Welcome to Chronicles of the Bestial.
In this column we like to take a look to the most extreme and uncompromising end of the Metal spectrum. The stuff that usually gets overlooked due to its no holds barred nature, but is adored by a loyal fan base of devoted underground maniacs all around the globe. The marginal of the marginal. The good stuff.
Yet, before we can plunge into the most brutal and uncompromising delivery this planet has to offer, we need to start from the beginning. All foundations of extreme Metal can be traced back to one single album. Before we start crawling slowly towards the modern day brutalities, we need to go back in time to England. Newcastle, to be precise. In the most populous city in North East England, a bunch of musicians gave birth to a whole new musical direction.
So, welcome to Chronicles of the Bestial and yes… Welcome to Hell.
Formed in the late 1970’s, the band eventually dubbed as Venom would become the Big Bang of the extreme and bestial end of Metal. After a series of line-up changes the band finally settled on the now classic trio format. This occurred when bass player Alan Winston left and second guitarist Conrad “Cronos” Lant took over the bass duties. As he did not have a bass amp at the time, he simply played bass guitar through a regular distorted guitar amp. With that, the noisy and somewhat uncontrolled and highly characteristic low end of Venom was born. Not too long after, the band also fired the vocalist Clive “Jesus Christ” Archer, when they discovered the barking vocal delivery of Lant to be more suitable for the music of theirs.
As far as the actual brutality goes, in the late 1970’s Heavy Metal was not the most extreme thing around. The Punk bands were dominant in this department. Bands like the Sex Pistols, Ramones and Stiff Little Fingers for example, were already then almost unlistenable to a mainstream music fan, but bands like Crass and Discharge only took the extremity further. Motörhead was also important and it was their example that was accelerating the evolution of extreme in Punk and Metal circles alike.
When the NWOBHM [New Wave of British Heavy Metal] was becoming a thing, record labels started to get interested in the business potential of the direction. A label just getting its start, Neat Records, wanted to have their share as well and released Venom’s immortal 7-inch “In League with Satan / Live Like an Angel” in 1981. By the time the band had already found the musical direction they are still known for today. The noisy, outrageous rampage, still highly memorable and enjoyable. As the sales of aforementioned 7” were impressive, the label was convinced enough to release a full album and asked Venom for more material. When the band delivered the demos of songs they thought would consist of their first album, Neat simply compiled the demo recordings and released them as Venom’s now classic debut album, “Welcome to Hell” (1981).
“It was back around the early, or mid 90’s (when I was introduced to Venom) and I just remember being blown away by their overall raw energy,” Kat Gillham of Uncoffined and Thronehammer fame recalls. “It was just ‘bam, bam bam,’ relentlessly pounding away like a musical jackhammer. I loved the imagery and lyrics too, the album cover with the pentagram is just ICONIC and it no doubt shocked a lot of people back in the day because it was some years before Bathory and Possessed, and such bands appeared on the scene with satanic imagery and lyrics. A truly pioneering and ground breaking album, which helped to birth a new sub-genre of Metal and has influenced countless bands and musicians across the Metal scene since its release 40 years ago. It still sounds amazing and powerful too! I also remember being like ‘Wow! These guys are a local band’.”
Antti Heikkinen, guitar player of Sadistik Forest, has a story a little bit similar, when it comes to first contact with legendary noise of Venom.
“I woke up to the greatness of Venom a bit late, as I did not get introduced to the band until the 90’s, and these were still mainly the single classic songs I got to know. I started playing their full albums around the Millennium, when I faced a somewhat of a Venom revival. First things to get were their first three albums, from which “Welcome to Hell” is my favourite. It is actually my very favourite of their whole body of work, to be precise. As I knew most of the songs from it already, I can’t remember anything too special about the first from start to finish listening to the album.”
When asked about what they feel to be the most iconic thing about the album, both pick up an answer fast.
“That awesome iconic cover art!,” Kat shouts out immediately. “It just looks evil as fuck and Metal as hell! It is like a statement of intent, like basically saying ‘We are Venom and we mean fucking business, Welcome to fucking Hell!!’. I typed that in my best Geordie/Newcastle accent,” she chuckles.
Yes, as heard from the commentary, it is quite obvious that the first extreme Metal album had many classic elements of the genre all lined up on it, and for the first time in musical history. It needs to be clarified though, that people sometimes seem to think Venom appeared somehow out of the blue, straight out of nowhere, with all their ground breaking elements. This was not the case, even though it surely adds the mythical element to the story. Venom simply combined the elements they appreciated in music that surrounded them and created a new mix out of it for a combustion of their own. They took the ferocity and rawness of Punk, the tempo and sheer power of Motörhead, spikes and leather of Judas Priest and the live show from Kiss. Out of these, they cherry picked the most inspiring elements and poured that to their own band and brand.
One thing in “Welcome to Hell” that was still groundbreaking and brand new in approach – The lyrically shocking aspect of satanism. Whereas Black Sabbath, the original 70’s princes of darkness, had rather warned people about evil, darkness and occult and cried for God to help them when being persuaded by Satan, Venom announced instead that they were the people that were out to get you! They had the imagination of genuine knights in Satan’s service and they openly embraced evil in their lyrics, for the first time, definitely turning the page in this department. In the environment of their day, the shock aspect was guaranteed.
Musically, “Welcome to Hell” is still quite close to Motörhead, but it is the satanic lyrical delivery that sets them apart. Whereas Lemmy and co. sung still about the quite traditional topics – sex, drugs and rock and roll mainly – Venom went for the deep end instead. Also the fact that “Welcome to Hell” is a compilation of demos, gives the album that raw and unproduced quality Extreme Metal would find essential in years to come. If it had been a regular Heavy Metal production of the era, it would never have stood out like it did. Even the debut gave Venom a stigma of bad musicianship for years, as the material was never intended to be released in album form, they never could quite capture the uncompromising energy of the release either.
Even though “Welcome to Hell” was maybe the rawest noise of the day, the material on it was still very much song oriented. The songs have clear characteristics, and they are catchy. Unresistable almost. Fans have a variation of favourite songs from it too, which only speaks volumes about the material itself.
“In League with Satan! Simply, as there are so many memories linked to it,” Antti shouts out, when being asked about his favourite song. “During the years I have listened and even played the song myself in quite different settings, occasions and locations. Already the opening riff itself is something one simply cannot push aside, you know? It marches onwards with a quite impressive groove and the song is highlighted, of course, with that huge sing along chorus.”
Kat Gillham:“I have two joint favourite songs from that album, the title track and “Witching Hour.” I had the honour to be invited by Abaddon (a.k.a. Tony Bray, drummer of Venom) himself two times to do guest vocals on that song at gigs his band Abaddon played in Newcastle-upon-Tyne back in October and December 2019. Being onstage with such a legend, growling and screaming over an old Venom classic, and one of my favourite songs, twice in two months was very cool, but very surreal! I even got to rehearse the song with them the day before the first gig I did guest vocals at (I did most of the song at the first gig except the first verse and did vocals over the whole song at the 2nd gig) and he came and picked me up and took me to the rehearsal. He is a really cool and down to earth guy. I love the raw energy of “Witching Hour,” plus the chorus is great to scream where Cronos shouts “Witching Hour.” Just an iconic Extreme Metal song. “Welcome to Hell” is an iconic song with that iconic ominous chorus that he repeats! “Welcome to Hell! Welcome to Hell!” It is a great album from start to finish. I love each and every song. I must mention “In League With Satan” as being another standout track, again with a simple but catchy powerful chorus. “Welcome To Hell” is All Killer, No Filler! Boom! Explosive!”
While looking back now, it is easy to say that the debut album of Venom is an undisputed milestone in the history of Heavy Metal, but it is also the very first Extreme Metal album. Even not being that brutal in modern day standards, it was the first to openly embrace the topics of hell and Satan, being loyal to evil in lyrics. The very standard for years to come. Like many great things, the power of it came together via a simple accident, or very much unintended chain of events at least, when the label compiled their raw demos and simply released them, thus setting a standard for what we today know as “unholy underground noise.”
As a last thing, let’s give our guests of honour the last word. How would Antti and Kat, experienced underground maniacs themselves, see the importance and legacy of this marvelous and noisy piece of blasphemy?
“I’m sure it (“Welcome to Hell”) did raise some eyebrows with all the satanic tendencies of it, even the musicianship itself was nothing very special. I’m pretty sure that the success of Venom helped other bands to wake up to the fact what you could achieve with a music and image like theirs. It is safe to say that this album and Venom as a band have single headedly moulded the format of Black Metal as a musical genre, to how we see it today. As far as my own doings go, Venom has had influence on me through bands that have followed the example of theirs more than they have inspired me directly.”
“As I said elsewhere that album helped birth a new genre, it was the catalyst for the Speed/Thrash movement, Venom took what Motörhead did and made it far more extreme, heavier, pounding, also it is the first ever Black Metal album and early Venom has influenced so many Black Metal bands and musicians, as well as musicians from a lot of other sub genres of Metal. I think every extreme subgenre of Heavy Metal has been impacted and influenced by “Welcome to Hell” and the classic old Venom material and albums in general. Venom and that incendiary debut album will continue to influence Metal bands and Metal musicians for decades to come. As a drummer, I love Abaddon’s straight forward, heavy hitting, no bullshit drum attack and the way he just pounds and attacks the drums with no mercy. I bet he has gone through a lot of drum sticks and drum skins over the years!! His hard hitting style is definitely an influence on myself.”
Yes. Let it be Thrash Metal, Black Metal or early Death Metal, Venom was all over the place. The Internet is full of pictures of a young Metallica smirking around in their worn out “Welcome to Hell” shirts, and the cover of the album has been copied so many times by now, that it could make a huge – though rather one dimensional – art installation to have them all out for the audience in one exhibition.
To cut the long chat short, I bet we all can agree on the fact that without Venom’s “Welcome to Hell,” extreme Metal as we know it would not have been born. At least not in the way it was.