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Lightning Doesn’t Strike Twice: ‘A Calm Before The Storm’ Retrospective

Journalist Geoff Barton might not have foreseen the impact he would make when he coined the term NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal) in Sounds magazine. The words would become synonymous with a tidal wave of bands that emerged from the United Kingdom and ultimately change the genre forever. Leading the charge were Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Motorhead, Holocaust, Angel Witch, Diamond Head, Blitzkrieg, The Tigers of Pan Tang, Sampson, and a group formed in 1978 named Venom. The world was thrown on its axis when the group unleashed their 1981 full length, Welcome To Hell. While Black Sabbath had conjured up imagery of the devil and a world spiraling towards the apocalypse, Venom seemed to emerge from the jaws of Cerberus itself. Songs like “Witching Hour”, “In League With Satan”, and “In Nomine Sathanas” were all part and parcel to the groups use of satanic imagery that would go on to influence several groups that followed their example. They would follow this assault in 1982 with Black Metal, and subsequently plant the seeds for an entire subgenre in the process. For the trio of bassist Conrad “Cronos” Lant, guitarist Jeff “Mantas” Dunn and drummer Tony “Abaddon” Bray, it appeared that the world was ripe for conquest…

Fast-forward to 1987 and the release of the group’s fifth studio album, Calm Before the Storm. The first without Mantas on guitar and a departure in style from their previous material, to this day it remains a somewhat polarizing album. Just as the verse from the song “Black Metal” stated, Venom had “taken their chances with high energy.” It was a risk that had paid off on spades. Their blistering sound, which was a mixture of Motorhead, Judas Priest, and Punk, had secured their rightful place in history, not to mention millions of fans dubbed ‘the legions’. Calm Before The Storm is a more melodic effort, with lyrical content toned down from the normal subjects of Satan, sleaze, and genuine debauchery.

The story behind the storm really begins in 1985 with the Possessed album. Riding high off the success of both Welcome to Hell and Black Metal, Venom unleashed what was unquestionably their most ambitious project, At War With Satan. A concept album of sorts, its title track ran for almost 20 minutes. The group would later go on to admit this as a mistake, claiming, “Concept albums only work if you’re a concept band like Rush.” Possessed was a return to form, with Keith Nichol, producer of both Welcome to Hell and Black Metal returning for the recording sessions. While the aesthetic of low-fi production on a black metal release is just about as commonplace as someone using a BC Rich warlock, it’s one the best things that Possessed has going for it. Songs like “Powerdrive”, “Satanachist”, “Flytrap” and “Too Loud For The Crowd” thrive on the raw energy that’s reminiscent of their earlier releases. While the reaction to Possessed was mixed upon release, there’s no doubt that it left its mark, with the title track winding up on the infamous ‘Filthy Fifteen’ list of the PMRC. With 1986 drawing to a close, a new chapter in the bands history was about to be written.

In some alternate timeline, Calm Before the Storm might have never come to fruition. It’s because of an almost forgotten demo called Deadline that the groundwork for what was to become the album in question. Sometimes referred to as the Venom album that never was, it’s the ultimate scenario of what might had been. Aside from a live rendition of “The Chanting of the Priests” on the 1986 live album Eine Kleine Nachtmusic, it’s the only time one can hear Mantas playing the songs “Metal Punk”, “Black Xmas”, “Fire”, and “Calm Before The Storm.” Others tracks such as “Let Loose the Dog” and “A Bite Before Fire” show a group further developing their sound. History is full of scenarios that leave us wondering what might have happened, and Deadline is certainly one of them. It was during the recording sessions that Mantas and Venom parted ways. This could have been the end of the story. However, if Venom had showed the world anything before, it’s that they weren’t afraid of anything. This perseverance brought about new blood in the form of guitarists Mike “Mykus” Hickey and Jimmy “Jim C.” Claire. Hickey, who was living in Los Angeles at the time, was brought in specifically as an “American Shredder” to offset the British style of the group, and expand their sound further.

For a band that had hyped up satanic imagery, and penned lyrics that were soaked in evil and smut, Calm Before the Storm would be completely different. Even the album cover, depicting a bolt of lightning, seemed to be indicate the aspirations of a band still attempting to remain relevant in an ever-changing music world. Venom had captured lightning in a bottle before, and was determined to do so again. With Deadline serving as the foundation, the group went into Impulse studios in Wallsend to begin the task of recording. While the final mix would fall upon the shoulders of Nick Tauber, Keith Nichol would engineer rough mixes with Cronos serving as producer. According to Hickey, there was a fair amount of experimentation during these sessions, especially with the use of a drum machine and snare overdubs.

Calm Before The Storm kicks off with “Black Xmas.” While not on the same attention grabbing level as “Sons of Satan” or “Powerdrive”, it’s a proper introduction to the album. This is NEW Venom, more polished, with fuller guitar work due to the dual efforts of Hickey and Claire. “There was a healthy competition between Jim and I to outdo each other with crazy soloing.” Hickey recalled, describing the recording sessions. As the song fades out with a cacophony of studio banter and breaking beer bottles, the album continues with “The Chanting of the Priests.” Easily one of the best songs on the album, it shows Cronos moving past some of the old formulaic clichés of typical Venom material.

“Watch out –
There’s a cry from Atlantis
Takes the wind by surprise
Voices so demanding
Thunder swarms the skies
To the north of horizon
Over mountains at east
There’s a call to the lost ones
From the elders deceased”

Three songs in, and Venom come out swinging with “Metal Punk.” For a band that had been influenced by the anti-authoritarian movement, it seemed fitting that there was finally a song that depicted the sound Venom was striving for. Ironically, it would be Mayhem’s Deathcrush EP released the same year that would be more deserving of the title. Taking lessons from their heroes, Mayhem would take things further than Venom had, and at the same time take a stand against the cultural sensibilities of their native Norway. As Venom attempted to carve out a more commercial sound for themselves, their disciples were journeying further underground.

The commercialization of Venom’s sound is nowhere more evident then on the tracks “Under A Spell” and “Calm Before The Storm.” “Under a Spell” in particular is what I affectionately refer to as a ‘Siren’ song, a cautionary tale about a temptress out to seduce and humiliate a potential suitor. Other examples of this would be “Gypsy” by Dio and “Vice Versa” by Sampson. Venom of course had their own take on it with songs like “Poison.” Under A Spell is a tad tamer than former, which featured the verse “That dirty fucking bitch has got me…POISON!”

“But you can’t see behind the schemes
You thought you’d fell into a dream
You should have taken more care
Can’t you see your dreams?
They’re a nightmare”

“Calm Before the Storm” could have been a more powerful number. As the title track of an album meant to be a second coming, it should have had the raw power of “Possessed”, “Welcome To Hell”, or “Black Metal”—all title tracks that were exceptional. However, this one in particular, while showcasing some well executed melodic riffing, falls short of the mark. As with “Metal Punk”, “Fire” elevates the speed of the album into familiar territory. One of the thrashier songs on the album, and one that was originally recorded on Deadline, one can tell they’re listening to one of Mantas’ compositions, complete with a whammy bar dive. For all the power that “Fire” has behind it, I’d be lying if I said that “Krackin’ Up” and “Beauty and the Beast” didn’t derail the momentum that the previous song established. This is what I’ve always taken away from Calm Before The Storm—it’s a perfect example of an album having too many peaks and valleys and lacking the ability to keep a solid direction for a discernible amount of time. You’ll have two songs that swing for the fences, and then you’ll have a strong shift to a slower paced melodic number.

“Beauty and The Beast” in particular is somewhat of a two-sided coin. On its own, it’s a well-put together mid-paced number; on the other, it’s not a good Venom song. Cronos’ spoken word passages are distracting, and rob the song of any genuine atmosphere that existed on other slower numbers such as “Buried Alive” and “Manitou.” “Krackin’ Up” is best described as a sober version of “Angel Dust”, which sang the praises of amphetamine use. “Krackin’ Up”, which details the neverending struggles of hard work at perfecting your craft, (without the use of drugs, or at least lets hope not.) features the laughter inducing verse: ‘So you want to be a master blaster?”

As before, “Deadline” and “Gypsy” bring the albums full momentum back into focus. “Deadline” itself has the feel of a traditional Venom song, and as one of Mantas’ final contributions, it’s one of the high points of Calm Before The Storm and the Deadline demo. The quick pace is followed up on “Gypsy”, Abaddon’s work in particular, aided by additional drum programming, accents Clare and Hickey’s fast paced guitar work.

“Candles all around me
Mountains in the sky
This is the place where life’s a lie
Wakes in mortuary
Gasping in the air
Wind breathes her words
She’s not there.”

Because it wouldn’t be a Venom album without a little bit of sleaze thrown in for good measure, Calm Before The Storm concludes with “Muscle.” For an album that has its fair share of highs and lows, this is easily the lowest point, and not a solid conclusion. If you think back to Black Metal for example, “Don’t Burn The Witch” is such a strong anthem to go out on, complete with a preview on what lies upon the horizon. “Put some great white muscle in between your thighs” is hardly befitting of a final curtain drop on the introduction to a new phase of a bands career.

How does Calm Before The Storm fair overall as an album? That depends on your point of view. I believe the new lineup still needed some essential time to grow and mature. Considering it’s a mixed bag of the leftover songs from Deadline and new material written after Mantas’ departure, a second follow up would have been nice to have, and could have shown some vast improvement. However, it was not meant to be. The group embarked on a tour of Brazil in December of 1986. While it was the first time a foreign band had made an attempt to play major cities, the tour was cut short due to a promoter absconding with the bands money and leaving them to their own devices with getting home. Following that misfortune, the group would go to Japan in 1987 for three performances, and would soon begin writing for a new album. Internal conflict once again made its presence felt, and Abaddon and Cronos would have a falling out with one another. The frontman, accompanied by Hickey and Claire would embark on a solo album, entitled Dancing in the Fire, which featured much of the material written during this time.

As for Venom, they would re-emerge in 1989 with Mantas and Abbadon back in their respective positions, with Tony “Destruction Man” Dolan filling the vacant spot at bass and vocals. Prime Evil would not only be a remarkable return, but is still the group’s most underrated release. Although lightning didn’t strike twice for Venom in 1987, it will always remain as a statement of perseverance and ambition. My final thought on the whole ordeal is this: a band shot for the stars, and just barely missed. Which is more than I can say for someone not trying at all.

About Jerome Reuter

2 comments

  1. No drum machines where used on this album, electronic toms were however used again as on At War.

  2. “Possessed” is the last Venom album.

    Cronos * Mantas * Abaddon.

    [At War… title track = masterpiece]

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