2019 was the year Venom Prison emancipated from the underground and on to the front pages of Kerrang! magazine. Almost every metal publication featured Samsara on their end-of-year lists or praised the band for re-energising a conservative death metal scene. 2020 looked just as promising when they secured a slot on Parkway Drive’s arena tour, only for covid-19 to scupper their momentum. In the intervening period, the Welsh quintet signed with Century Media and are now ready to unleash album number three with the distributive might of Sony behind them. Believe the hype: Erebos is a major event in the metal industry calendar.
Of course, one of the reasons for Venom Prison’s rise is their charismatic frontwoman, Larissa Stupar. Is there a more acerbic and passionate vocalist in extreme metal than this Russian-born ethnic German? Most death metal vocalists roar with malevolent intent – Stupar screams into her microphone like a Trotskyist outside a WTO meeting. She’s also clearer and more varied in her range on Erebos. Listen to the guttural might of ‘Judges of the Underworld’ and see if you’re not screaming “Guilty as charged!” in the chorus. If this isn’t your thing, don’t worry because the dual guitar attack of Ash Gray and Ben Thomas decided that this record is a good place to indulge their technical chops.
Two things will strike you at the beginning of this album. One, the tech death element is less chaotic and more refined, like a modern Carcass album. Two, Stupar and Gray’s background in hardcore shines through on this record more than it did on Samsara. The three consecutive breakdowns at the end of ‘Judges of the Underworld’ need to be heard for you to believe there’s anything out there that could be heavier. And we’re not talking deathcore – this is Hatebreed with the technicality of Death.
One cannot overstate the exquisite guitarwork on this album. Though they drop their grindcore influences, the level of texture and terror in the guitar riffing will leave your jaw on the floor. ‘Nemesis’ is an anthem by virtue of repetition. Stupar screaming “I am the damaged one/ You deserve all the damage done” over a crunchy bounce riff will tighten your neck muscles and rouse your inner insurgent. The axemen overshadow her in ‘Comfort of Complicity’, with a mix of vintage rock riffing and barbaric brutality. Jesus Christ, how violent is this music? You’re still asking this question when they surprise you with a trippy prog metal ballad on ‘Pain of Oizys’. Er… what? Yep, you heard it right. The band that harvested a zillion notes on Samsara are now writing finger-squirming ballads about the suicidal thoughts that come with depression. Larissa has never hidden her mental health difficulties and she does a fine job expressing her anxieties here with a soothing voice that’s too strained to be angelic but too delicate to be ignored.
Venom Prison might be the only death metal band in the world that make you want to read their lyrics as soon as you have the album in your hands. Every one of Stupar’s songs deals with a pressing socio-political problem or an individual struggle in an atomised society. Sometimes, her far-left rhetoric invites a frown. “The misogynistic cogs are turning/ Grinding the uterus/ Victimised and segregated/ In the interest of the white man,” she yells on ‘Gorgon Sisters’. ‘Comfort of Complicity’ laments the presence of borders and the government systems that protect them from mass immigration. But this is not “woke” nonsense. Stupar is a student of the anarcho-syndicalism of Germany’s far left – they wear jack boots and shave their heads and preach violence as a means to continue the struggle. Napalm Death do the same, but we don’t give them a hard time for it. And if Larissa can cite Cannibal Corpse’s ‘Fucked with a Knife’ as a song that changed her life, we middle-aged white men can stomach a song that attacks us as a homogenous whole, can’t we?
You can always ignore the politics if these are too divisive. This is a death metal album, and a colossal one at that. Erebos confronts the genre’s biggest weakness – overkill – and leaves you satiated like a diner who’s just finished their dessert with enough room to order another drink. Samsara tried too hard to bludgeon you with a thousand notes per minute, but this record stays clear of this hurdle on ‘Golden Apples of the Hesperides’. The chugging palm-mutes and pinch harmonic finesses work wonders next to Larissa’s vitriolic outbursts. You might even call Venom Prison the Dillinger Escape Plan of death metal after digesting the brutal affair of ‘Veil of Night’. The whammy-bar thrash and Chuck Schuldiner homage are just as welcome as the symphonic Cradle of Filth stridency at the end. Where did those five minutes and twenty-seven seconds go?
This reviewer cannot remember the last time he was so excited about pressing the repeat button for forty-eight minutes of uncompromising extreme metal. We’re only in January, but we might already be in possession of the death metal album of the year.
Release Date: 04/02/2022
Record Label: Century Media
Standout tracks: Judges of the Underworld, Comfort of Complicity, Golden Apples of Hesperides
Suggested Further Listening: Carcass – Surgical Steel (2013), Hatebreed – Satisfaction Is the Death of Desire (1997), Death – Symbolic (1995)