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Von’s Simplicity

Photo by Ester Segarra

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The 14th-century Franciscan friar William of Ockham was the first to verbalize the idea that “entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity”. His principle, dubbed Ockham’s Razor, concludes that when several hypotheses of equal value are compared, it is best to choose the one with the least assumptions, as it would be the most succinct and clearest to understand. While used extensively as an heuristic technique in philosophy even before William of Ockham, the same principle applies to modern music, and, specifically, to extreme metal. From early blues and rock ‘n roll to 1960s minimalist compositions and the first Velvet Underground songs, simplicity and repetition have resonated with music fans. While complexity can be rewarding due to its aesthetic density and virtuosity, it isn’t always necessary. If it takes some wanky prog band 12 minutes to get their point across, why not choose the headbangers who can do it in two? If William of Ockham were a metal fan today (and not a devout Christian), Von would most likely be his favorite black metal band.

I had always heard about Von and their wide range of influences, but did not actually listen to their 1992 demo Satanic Blood until several years ago. While I had been a fan of many raw black metal bands before, Von’s simplicity made them stand out to me. Their music contains many of the trappings found in other first-wavers like Venom or Bathory, such as basic song structures, rudimentary riffs, inhuman vocals, and lo-fi production values, but Von took it to the next lowest level. In addition to the speed and amateurish musicianship found in the aforementioned bands, Von expanded on black metal’s punk influence by employing a Ramones-like songwriting mentality by using four chords, essentially one drum beat, and minimal solos. On Satanic Blood, Von run through eight songs in 20 minutes, and only one of the tracks clocks in at over three minutes; the sprawling (for them) instrumental jam “Veadtuck.” Their performance is immediate, unrelenting, and free from any superfluous bullshit.

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While the music is punishing, what really caught me off guard about Von was how simple, if not primitive, the lyrics appear while still conveying “images of darkness and blood” in an intriguing and poignant manner. The first Von song I had the unholy pleasure of hearing was the title track from Satanic Blood, and it still remains my favorite of the band’s catalogue. Many of their lyrics, including these, consist of very few words that get the message across without any subtlety:

Satan fertile / woman’s egg / need to cut / her own skin / son of Satan / within womb / need to cut / her own skin / with a razor / spells a word / within the chest / a single word / carved in deep / through the skin / bleeds the word / satanic blood

As someone who has held onto a giddy, juvenile fascination with medieval Satanism, when I heard these words growled by a demon through a delay pedal, I wondered where this had been during my years as a budding teenage metalhead. The great deceiver has always been a fixture in metal, from Black Sabbath bellowing of corrupt politicians paying for their sins, to Iron Maiden observing nocturnal rituals in a dreamlike state, but Von’s words convey the images of Luciferian evil in a manner that was utterly mindless, yet beautifully poetic. It is not campy like Venom, nor does it involve the Norse pagan themes of many Scandinavian bands. It is satanic black metal in its purest and most elemental form. It seems the edge of Ockham’s Razor had sliced off a bit more than surplus assumptions.

Von’s simplicity functions so well because there is nothing cerebral about it. It does not take any intelligence to understand the emotions or intent of Von’s music. There are no pretensions or intertextual references to decode. The Gothic themes on Satanic Blood include the coming of Satan’s offspring, the destruction of Christ, and the living sacrifice of humans and animals. The imagery is gruesome and hallucinatory, like the phantasmagorical nightmare of a witch-fearing Puritan. Consider the spoken word intro to “Lamb”: “Upon chapel cross / stab the lamb / spinning in reverse / kaleidoscope / artistic blood.” The pictures Von paint with sound are vivid and cause an uncanny feeling in the listener, as if they had almost happened in a past life or distant memory.

Von is music that speaks from a candid place within the human subconscious. Like many black metal bands that followed, Von invoke a type of metaphysical transcendence that can be achieved through listening to ritualistic music at loud volumes. Guitarist Von Goat’s death growls are almost indistinguishable as a human voice. While the aim of other black metal groups may be to suppress the ego in order to reach harmony with nature (Wolves in the Throne Room) or atavistic ancestors (Burzum), Von’s imagery posits that nothing but chaos and murder lie beneath a shallow veneer of civilization. Von’s music gives aural life to the monsters of the id that lurk within all of us, even if it is only followers of heavy music who choose to acknowledge them.

For many years after their initial run, Von had an air of mystery about them due to their short time as a band, their use of basic artwork and packaging, and their unknown personal identities. One time bassist Kill (Joe Trevisano) later went on to play in death metal band Autopsy, but for many years Von Goat and bassist Venien were deemed M.I.A. After Von reformed in 2010, the inner adolescent in me was disappointed to learn that they were normal dudes named Shawn Calizo and Jason Ventura. The group has played several one-off shows and rerecorded a few of their songs which were released through Ventura’s company, the Von Music Group. Calizo and Ventura have also formed new projects, the aptly named Von Goat and Von Venien. Von Goat have released the albums Septic Illumination and Disappear, featuring a raw, atavistic sound that seems like an organic evolution of Von, while Von Venien’s single “Tribal Blood” and business practices make it seem like Venien is trying to cash in on his former group’s legacy.

Regardless, Von are respected today as the one of the originators of American black metal, and their lowest common denominator sound is one reason they have attracted listeners and inspired other artists. As black metal has become more readily available since Von’s time, the style has fragmented into many subgenres, covering topics from Mesopotamia to UFOs and everything in between. Black metal bands have also become more musically complex, exemplified by bands such as Krallice, whose near classical compositions have brought them to the forefront of the genre. While Satanic Blood may seem dated or trite today, it still works aesthetically, and connects with fans due to its simplicity. In 2009, Sister Devil, a 1991 demo Von recorded as a side project under the name Sixx, was finally released. The songs on Sister Devil have the same structure of those on Satanic Blood (a spoken word intro with several simple, repeating riffs and drum beats), but this time with the semantics of death rock – akin to Sisters of Mercy, Bauhaus, or Christian Death. The album has received much critical acclaim, which goes to show that “plurality should not be posited without necessity”. I still don’t think William of Ockham would rock to a band with a song called “Christfire” though.

— Tom Brandow

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“Satanic Blood”

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“Christ Fire”

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Amazon (MP3)

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