Review by Daniel for Venom - At War With Satan (1984)
Newcastle heavy metallers Venom were arguably the most distinctive band in the entire NWOBHM movement & regardless of your opinions on their musical merit there can be little denying that their first two studio albums permanently changed the course of metal. Both releases saw the trio marrying up a traditional heavy metal backbone with punk rock velocity & aggression & capping it off with the sort of Satanic imagery that most fans didn’t even realise was possible at the time. It was a package that was based as much on the packaging as it was its musical substance & while Venom’s popularity was still yet to break out of the underground there can be no denying the impact they were having with an increasingly more extreme metal environment beginning to take form around them. It was bold, brash & paid no attention to authority of any sort; attributes that would be carried over into almost all of the subsequent extreme metal subgenres for decades to come. But one thing remained in question for Venom. They were consistently criticized for their lo-fi production values & poor musicianship with critics often claiming that they really had very little grasp on their instruments at all & as much as the band have always denied it, history has shown that this was starting to get to them. There was also a little bit of pressure starting to build on Venom with several underground metal figures speculating that album number three would be the one that would see the band breaking out of the underground & taking the world by storm. It’s perhaps not surprising then that the combination of these external influences resulted in an album that sees the band seemingly making a conscious effort NOT to go in a more commercially accessible direction.
1984’s “At War With Satan” album saw the light of day a full 18 months after Venom’s highly celebrated & influential “Black Metal” record which really does seem like quite a bit of time between drinks given that Cronos has always stated that the first three records were fully formed before the band had even recorded their debut. It’s a concept album centred around the 20 minute epic that is the opening title track; a song that sees Cronos telling the story of a war between Heaven & Hell; the ultimate result being one that won’t please too many Christians. The decision to release the album with a cover sporting the title over an inverted cross must surely have assured that there would be no big commercial breakthrough for Venom with stores like HMV withdrawing the record from their shelves due it’s blatantly Satanic content. It all seems to show Venom so obviously sticking their middle fingers up at their critics & the commercial music scene in general that it’s fairly hard to think that the band cared about anyone else’s opinions. But when you take a listen to the music the album contains it tells a somewhat different story.
Firstly, we get the entire A side being comprised of a huge progressive excursion that seems tailor made to prove that Venom were capable of more than 3 minute blasts of energy & violence. Secondly, we get a slightly cleaner & more palatable production than we’d heard from the band previously. And thirdly, you can hear an improved instrumental performance from the trio; all three elements seemingly intended to prove critics wrong in my opinion. The title track was Venom’s attempt to emulate Rush’s classic “2112” progressive rock masterpiece; an undertaking that most people would have thought absurd before experiencing it. And it works in my opinion. It doesn’t sound particularly pieced together while there are truckloads of great thrashy heavy metal spread evenly out across the song’s duration. It’s one of Venom’s best works in my opinon with Cronos’ theatrical performance being a real highlight. The riff structures aren’t particularly progressive but the band manages to keep it interesting throughout & it works as a composition. The B side is in direct contrast to the A side as it features six short & highly aggressive tracks that would sit pretty comfortably besides Venom’s earlier works. Not all of them work but there can be no denying that there has been very little attempt made to satisfy a more commercially focused market.
The production may be slightly cleaner but it’s still far from ideal with Abaddon’s drums being far too loud & Mantas’ guitars being much too low in the mix. Somehow this doesn’t take away from the listening experience as much as you might expect as it ensures that Venom maintain the street cred they’d built up over their short career. I’m not sure their fans would have understood a crystal clear & glossy production on a Venom record. Abaddon’s drumming is improved but is still the clear weak point of the band with “Genocide” in particular suffering from a lethargic performance. There’s definitely a greater amount of genuine speed metal included on this album with very little of the Motorhead inspired rock ‘n’ roll influence we’ve heard from them in the past. For that reason, it’s possibly the band’s most metal album to date with quite a few riffs showcasing a sound that’s not all that dissimilar to the newly formed thrash metal sound. Cronos is the clear focal point of the band as usual & he really does carry some of the less substantial tracks. He was a real talent as an entertainer & knew how to get a reaction from his audience.
It all adds up to another fun Venom record & this might shock a lot of people but not only do I consider this one as being of a similar standard to the band’s first two albums but I think I slightly prefer it. The one-two punch of the adventurous 20 minute opener & the electric energy of my favourite Venom track in “Ripe Ride” is enough to overcome the frail ending & make it my go-to Venom record these days.