It’s always sad when a band has an internal branding dispute of such magnitude that it gives rise to two separate, but identical, entities. In this case, UK legends Venom are now forced to share a moniker with Venom Inc. and it may not be such a bad thing. Last year I reviewed the corporate crusher’s debut, Avé, where I waxed pompous over its unremarkable, but undeniably decent, content. Now, the black metal originals have returned with no less than their fifteenth studio album Storm the Gates. Once upon a time, I held Newcastle’s finest in high regard, and I still look fondly upon their classic era. But the fact is, they haven’t really been anything other than present for the best part of two decades. I had hoped that, by association, Venom might mirror the glimmer of quality in their LLC siblings, but if you listen carefully, you can hear my rusted heart breaking.
This lineup of Venom has been consistent for almost ten years, but the cornerstone of the band’s entire identity is, and always will be, Conrad “Cronos” Lant. His psychotic stage performances coupled with his animal vocals define Venom‘s heyday. It’s no surprise, then, to find his signature all over Storm the Gates. Like all bands of their age, there comes a time when the way forward requires a glance backwards and that’s exactly what this album is. Frivolous punk energy combine with meaty rhythms for a collection of some of Venom‘s most savage songs this side of 1990. It’s clear that the goal is to recreate the raw intensity that once drove the band, and for a moment, there is a certain edge to some of the cuts… but they just don’t hew deep enough.
Guitarist Rage balances most of the record’s successes on his own shoulders. “Bring Out Your Dead” marches with a military mid-pace that’s easy to nod along to, whereas “Beaten to a Pulp” and “Over My Dead Body” are potent proto-thrash. The problem is, that while he clearly has a propensity for creative riffing, he can’t seem to last a whole song without dipping into the bargain bin for some easy licks. “Dark Night (of the Soul)” and the admittedly furious (and absolutely not ironic) “The Mighty Have Fallen” are brimming with simplistic, but addictive punk abandon. But when called upon to conjure something a little more diverse, Rage falls short. Even “Destroyer,” which looms large with a slow and foreboding atmosphere, fails to build on its novelty enough to make it truly worth revisiting. This inconsistency is made even more glaring by the album’s wanton tendency to drag. It’s much too long, which just highlights the tedium of the filler.
There’s something to be said for the familiarity of Cronos’ vocals. The affected pronunciation and infamous embellished consonants remain strangely comforting. His performance is uniquely characteristic, but also entirely interchangeable with any of his previous vocal spots. In a bid to make the album as diabolical as possible, he’s even stepped up to the producers chair. Storm the Gates‘ sound is old-school by design and I enjoy the D.I.Y quality of Danté’s snare, but on some songs more than others, Cronos’ voice has been layered with an odd effect. He either sounds a little distant or like he’s face down in a very shallow puddle. Either way, I’d rather it stopped.
Storm the Gates is entertaining enough, but its impermanence reveals an unfortunate reality whispering behind every note that alters how we consider the band. There will doubtless be those die hard fans who think I’ve missed the “fuck you” point of Venom entirely, but I haven’t; it’s just not relevant anymore. The reality is, Cronos and his cohorts aren’t throwbacks and they’re not old dogs still upholding the cause. They are anachronisms, and releases like this, despite their intermittent positives, are making it fucking difficult to pretend otherwise. That once primal instinct that fueled the band is emaciated and although the material certainly isn’t bad, when are we going to stop pretending that acceptable is synonymous with great? The worst thing about it, is this probably won’t even be the last Venom album. But it may as well be, because the next won’t be any different. Stick to the classics and don’t ruin your memories with transient songwriting and a lingering bad taste.