Monday, April 6, 2009

Venom - Welcome To Hell (1981)

In January 1981, heavy metal meant bands like Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden (who were weeks from releasing their second album), Motorhead, Angel Witch and Diamond Head, among others. There was no Slayer or Metallica and certainly no Bay Area Thrash scene. There was no German Thrash Metal. Brazil was bereft of any sort of Black/Death Metal and Scandinavia's most widely known musical output was from a disco group. Even Ozzy Osbourne had only released one solo album at this point. The hard rock/heavy metal landscape was far different from what it is today; it was quite different than it would be, even a few years later. When people listen to Venom for the first time, most are unable to truly fathom what this band signified because they've heard heavier and faster bands. They fail to realize that all of this had to start somewhere. This was the birth of extreme metal. This trio from Newcastle, England was very influential to the Thrash, Death and Black Metal bands that came after them. Venom influenced bands including Slayer, Bathory, Hellhammer, Possessed, Death, etc. And how many others did those bands go on to influence? Even Metallica cited Venom as an influence, in the early days.

Welcome To Hell is the raw sound of heavy metal in its most primal, feral form. The sound of a band holding nothing back, with a style that took the essence of Motorhead, punk rock and Black Sabbath, shook it all together then distorted the result until ears bled and people ran screaming for cover. This album is the musical equivalent to the Earth splitting asunder, opening up and revealing a filthy, gaping maw to the Kingdom Below. It's the sound of sinners screaming in eternal damnation, hellfire licking at their charred and blackened limbs. It's the sound of a succubus mating orgasmically with a mortal man. It's the sound of Lucifer's voice emanating from Linda Blair's lips. It's the sound of a sacrificial knife slicing bloodily between a virgin's breasts.

"Sons of Satan" bursts from the silence, as soon as you put the record on, with all the energy of a Motorhead tune. However, this features more bass, which adds to the aura of doom, and very raspy and diabolical vocals. The song rages from the inferno of black flames, though there is a slower section in the middle that showcases a relaxed bass line, before bursting forth once more with conviction and fury. Though they weren’t entirely dissimilar from other NWOBHM bands, Venom’s entire presentation was as terrifyingly unique as Black Sabbath’s debut was a decade before.

The next song is "Welcome To Hell" and it sounds like a chainsaw attempting to slice through a steel girder. This is a little slower, featuring a mid-paced thrash riff that would go on to be ripped off a million times from Motley Crue and Celtic Frost to Bewitched and legions more. The sound is rugged and low-fi and suits Venom just fine. There’s an almost intentional sloppiness to the record; the guitars and bass are so raw that you start to question whether some of the things you’re hearing are really even there. The drums are produced pretty poorly too, but they’re so frantic that it’s excusable. Cronos’ nearly atonal vocals are also a plus: his signature growl and occasional shrieks have been echoed by Tom Araya and dozens of other thrash vocalists. This song may have been influential in its use of female vocals for a brief spoken word passage, as well.

"Schizoid" is next, is another uptempo song with memorable riffs and enough changes to keep the listener interested. This is a great example of Venom's ability to join together insane speed (for the time) with a very catchy chorus. This is a menacing account of a mentally disturbed murderer stalking his victim and it sounds as if it was actually recorded somewhere in the pits of Hell. Somehow, it would be hard to imagine it any different. It definitely fits the dark, sinister and filthy atmosphere of the songs.

"Mayhem With Mercy" is a brief instrumental that serves as an interlude. This acoustic passage has a somber feel to it and the sound of the winds blowing only adds to the cold effect. This piece stirs feelings of abandonment, solitude and hopelessness. This is all swept aside as "Poison" rocks in from the darkness. This is a relatively fast song, using Satanic imagery to convey a pretty sickening tale that, probably, was all-too-common in those days. This certainly isn't the darkest song on the album, but it fits in just the same and features some killer thrash riffs and hellish solos. This atmosphere continues with "Live Like An Angel (Die Like A Devil)". This song has some of the best riffs of the whole album, especially the twin guitar harmonies around the two-minute mark. This, as well as the wicked solos, helps to give the song somewhat of an epic feeling (if this can be applied here).

Side two begins with the fastest and most evil song on here, "Witching Hour". The rumbling bass joins the sound of flames flickering in the wind as the gates of Hell open wide and demonic screams issue forth. This brilliant song must be heard to really be appreciated, especially the awesome lead solo. The song ends in a frenzy of hellish chaos. This is followed by the merciless and unrelenting "One Thousand Days In Sodom". What the song lacks in speed, it makes up for in heaviness and power, crushing those that dare stand before it and grinding their bones to dust.

Quickening the pace once more is “Angel Dust”, another barbarian at the gates that rips them from hinges with a bursting chorus. Much like "Sons of Satan", this is uptempo and reminiscent of Motorhead. Cronos screams with quite a bit of conviction and it serves the song very well. Then the fires turn black. With the unholy entrance of “In League With Satan” the draconian mood ascends to another level. Just when you think this album’s psalms to Hell have already been penned in their purest form, this innocent song comes along to crush them and all other feats of darkness up until that point and some time after… the morose, back-masked intro, the distorted and demonic vocals, the droning chorus, lyrics written with the tears of priests… This plodding tune adds a lot to the evil atmosphere of Welcome To Hell. The finale, “Red Light Fever”, is more basic than most of the group’s tracks, beginning with what was, probably, the heaviest riff of 1981. Abaddon never deviates from the most basic of drum beats even during the tune’s moments of pure outburst, a solo that’s foremost white noise while Cronos growls whatever seems to come to mind. As the song nears its conclusion, it speeds up to a chaotic frenzy before everything runs out of steam and fades out.

The New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement yielded a lot of talented bands, many of which were underappreciated. Venom was not one of these. With a sound that was, at the time, the most reckless, menacing force in music, Venom rightly garnered acclaim and infamy. Though their music might appear a bit derivative these days, their striking sonic departure was pretty revolutionary at the time and it is easy to say that they were the first extreme metal band. Welcome To Hell represents the first step in the evolution of Thrash, Death and Black Metal. While it may seem tame by today's standards, it is important to keep in mind that Venom is the band that paved the way for those that came after. Yet this was only the first chapter.