Venom – “Possessed”

Ask a non metal fan for their thoughts on “black metal” and you’ll likely get responses limited to Satanism and church burnings. There is certainly an anti-Chirstian/Satanist (or even Pagan) element to some of the genre, and while the church burnings in Scandinavia happened they’re kind of a historical footnote at this point with most of the incidents having occurred back in the 1990s. Ask people about the music itself, and they’ll probably simply guess “fast” and “loud”. It’s certainly a genre that falls well outside of the mainstream, and chances are most people have never heard a song by an actual black metal band, so they only know what they’ve read (probably sensationalized) or been told (definitely sensationalized).

When the discussion turns to the origins of black metal, a handful of bands are typically identified as part of the first wave. In Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind single out three progenitors: Bathory, Mercyful Fate, and Venom. And it’s Venom that holds the distinction of having provided the nom de genre with the release of their 1982 album titled simply Black Metal. Like with any other type of music you can play the “but those guys were influenced by so-and-so,” and keep doing that back in time until you get to cro-magnons living in caves and banging sticks against rocks, so at some point you just need to find something that seems to fit and move on. And it’s apparent that any way you slice it Venom was among the earliest black metal band.

The irony, of course, is that it doesn’t appear that the members of Venom were true believers. Instead they cultivated an image, both lyrical and visual, that theatrically used Satanic and dark themes. Moynihan and Søderlind note, “Early interviews with the members of Venom make it clear they themselves were beer-swilling Rock and Rollers out to have a good time. The Satanism projected in their presentation and lyrics was primarily an image they stumbled upon, guaranteed to assure them attention and notoriety.” (p. 13) But obviously those words and images struck a chord, because they inspired the next generation of bands that took things to the next level in some pretty serious ways, so their influence is indisputable.

I found this copy of Venom’s 1985 record Possessed while flipping through the new arrivals at Seattle’s Georgetown Records this weekend, and since I have at least a passing interest in black metal (see prior posts on Burzum and Mayhem) I figured I’d pick it up. Possessed was the last studio album recorded by the original lineup of Cronos, Mantas, and Abaddon. While it’s not their most acclaimed record, it does represent a sort of end-of-an-era, and the material is actually earlier than the release date would indicate with much of it dating form before their 1984 concept album At War with Satan, and it certainly pre-dates the early Norwegian albums I’ve heard. So why not.

Lyrically you get what you’d expect from a band seeking to shock you with their evil – repeated references to Satan, devlis, hell, death, and virgins. I’m not even going to bother quoting any of them here because there’s no point – the rhyme structure is very basic and straight-forward, and frankly most of it is hardly shocking today. Of course, in 1985 it was horrifying enough for the Parents Music Resource Center (remember them?) to include the title track of Possessed on their Filthy 15 list of the most objectionable songs in popular music. Which is pretty cool, right? Well, keep in mind that “Possessed,” a song that includes a line about drinking a priest’s vomit, was ranked #14… which is somehow four spots behind Def Leppard’s “High ‘n’ Dry (Saturday Night),” a song you very well might hear played over the PA if you were to go to a shopping mall later today. At least they finished ahead of Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop,” which was #15. Seriously kids. This is the crap we were dealing with in 1985. People were worried about what listening to “She Bop” and Prince might do to the poor children.

Musically my copy of Possessed sounds a bit “flat” – it’s low in the mix and lacks depth to the bass, giving it a bit of a tinny quality. There’s a good balance of faster and slow/heavy pieces, though the heaviness lacks a bit of weight due to the absence of depth, so the faster parts come off sounding better than the heavy parts. Songs like “Powerdrive” that are primarily pure speed coming straight at you are the best fit for the mix, which is a factor that contributes it to being my favorite song on the record. I’d like to hear a richer sounding version of “Flytrap,” a solid slower and heavier number that just leaves you wanting that little bit more. The vocals don’t fall into the indecipherable growl-fest, reminding me more of a cross between Kill ‘Em All era Metallica and early Phil Anselmo Pantera, like Vulgar Display of Power.

If you replaced the lyrics with more typical metal fare from the era, like chicks, drinking, chicks, motorcycles, chicks, rocking, and chicks, Possessed would have fallen on the border somewhere between the better and heavier glam acts like Mötley Crüe and the early thrash scene of Metallica, Slayer, and Anthrax. There’s a fair amount to like in the overall sound, and while I know I sound like a broken record, if the mix was a bit better Possessed would be a solid metal album. As it is, it’s still pretty damn good and can certainly rage on songs like “Possessed,” so there’s plenty here to like.

If you’re into the harder 1980s metal scene, or just interested in checking out some of the more approachable early black metal stuff, Venom is worth a listen, and Possessed is a decent one to give a spin.

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