Forging the Blade, A Metal Retrospective, Vol. 13: VENOM
by Andy Bang
The History of Black Metal
Black metal is an extreme sub-genre of heavy metal music. It often uses fast tempos, shrieked vocals, highly distorted guitars played with tremolo picking, blast beat drumming, raw recording, and unconventional song structure.
During the 1980’s, a few thrash metal bands formed a prototype for black metal. This so-called “first wave” included bands such as Venom, Bathory, Hellhammer, Celtic Frost and Sarcófago. A “second wave” arose in the early 1990’s, spearheaded by Norwegian bands such as Mayhem, Burzum, Darkthrone, Immortal and Emperor. This scene developed the black metal style into a distinct genre.
Black metal has often been met with hostility from mainstream culture, mainly due to the misanthropic and anti-Christian standpoint of many artists. Moreover, a few of the genre’s pioneers have been linked with church burnings, murder, or National Socialism. For these reasons and others, black metal is usually seen as an underground form of music.
- Conrad “Cronos” Lant – bass guitar, vocals (1979–1987, 1995–present)
- La Rage – guitar (2007–present)
- Danny “Dante” Needham – drums (2009–present)
- Former members
- Jeffrey “Mantas” Dunn – guitar (1979–1986, 1989–2002)
- Anthony “Abaddon” Bray – drums (1979–1999)
- Clive “Jesus Christ” Archer – vocals (1979–1980)
- Mike “Mykvs” Hickey – guitar (1986–1987, 2005–2007)
- Jim Clare – guitar (1986–1987)
- Tony “Demolition Man” Dolan – vocals, bass guitar (1989–1992)
- Alastair “Big Al” Barnes – guitar (1989–1991)
- Steve “War Maniac” White – guitar (1992)
- Antony “Antton” Lant – drums (2000–2009)
Venom are an English heavy metal band that formed in 1979 in Newcastle upon Tyne. Coming to prominence towards the end of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, Venom’s first two albums—Welcome to Hell (1981) and Black Metal (1982)—are considered a major influence on thrash metal and extreme metal in general. Venom’s second album proved influential enough that its title was used as the name of an extreme metal subgenre: black metal.
Venom’s original personnel came from three different bands: Guillotine, Oberon and Dwarf Star. The original Guillotine featured Jeffrey Dunn and Dave Rutherford on guitars, Dean Hewitt on bass guitar, Dave Blackman on vocals and Chris Mercaters on drums. Blackman and Mercater were replaced by drummer Anthony Bray (b. 17 September 1957 in Newcastle) and vocalist Clive Archer of Oberon and soon after, Dean Hewitt was replaced by Alan Winston on bass. Around this time the name Venom was created. In the late autumn of 1979 Conrad Lant from the bands Dwarf Star and Album Graecum replaced Dave Rutherford.
Prime influences of the formative band were Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Motörhead and Kiss. Other bands cited by Venom as an inspiration are Queen, The Who, Deep Purple, Sex Pistols, Van Halen, The Tubes and Rolling Stones.
A few days before a show at a local church hall, Winston left the band. To fill in, Lant borrowed a bass guitar from Steve Thompson (later to become Venom’s first producer). Playing the show with the borrowed bass plugged into his Marshall guitar amp and effects pedals, he created an unnerving racket and the ‘Bulldozer Bass’ was born.
Venom’s lyrics often featured Satanic references, and the band members took on new stage names. Archer became ‘Jesus Christ’, Lant ‘Mr. Cronos’, Bray ‘Tony Abaddon’, and Dunn ‘Jeff Mantas’.
In April 1980, the band recorded a three song disc, featuring “Angel Dust”, “Raise the Dead”, and “Red Light Fever”. Soon afterward, six more tracks were recorded for just £50, with Lant taking vocal duties on the song “Live Like an Angel”. Archer soon left the band, and Venom’s line-up became a trio.
Venom’s recording debut was the 1981 single “In League with Satan”/”Live Like an Angel” which was released by Neat Records. Later that year they released their full-length debut, Welcome to Hell.
Though crudely recorded with sometimes dubious musicianship, Welcome to Hell was still a remarkable tour de force for the era. Venom’s music was faster and harsher than most heavy metal contemporaries and while Satanism and other dark topics had been featured in metal before, the subject had rarely been more prominent. Lant was quoted as saying that this celebration of evil subjects was inspired by the perceived need to out-do musicians like Ozzy Osbourne of Black Sabbath, who would ‘sing about evil things and dark figures, and then spoil it all by going: “Oh, no, no, please, God, help me!”
Their second album, 1982’s Black Metal is cited as perhaps the most important influence in the development of black metal, thrash metal, death metal, and other related styles that are often grouped under the extreme metal umbrella. Many defining elements of these genres are first found in the lyrics and song titles created by Lant and his unique singing style as well as the guitar work and solos performed by Dunn. Though they would later be cited as important, neither of Venom’s first two albums sold well upon their original release. And while many of their British metal peers had found measures of popular success or critical acclaim (or, like Def Leppard, were moving away from metal towards hard rock), Venom were still regarded by critics as “a trio of buffoons”.
In an attempt to prove their status as serious musicians, Venom recorded At War with Satan in 1984. The epic 20-minute title track, with substantial progressive rock influences, took up the first side of the LP. The B-side was focused on the rapid-fire, three-minute “scorchers” Venom were known for.
In 1985, Venom released their fourth album, Possessed, which was not as successful as previous albums. Dunn then left the band to pursue a solo career.
Two guitarists, Mike Hickey and Jim Clare, were hired to replace Dunn. Their fifth album, 1987’s Calm Before the Storm, moved away from Satanic themes in favor of Tolkien-esque “Sword and Sorcery” material. This was even less successful than Possessed, and Lant, Clare and Hickey all left Venom after subsequent touring to form Lant’s eponymous solo band Cronos.
Bray was left as the only group member, but he was able to convince Music for Nations for a deal to release a new Venom album on the Under One Flag label, using Deadline demo tracks which were recorded with previous line-ups but never released. In 1988, Bray offered a vocals/bass role to Tony Dolan from Atomkraft. Bray and Dolan wrote new material prior to Dunn’s rejoining the band along with rhythm guitarist Al Barnes. Together they recorded Prime Evil (1989), Tear Your Soul Apart (1990) and Temples of Ice (1991). Barnes then left the band, and Steve White from Atomkraft was hired as his replacement. They released The Waste Lands in 1992, also without success. Music for Nations refused to release any more Venom albums, so Dolan and Dunn quit, effectively disbanding Venom. Bray continued to release compilation and live albums up to 1995.
In 1995, Lant, Dunn and Bray reunited the “classic” line-up, beginning by headlining the Waldrock Festival on 24 June 1995. They recorded and self-released the Venom ’96 EP with four re-recorded and one new song, resulting in a record deal with the SPV label.
An album, Cast in Stone, was next released in 1997, split between new material and re-recordings of popular early-’80s songs. Bray left Venom in 1999 and was replaced by Lant’s brother Antony “Antton” Lant. This lineup released Resurrection in 2000 on SPV.
However, in 2002 Dunn again left the group and was replaced by a returning Hickey. In late 2005, Venom released a career-spanning 4-disc box set MMV, which includes an exclusive mini-poster of the band’s seven-date tour of Europe with Metallica and a 60 page picture book, with interviews and pictures. The set includes all their best-known songs, along with rarities like live tracks, demos and outtakes. This lineup of the band released the Metal Black album.
Hickey left the group 2007, with a guitarist calling himself Rage serving as his replacement. This lineup released the record Hell in 2008. Antony Lant has since left the group to concentrate on his band DEF-CON-ONE. Lant has been replaced by drummer Danny “Dante” Needham.
In January 2011, Venom announced that they would begin writing new material for the upcoming 14th album, with plans to enter the recording studio in the months that followed.
Welcome To Hell influenced “literally thousands” of bands. Venom’s music helped shape the development of many thrash metal bands, specifically the Big Four of Thrash (who in turn were highly influential): Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth (Metallica opened for Venom on an early 1980s tour and Slayer played with them on the Combat Tour in 1985). Venom would also be of extreme importance to the black metal and even the early death metal scene, with numerous bands copying styles, themes and imagery from the band, such as the Swiss band Hellhammer which also helped pioneer the genres.
Venom often used Satanic and other ‘evil’ themes in their lyrics, but critic Bradley Torreano declared that the band had “their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks”, with a sense of humor and irony that was sometimes lost on their fans and other musicians. Torreano adds that Venom “[caught] the attention of both metalheads and punks, the band was emulated by the former and turned into camp icons by the latter.”
When asked about the criminal actions or violent behaviour of some later black metal bands (notably, there were a string of arsons and a few murders in the Norwegian black metal community in the 1990s), Venom’s members reportedly expressed disapproval, stating the point of Venom is to make controversial music, and “How can you make albums and tour if you are in jail?”.
Although they didn’t make it to MTV’s top 10 heavy metal bands list, they were given an “honorable mention.”
While many fans and musicians see Venom as an important band, their music has nonetheless been the subject of debate and criticism. Critic Eduardo Rivadavia of Allmusic writes that though Welcome to Hell influenced “literally thousands” of bands, Venom was “critically reviled.” However, critic James Christopher Monger declares that the members of Venom ‘grew as musicians’ as their careers progressed. Ethnographer Keith Kahn-Harris argues that Venom’s limited technical skill, particularly early in their career, was a profound, though inadvertent factor in Venom’s influence: being unable to mimic more technically proficient metal of their predecessors or peers, Venom instead opted to focus on sheer speed, creating music that was inspired by earlier metal, yet simultaneously blazed new trails.
In his Black Flag tour diary, singer Henry Rollins wrote about a 1986 performance when Black Flag opened for Venom. He opines that Venom was hilarious, with mediocre playing and a stage performance focused on appearances rather than music; Rollins asserted that the musicians used portable fans to keep their hair flowing while on stage. Rollins wrote, “It was like seeing Spinal Tap … I expected them to go into ‘Sex Farm’ at any second.” Rollins writes that he and some tour mates drew magic marker pentagrams on their hands to flash at Venom and offer “Hail Satan” salutes. For their final number, Venom asked the audience to chant what Rollins thought was “Black Funky Metal”, which briefly made Rollins suspect that he had overlooked Venom’s sense of humor, until he realized Venom was actually saying “Black Fucking Metal.” Venom reportedly laughed off Rollins’ comments saying “Henry didn’t have the balls to speak to us back then, he hid backstage, but now he mouths off behind our backs. His band was useless and that’s why he writes books now. He even got the date of the show wrong. Go write some more books and we’ll keep making music.”
Venom’s members were apparently well aware that their musical skills were questioned, especially by other bands. During a concert at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1984, guitarist Mantas was doing a between-song rant when he remarked rather loudly: “A lot of bands are out there tonight, waiting for Venom to make a mistake. Well, we are the fucking mistake!”