Essential Black Metal Listening: VENOM Black Metal
Almost any discussion about black metal invariably starts by referencing bands from the second wave of the sub-genre like Mayhem, Darkthrone, Burzum, and Immortal. It's not surprising since these were the bands that took a vague catch-all term and molded it into a true sub-genre complete with a signature sound, aesthetic principals, and ethos. The original True Norwegian Black Metal horde also serves as a good starting point for most non-genre nerds because of the notoriety various members of the movement attained from burning down churches and killing people. But before these angry youths donned corpse paint, before they were even old enough to pick up a guitar, there was Venom's magnum opus Black Metal – the prime mover behind what would become heavy metal's most evil progeny.
Although Venom's music and image would seem to have more in common with the nascent thrash and death metal scenes that were only beginning to form in 1982, the connection between the band and the musical movement they inspired can't be denied. Beyond simply coining the term "black metal," Venom also pioneered the common black metal practice of adopting evil and alien sounding stage names. Additionally, Venom are the reason second wave black metal musicians frequently appeared clad in leather and spiked gauntlets and brandished ancient weaponry in promotional photos. Venom's influence on True Norwegian Black Metal can't be overstated, and Black Metal is the most important offering in the band's discography.
When Black Metal was released in 1982, it would've been hard for anyone to believe the album would go on to influence two generations of heavy metal fans and musicians. It's a terrible sounding record made by drunken English miscreants with limited musical ability. True, it was a step forward from the band's even worse sounding debut, Welcome To Hell, but Black Metal still sounds awful compared to every other heavy album released at the time. In a very real sense Venom served as a heavier version of The Ramones. The band wasn't popular or successful at the time the album was released, but they showed a legion of teenagers they could gather some friends, get wasted, and crank out an album's worth of extreme darkness.
The album Black Metal begins appropriately enough with the song "Black Metal." The track is a fusion of punk rock and NWOBHM replete with Satanic lyrics that, while goofy by today's standards, were completely unheard of (and consequently shocking) for the era. "Black Metal" sets the tone for the rest of the album which is filled with sloppy Motorhead-by-way-of-Spinal Tap anthems to Satan and black magic. It's impossible to take this music seriously nowadays, but when Cronos commands listeners to "Lay down your souls to gods rock n' roll" it's hard to resist throwing up the devil horns in response.
As Black Metal unfolds for the listener it becomes apparent that Venom don't have many tricks up their sleeves. The production and musicianship is slightly better than on Welcome To Hell, but this is still very primitive music. The lack of musical ability combined with the horrible production value is ultimately what makes Black Metal so good, though. Songs like "To Hell and Back" and "Don't Burn the Witch" sound like they were recorded in a cave in the midst of a Satanic ritual by a pack of bloodthirsty heathens.
If the amateurishness of the recording and production on Black Metal is what made the album frightening when it was initially released, the campiness of the lyrics are what gives it an enduring appeal. When the album was released in 1982 there hadn't been another album as overtly Satanic before. Bands like Black Sabbath and Kiss dabbled in infernal lyrical content and imagery respectively, but only for atmosphere and shock value. When Venom came along with their overt Satanic themes, it was shocking to moms and church pastors everywhere. Never mind that the lyrics read like an issue of EC Comics' The Vault of Horror. In fact, the song "Buried Alive" is just another retelling of the old horror comic motif where the protagonist or narrator are buried alive.
Thirty years removed from the original release date and overshadowed by the crimes committed by second wave black metal bands, the "Satanism" presented on Black Metal is so obviously tongue-in-cheek that the album can only be enjoyed for the slab of occult kitsch it is. Just try listening to "Sacrifice's" insanely catchy guitar hook and spell-it-sing-it lyrics about virgin sacrifice without smiling and rhythmically nodding.
These days Venom aren't afforded much credit from young unholier-than-thou black metal fans, but that's only because these young 'uns don't have a good sense of metal history. Black metal the musical movement would never have happened without Black Metal the album. Yeah, the band's image was way over the top, the music sounded harsh and trebly, and the lyrics were dopey, but the same can be said of True Norwegian Black Metal. Without Cronos, Abaddon, and Mantas, there may never have been an Abbath, Fenriz, or Euronymous.