The heavy metal scene of the early 80s had all manner of cartoon characters: fake Barbarians Manowar and Thor, glam rock cross-dressers Twisted Sister and Wrathchild, satanic spooks Mercyful Fate and Venom. The latter were arguably the most OTT and the most ridiculed of all, a trio of Hammer Horror-inspired devil-worshippers from Newcastle with silly names – Cronos (bass/ vocals) Mantas (guitar), Abaddon (drums) – who struggled to play in tune and in time, and wrote songs about the dark side because, as Cronos explained, “Satan were a reet bad lad”. And yet, for all the intrinsic comedy value, this was one of the most influential bands in the entire history of heavy metal.
The evidence is writ large in this new six-CD box set, featuring EPs from Venom’s glory years, each named for a specific market – Canadian Assault to Scandinavian Assault. In a live recording of Witching Hour, a track first featured on 1981 debut Welcome To Hell, there is the frantic riff that Metallica recycled for the seminal thrash metal blaster Whiplash. In the evil, queasy rumblings of In Nomine Satanas, from 1982, are the roots of Slayer’s whole career. In the manic Bloodlust, the bludgeoning fury and ‘death grunts’ of the nascent Celtic Frost. And in the raw power and chilling atmospherics of In League With Satan and Countess Bathory are the seeds of Norwegian black metal.
As a package, Assault! is flawed. A basic clamshell box includes no liner notes or memorabilia. A Goat of Mendes key ring would have been nice. There is also heavy repetition of certain tracks across the EPs.
What is extraordinary is how potent Venom’s early music still sounds after all the advances in extreme metal over 30-plus years. The sheer brutality and malevolent intent of the original black metal band still sounds as shocking as when Classic Rock’s Geoff Barton described them in a 1981 Sounds review as “the musical equivalent to the Earth splitting asunder and revealing a filthy, gaping maw to the Kingdom Below”. And in two songs in particular – the roaring Warhead and the epic Seven Gates Of Hell – there is an evil genius, like Sabbath in their prime. As Cronos – Conrad to his mum – once said: “Ozzy was tormented by demons, but I wanted to be the demon!”