Venom’s Welcome to Hell Turns 30
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The first time I heard Venom's Welcome To Hell was on my parent's rotary phone. My friend knew I liked Judas Priest and Iron Maiden and scoured record stores for the next rung on the ladder of extremity. He called to tell me he'd found something that blew our favorite bands away. I pressed my ear against the phone. My ears perked as he hit play on "Sons Of Satan". Despite the murky sound of a cheap Neat cassette played via land line, I picked up on the energy. There was something charged and volatile and undeniably wrong about the music. I had to find this record.
Weeks later, I reached high on the cassette racks and grabbed my own copy of Welcome To Hell. Listening to it was like opening a Pandora's box of emotions. There was fear that I was violating every tenet of my Catholic upbringing. There was excitement that I had stumbled upon something special. There was a sense I belonged to a secret society, something Erik Danielsson of Watain mentions when he talks about black metal's early days. And there was the joy of discovering music that trafficked in the banal and sacrilegious and made it compulsively listenable. It was all I listened to for months, before I finally had enough money for Black Metal.
Welcome to Hell had the same effect on generations of young metal fans and musicians, from kids in America who started bands like Metallica to isolated teens in Norway who took metal to new extremes. There's been no album since then packed the same audible and visual wallop. The Satanic messages, embrace of drugs and murder, and gleeful endorsement of mayhem without mercy were audacious when compared with albums released the same year, like Raven's Rock Until You Drop or even stalwarts like Black Sabbath.
If Venom kick-started a musical revolution, they did it with little regard for style or skill. The timing on "Sons of Satan" is like a metronome running low on batteries. Yet there's an unrelenting push-pull to the song, a sense of imminent catastrophe. "Live Like An Angel", and "Red Light Fever", borrow liberally from Motörhead, and "1,000 Days in Sodom" survives clunky bass and guitar solos. "In League With Satan" was released earlier in 1981 as a single and led Tom Warrior and Paul Speckmann to pick up guitars. "Witching Hour" showcases one of Jeff Dunn's best riffs. It was covered by a very young Mayhem and closes Venom concerts three decades later.
There's a subversive beauty to Welcome To Hell. You know the songs are flawed and you don't care. If you put on this album, I wouldn't tell you about musical deficits. I'd ask you to play it again. Gut always rules in metal. And what could be a bigger gut punch than an album that boasted: "we are possessed by all that is evil"?
Musical revolutions are sloppy and incremental. Blues started with primitive field hollers. Rock took a winding road to its creative renaissance in the late '60s. It's appropriate that black metal – which today boasts orchestral elements -- started with something so primitive yet emotionally charged. Emotions – even the twin pillars of anger and angst that fuel Welcome To Hell – are a perennial source of the best music.
We don't know the exact day Welcome To Hell was released in December 1981 (some claim it was the 12th). Despite everything that has been revealed in the ensuing decades – the identity of the woman who chanted the prayer on the title track, the fact that the blasphemous messages were a big joke -- the record nevertheless retains some mystery. Welcome To Hell, an album cobbled together by three English misfits with rudimentary musical skills, is one of the few metal records that changed the world.
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