Venom Prison’s Distinct Collision of Death Metal and Hardcore Bleeds True on “Samsara”
Mention that Samsara might wind up the angriest album of the year, and Venom Prison founding guitarist Ash Gray tempers his obvious enthusiasm for the idea.
“That would be pretty cool, right?” he said through Skype from his native England. “The angriest album of 2019, I'd take that.”
It wasn’t even a given that the Wales five-piece would be able to outdo their own 2016 Animus debut. The Renaissance-style painting by artist Eliran Kantor the band used for the cover showed a rapist literally being force-fed his just-severed genitalia, an image that was syncopated with vocalist Larissa Stupar’s confrontational lyrics and all of their shared pasts in hardcore bands. But Gray and fellow guitarist Ben Thomas wrote obsessively, and every second of it was intense.
“When we finished writing, we sat down and looked at the folder and I think there was something like 19 or 20 songs in there, something ridiculous. We were just like, oh shit, now we have to figure out what we're going to do with an album. So we sat through all the songs just figuring which sounded like an album together and then I guess the other songs probably got deleted or something. Probably got deleted, knowing our luck, so they'll never be heard again,” he laughed.
“I think because we were so busy constantly touring, coming home for a little bit, going back to our normal jobs, writing the records, going back to work, back and forth every day, I think we were getting so exhausted so everything was just getting angrier and angrier. I think when we were writing it was just like, how pissed off is this? And it's like, yeah, I think with everything evolving around us constantly, that's really what's making us angry.”
As for what was making Venom prison angry, this time the band was not as enraged by sociopolitical theater raging on in post-Brexit England. This time, it was personal.
“It's just a general dislike to a lot of things,” confirmed the guitarist. “And then you've got your real life going on, working full-time jobs all of us and we're kind of coming home, paying our bills and going back to real life whilst writing a record. It just felt we were generally that pissed off writing it is just how it sounded so aggressive.”
Although the music was primarily written before Stupar added her vocals, she took the cues from her bandmates and delivered an explosive album that drew from her own life’s experiences much more directly.
“I think as people we bond together really well and we kind of have the same mindset and we really think alike,” Gray explained. “It's like something to me, something that I was angry about writing music may have not been the same as Larissa's, but she knows equally that whatever that was that bothered me I was quote personal about it, and that's kind of what fueled me to write the music as such. And then her dislike of things is probably on the same level as what I disliked. It's almost like a stew. It's just chucking things in there that everyone's pissed off about and that's basically Venom Prison.”
As such it wasn’t exactly a shock when she bared all.
“Every single thing that is in that record, we know every single thing,” he affirmed. “We know exactly what everything's about and it's almost because it's preexisting or past tense or even present I'd say. It's always quite dark to see that everything's all that anger fueled into it and then someone actually puts their voice to it with their words instead of music.
“And the chemistry between it, this is really as hateful as we wanted it.”
For all of the irascible fury, Samsara sees Venom Prison branching out far beyond deathcore. “Uterine Industrialization,” the first single and video from the album, is ferocious grindcore. “Self-Inflicted Violence” has the same dive-bomb solos and stop-start mosh parts like a considerably more evil take on thrash metal; “Megillus & Leana” is classic take-no-prisoners death metal, whereas “Asura’s Realm” is some of the heaviest groove metal imaginable.
“I'm kind of glad you mentioned a lot of that,” Grey said. “Just because we played in hardcore bands previously and we have that hardcore root to us, it doesn't mean Venom Prison sounds like it, you know what I mean?
“The whole purpose of Animus was just to be as fast and pissed off as possible and no real direction. We just wanted to write something grindy, fast, and heavy. I think [with] Samsara, we wanted to write something with more elements and make it [even] faster, heavier, and darker. We're always gonna try and take that next step to make something progress from every record we do.”
One part of that progression was working with Arthur Riske. He has worked with a vast cross-section of extreme bands as a producer and engineer, including Cavalera Conspiracy, Code Orange, Inquisition, Pissed Jeans, Prurient, Outer Heaven, and Tomb Mold. He was recommended to Gray by Power Trip when they were touring together.
“I haven't got a bad word to say about the guy,” he gushed. “He was so cool to work with and generally caring about his work as well, it’s always admirable to see someone who genuinely has a passion for their work. It was cool from the get-go because I knew it was going to go into the hands of someone who understands us. We're not some clinical tech machine god band. It's a very organic band. There's nothing in there that makes it clinical. I think he understands that and I think the way he mixed it as well, he gave it that raw, hard organic feel, which [was] exactly what we were looking for.”
The final fitting touch on Samsara is another potent and disturbing Eliran Kantor painting. The artist was given the lyrics to the first track on the album “Matriphagy.” The word literally means the consumption of the mother by her offspring. There’s no shortage of super creepy videos online showing spiders being eaten alive by their progeny, and the album cover makes that seem tame.
Recalled Gray, “Larissa kind of put a twist to the whole thing of what the spider represents in a human world, and basically it was just like we need eggs coming out of a woman giving birth with just these baby spiders coming out and a mother just eating them, pretty much. And then everyone read the lyrics and [Kantor] was like, that's exactly what I was thinking. And we were like, just make it as extreme as possible, and that's what we got.”
This continuation is not an accident. Venom Prison may be making extreme music that is decidedly 21st century, but they take cues from the likes of Iron Maiden whose imagery was as identifiable as the music.
“I think it's something that we do even with merch and the way we post on social media,” he explained. “I know it's about the music, but [also] that aesthetic and getting that imagery right. You were talking about thrash bands earlier. Think how iconic all their imagery was. You could look at Slayer-related anything and you know instantly that's Slayer.
“I feel like that that was a little bit lost in later years and people give up on that whole aesthetic thing and just thought a cool record is a cool record. But I think it's the collection that's important. It's seeing the history and progression that holds that same imagery.”
A huge part of this imagery is witnessing Larissa’s self-righteous fury in action. The self-described vegan straight-edge anarchist is a blur on the stage as she lyrically eviscerates her demons and more than a few real-life enemies. The timing of Animus couldn’t have been more perfect in some respects -- having an album showing full-blooded revenge against a rapist hit right as the #metoo hashtag was reaching a crescendo in the mainstream media made the singer and band extreme metal spokespeople for the movement.
“Yeah, it's kind of weird, isn't it? When you say it out loud, it's really fucking weird,” Gray said. “Larissa was singing about the same stuff in her last band [hardcore troupe Wolf Down] but maybe not as graphic. I think with Venom Prison, we say what we think and what we feel.
"It's always cool when music has a message. It's what pushes people a lot more and it's kind of what people want it back a little bit more because there's actually a purpose to this, not just some madness being shouted and blast beats everywhere. It's cool just to have that lyrical content where it makes it a bit more meaningful.”
Samsara releases Friday via Prosthetic Records.
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