. Concept albums are like holes in the ceiling; however much you might hate what they represent, nonetheless they exist. They have to be dealt with and, occasionally, a band manages to come up with something so worthwhile they actually transcend the usual indulgent nonsense that defines the concept. Venom pulled off this, somewhat, unexpected triumph in 1983, when they unleashed At War With Satan on the eager public.

Actually, to call it a concept album is a little misleading. In actuality, the concept was firmly established in the title track alone, being somewhat of a sprawling epic that took up the whole first side of the album. It was a real risk for the trio of Cronos, Mantas and Abaddon. For the first (and last) time they stretched out allowing their imaginations to run riot on tape. The result was emphatic, hellish and violent, yet also somewhat complex. It was a departure for a band that was, up to this point, renowned for their method of full-on attack. At the time, producer Keith Nichol caught some grief for, maybe, not giving it a production job that would raise it above the rest of the albums coming out that year. However, it was actually an improvement on Venom's sound.

"At War With Satan" is an epic metal masterpiece of hellish proportions, a gore-soaked take of war between demons and angels. From the thunderous intro and gritty thrash riffs that intriduce the song, the feeling of tension begins to build. The frist scream emitted from the lungs of Cronos is like a murderous release. This is absolutely the most ambitious work ever composed by this blasphemous band. The lyrics could not be any more perfect and read like a fantastic story:

"The warriors gather slowly around
The sacred city, Hell
Satan screams a vengance
On the land as the angels fell"

The atmosphere of the song becomes even more hellish and dark as things slow down and Cronos screams in demonic fury:

"Lucifer's demonic laughter
Assist our quest, Belial prays
Free from Hell who serves the master
Sound the charge on Sabbaths day"

The song speeds up to a chaotic pace for some time, yet there is a definite structure present here that shows a band that has matured (to some degree) since Welcome To Hell. Cronos sounds absolutely possessed here and his bass is filled with doom and plague. As the song progresses, the fury of Hell is unleashed as Cronos screams, "Take to the skies!" The guitars are thrashy and unrestrained, yet with focus and determination toward a single goal: total and complete destruction. There are so many changes in riff and tempo that the song truly feels like a lengthy journey through the mists of the past. Venom really put everything that they had into this epic song and it shows. Sadly, there are a couple of brief moments where it seems like a riff is building and then never quite gets unleashed in the most satisfying way, but this is a minor concern for something so monstrous. The melodies and solos near the middle, right before the evil spoken word part, really show the NWOBHM sound at its finest, as much as Venom may have wanted to deconstruct this style. After about thirteen minutes, things get very quiet and eerie, leaving only an acoustic guitar and a bit of somber wailing in the distance before the guitars return to crush and kill all signs of life... as if, on a miserable journey through desolate wastelands, a sign of hidden beauty was found in the middle of this emptiness... You see something strange and foreign, so you gaze upon it with curiosity for a few brief moments before determining that it is utterly useless and stamping it out forever. Life, light and beauty have no place here. As the song continues, the instruments seem to be emitting random sounds as they burn at the fiery depths, while Cronos, demonically, tells the grim tale and a funeral bell chimes in the background. This is the culmination of the darkness and evil that Venom wished to convey and it is something that really has to be heard to be understood. No mere review could ever do this justice as this isn't just something to listen to; rather, it must be experienced. It cannot be unheard and the subconscious changes can never be undone.

After this epic monstrosity, there is little room to regain one's wits before "Rip Ride" tears into you. Yes, after that lengthy journey, there is still more. The second side of the album is more in keeping with what one might expect from Venom: six cuts that go for maximum impact, offering subtlety as hostage to ferocity. This song thrashes at full speed and never lets up. With wicked solos, hellish screams and great fucking riffs this piece is worthy (if anything could be) to follow up the previous song. Just when you'd imagine the band would have run out of energy, they are here to proclaim:

"Our evil always will reign"

"Genocide" rages from the pits of Hell at a bit more of a relaxed pace than the previous song, though still possessing enough lethal energy to slice your throat wide open. The refrain is very catchy and the riffs still possess a bit of epic feeling in them. It's almost difficult to believe that, just mere months after releasing the classic Black Metal, Venom still had so much creativity boiling over.

The next song is "Cry Wolf", beginning in a very strange manner for this trio. This is a good example of how the band managed to mature while maintaining their edge. This tale of lycanthropy is the longest song on the second side and features classic reference to "The Wolf Man". After another wicked guitar solo it sounds as if Cronos is making the transformation from man to wolf, on tape. The chorus isn't the greatest, but it's so brief that it really takes nothing away from the song.

"Stand Up (and Be Counted" begins with the feeling of doom in the bass-heavy riffs and in the great lyrics. The title of the song is kind of stupid and there is somewhat of a less serious feeling in the vocal delivery, but this song still features some good mid-paced thrash riffs that have enough of a dark feeling to be worthy of being on this record.

"Women, Leather and Hell" begins with a chaotic outburst. This picks the pace back up and rages along with violence and disregard. While not being as ridiculous, this song seems to follow along with "Teacher's Pet" and "Red Light Fever" in being more about useless topics rather than conveying any real sense of dread. There are still enough killer solos and riffs to keep you interested, though nothing will quite compare with Side A.

The last song isn't much of a song at all. "Aaaaaaarrghh" is pure chaos and nonsense, all at once. This might be interesting to hear once, but it loses its appeal after that first listen. It's just a couple minutes of random riffs, screaming and cursing. This probably represents what those on the outside think heavy metal sounds like. This shows a band that has run out of steam. After the epic title track, any band would have the right to be exhausted and somewhat hysterical, especially after following that with several more songs.

At War With Satan has largely been regarded as the moment when Venom should have cemented their place atop the throne, yet something seemed to be missing. There was the general impression among critics that it could have been so much more than it was - on all fronts. The band came very close to making a massive leap forward but didn't quite pull it off. It could be that the last couple of songs left a bad taste in their mouths and left people with a poor impression after the album had begun in such a glorious manner. Either way, this album provided closure on the first chapter of Venom's career and also showed a lot of people that they didn't quite have this band figured out as much as they liked to think.