Venom Prison: “The whole ‘aggressive, nonstop assault of riffs’ approach isn’t really a thing on Erebos – this album is about the songs”

Venom Prison
(Image credit: Jake Owens)

While Greek mythology considers Erebos the personification of darkness, the sonics of Venom Prison’s new album of the same name aren’t exclusively inky. 

Don’t worry, though, the Welsh quintet still crush as brutally as they did on 2019’s much-lauded Samsara – Erebos's lead single, Judges of the Underworld, cements guitarists Ash Gray and Ben Thomas as both dive-heavy death-metal devotees and discordant, body-bruising djent tacticians.

Vocalist Larissa Stupar likewise keeps things thematically heavy by musing on the cyclical failures of the prison system (Judges of the Underworld) or the effects of PTSD (Pain of Oizys). 

The latter, however, is also the band’s most experimental, and outwardly beautiful piece yet, putting a focus on clean-sung vocals, atmospheric piano motifs, and Thomas’s blues-pressed solo – at least until the full band chugs it up in the back-end. 

Later, on Comfort of Complicity, the guitarists sound downright jubilant as they trade off on a series of major-key licks, a first according to Thomas.

The experimentation of Erebos could be a by-product of Venom Prison taking their time while making the album, the pandemic playing some part in the two-year journey.

On the other hand, Gray notes that the jarring immediacy of Judges of The Underworld was “smashed out” in an afternoon. “That doesn’t happen very often,” Gray surmises. “I will always be grateful to Judges of the Underworld for being the easiest song we’ve ever written.”

Speaking with Guitar World, Gray and Thomas further got into Venom Prison’s sound-expanding Erebos, learning to lean off the gain, and the pros of not telegraphing your sickest mosh moments.

After making 2020’s Primeval – an exercise in reworking some of your earliest material – were there any goals at the outset of these writing sessions, in terms of where you wanted to take Venom Prison next?

Ash Gray: “Naturally we don’t want to do the same record twice; we always want to challenge things to make sure that we’re not flatlining creatively as a band. I believe in longevity, and I believe the only way we can really do that is by constantly finding ways to improve.”

Ben Thomas: “If we did have a goal as such – and I think Ash would agree with me – it’s that we wanted to write good songs. We didn’t just want to have heavy riff after heavy riff. 

Samsara was very much a massive jigsaw puzzle of extreme riffs and ideas, but perhaps on reflection it could’ve been structured a bit more cleverly. With Erebos, we wanted to refine it in such a way that they were good songs [that] were memorable for the listener.”

Erebos's second single, Pain of Oizys, is a subtler piece for the band. Ash, you’d previously noted that the track that had gone through a number of changes. How did you mold the song before arriving at the end result?

Heavy metal is a genre very restricted by the instrumentation

Ben Thomas

Gray: “Ben had showed me a project that he had been working on for his own personal use. He showed me something that was really cool and I was like, ‘Why isn’t that in a [Venom Prison] song?’”

Thomas: “I didn’t want to push it on the rest of the band, to be completely honest. As everyone has commented on YouTube and other places, it is quite different than the typical thing Venom Prison does. I think in its original form it probably wouldn’t have worked, because it was very ambient and soundscape-y – I’d been listening to a lot of Nils Frahm, modern classical stuff. 

“It wouldn’t have really worked for obvious reasons, but we tried to blend that with the crunch guitar. It took quite a few goes, didn’t it, Ash?”

Gray: “I was going to say, that chorus on Pain of Oizys – when it builds up to the crunch guitar – that lead line was originally in a black metal-style song [of ours].”

Thomas: “Yeah, it sounded like a French metal band from the mid-‘00s, something like that.”

Gray: “Even [before] Pain of Oizys started to take its full form, it never felt like it wasn’t a Venom Prison song. It may be different in that the gain is down on the amps, but when you really break it down, it still is a very Venom Prison kind of song – the way it builds up; that big tension building towards an explosion.”

Thomas: “I think the problem is, if you think about heavy metal as just guitars – I mean, it’s a genre very restricted by the instrumentation – it’s hard to break out of that. But I disagree with that approach.”

Maybe this is speaking to the song’s initial ambient direction, but Ben, you create a lot of space with the solo on Pain Of Oizys. There’s a bluesier, David Gilmour kind of vibe to those open bends…

Thomas: “I’m not the most technically shreddy, proficient player… That’s not my strength. I’ve always felt like the best lead lines are melodies that move me. I wanted to throw a bit of that into it, and I was also really just trying to step back and let the piano ring through. 

“Influence-wise, if you look at an extreme band like Between the Buried and Me’s early stuff, some of their most memorable passages are when they’re on the clean channel. Paul Waggoner has this awesome style where he’ll just step back, and the lead will be a bluesy guitar thing. Perhaps, subconsciously, that’s what’s influenced me.”

The whole point of Erebos was to branch out and explore new avenues, to not be afraid of what we were writing. I think that makes Erebos the most honest record we’ve done to date

Ash Gray

On the other side of that, a piece like Erebos's Comfort of Complicity has the two of you dramatically weaving around each other’s lead lines…

Gray: “I know what section you’re talking about – that was a fucking nightmare [laughs].”

Let’s get into that – it’s a part that sings, but was it tricky to lock into?

Gray: “No, it was really fun. We’ve always done things like that. On Samsara, towards the end of Naraka, it has that twin lead where we’re bouncing off each other. Same thing on [2016 full-length] Animus's Womb Forced Animus, [it] kind of has that back-and-forth lead as well. This was definitely a way bigger version of it, though.”

Thomas: “It’s also the first time that it’s been in a major key.”

How did that change the vibe?

Thomas: “At first I wasn’t so sure, like, ‘does this work? Is this us?’ But if it’s written by us, it’s us! It was ok to sound uplifting – if that’s the mood, that’s fine.”

Gray: “The whole point of Erebos was to branch out and explore new avenues, to not be afraid of what we were writing. I think that makes Erebos the most honest record we’ve done to date.”

[L-R] Ash Gray and Ben Thomas of Venom Prison

(Image credit: Larissa Stupar)

This is a bit of a ham-fisted segue, but in light of taking yourself in new directions, or even that the last song on the album is called Technologies of Death, were there any new gear discoveries through the sessions?

Thomas: “I know this is a guitar interview, but gear-wise I think there was more exploration with the keys and synths. When we first started the band, though, we were constantly changing pedals.

“I think now we’re at the point where we’ve found our sound and the gear that works. I was going to say [we added] a DigiTech Whammy – that’s [on] the whole chorus line on Pain of Oizys – but there was Whammy on the first EP [2015’s The Primal Chaos].”

Rolling off the gain was groundbreaking. We’ve definitely been guilty of having far too much on there in the past, but then again, the whole point of those other records was to be more abrasive

Ben Thomas

Gray: “I think less is more in some circumstances. Everyone always tries to overcompensate with a million overdrive pedals, but I’ve gotten to that point where I’ve found the pickups I like, I’ve found the overdrive I like, and there just isn’t much more to the sound other than dialing into your amp and not dragging your gain to 10, which I’ve learned over time.”

Thomas: “Rolling off the gain was groundbreaking. We’ve definitely been guilty of having far too much on there [in the past], but then again, the whole point of those other records was to be more abrasive.”

Gray: “We tried a bunch of different guitars, but ultimately I think Scott [Atkins, Erebos producer] was sold on me using the [Jackson] King V; Ben had his Charvel [an early 2000’s USA-built San Dimas with Seymour Duncan Jazz and JB pickups, and a vintage brass bridge].”

Thomas: “The biggest difference between your studio sound and mine – if we’re really breaking it down, because we use the same amp and same pickups – is that I use a bolt-on maple neck with the Charvel, and you use the neck-through. You’ve always had that warmer sound; I’ve always had that twangier bolt-on sound.”

What was the amp you were sharing, then?

Thomas: “It was the EVH 5150III, a 100-watt one.”

Gray: “I was using the EL34 live, but after the recording session I ended up going to 6L6. We were using the EL34 cab with the 6L6 head.”

Thomas: “For the cleans [though] we had a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe. I used to have one years ago but I had sold it to pay rent. I was gutted that I had to sell it, so it was nice to [use] that.”

Ash, in another interview you mentioned that you wanted to “leave some of the gimmicks behind” with this record. This is a question for both of you, but in terms of your playing on Erebos, what kind of things had you wanted to pivot away from?

Gray: “I think that was more [about] leaving behind how we were [previously] trying to make the heaviest, most frantic stuff we could. We were always more concerned with how it would translate live.”

Thomas:Samsara was like flexing for the sake of it sometimes, which is a bit gimmicky. There are some really cool records there that can almost sound like a music theory text sheet – It’s pretty spectacular stuff, but is that really going to move you? I think what you meant, Ash, was avoiding clichéd things like that.”

Everything [used to be] about how it would translate live. Were we the heaviest band? Did we have the most active sections to keep everyone jumping around and moshing?

Ash Gray

Gray: “Everything [used to be] about how it would translate live. Were we the heaviest band? Did we have the most active sections to keep everyone jumping around and moshing? [After a while] I realized that doesn’t matter; writing a good song is what matters. 

“The whole ‘aggressive, nonstop assault of riffs’ [approach] isn’t really a thing on Erebos. I mean, it has those moments because we know how to incorporate that into Venom Prison, but overall it’s about the songs.”

This feels almost reductive to ask now, but could you get into arguably the heaviest moment on the album, this filthy, juddering breakdown on Gorgon Sisters

Gray: “That’s definitely a moment [laughs]. The beauty of that, going back to my last answer, is that bit comes out of nowhere. By no means are you expecting that. It’s the heaviest moment because it’s not forced on you. It’s at an almost random part on the record. It doesn’t have that buildup, this whole bit where the listener goes, ‘Oh, there’s definitely a heavy part coming’. Then all of a sudden it just drops and you’re like “Oh my lord…” [laughs]. 

“We’re being more sparing with those type of things [now], giving them more of a moment [rather] than overusing it.”

  • Venom Prison's new album Erebos arrives February 4 via Century Media Records.

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Gregory Adams

Gregory Adams is a Vancouver-based arts reporter. From metal legends to emerging pop icons to the best of the basement circuit, he’s interviewed musicians across countless genres for nearly two decades, most recently with Guitar World, Bass Player, Revolver, and more – as well as through his independent newsletter, Gut Feeling. This all still blows his mind. He’s a guitar player, generally bouncing hardcore riffs off his ’52 Tele reissue and a dinged-up SG.