Guitar World sits down for an in-depth interviw with founding
Venom bassist Cronos to discuss the black history of his highly
1981 was a good year for metal. Iron Maiden’s Killers, Black Sabbath’s Mob Rules, Def Leppard’s High ’N’ Dry, Ozzy Osbourne’s Diary of a Madman: all quintessential, landmark albums in their own right, all indicative of where metal was at the dawn of the Eighties. The genre was still a few years away from poofy-haired MTV domination, but these and other releases, like Rush’s Moving Pictures, with their singalong choruses and hooky riffage, hinted at the overly commercialized direction metal was headed. And the hard rock community — bands and fans alike — certainly seemed content with this evolution. Except three lads from the north of England, that is.
Conrad Lant, Jeff Dunn, and Tony Bray — three strapping longhairs from Newcastle, England — envisioned a different future for metal, one that did away with all songwriting convention, broke all known speed records, and scared the bejesus out of people. And they accomplished just this in 1981 with the debut album from Venom, Welcome to Hell.
“Venom was unlike anything at the time,” says Lant, known to the Venom legions as the bass-playing warlord Cronos. “People credit us with starting a movement and all, but the truth is I think it was inevitable. Punk had died. Metal was lame. There could only be one new way to do this — for metal bands to get some fucking balls again.”
Welcome to Hell was an unholy cacophony of bass, guitar, and drums pounding away in unrelenting fury as if they were the soundtrack to the end of the world. To some it was pure noise, revolting in its aural stench…but to the metalheads of the world who had grown tired of neatly packaged songs like “Tom Sawyer” and “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak,” it was the sound of a revolution: the sound of extreme underground metal being born.
But there was more to Venom than three guys (Cronos, blonde guitarist Mantas [Dunn], and shades-wearing drummer Abaddon [Bray]) who quickly earned a reputation for not being able to play their instruments. There was something much more sinister at play here — and kids who bought Welcome to Hell immediately fell under the Venom spell, as the eyes of a goat-headed Satan stared back at them, telling them it was okay to come to the other side. Song titles like “Sons of Satan,” “In League with Satan,” and the title track solidified Welcome to Hell as the Dark Lord’s official coming out party, and in the process made Venom the world’s first Satanic metal band, an influence that can be heard in every Bathory, Possessed, Mayhem, and Emperor that followed Venom’s lead in the 25 years since.
And what we now know as “black metal” didn’t officially become that until a year later, when Venom unleashed its masterpiece, Black Metal. With Welcome to Hell Venom had started a musical mutiny — with Black Metal they unknowingly created a genre. “When people talk about Venom creating the whole black metal thing, it does make me proud,” says Cronos. “It’s a humbling thing for me because I’m a fan of this music. And we love it that all these bands were influenced by us, but it’s even better when bands do their own thing with it. Like Pantera and Slipknot — both bands took what we did and took it down another road and turned it into something else.”
Despite the profound influence the band would have on those that came after, the truth is that Venom were never able to recapture the (black) magic of Welcome to Hell and Black Metal. Subsequent albums like 1983’s At War with Satan and 1985’s Possessed had their moments, but ultimately fell short of what the band had accomplished with the first two records — and things quickly worsened from there. The seemingly unbreakable trinity of Cronos, Mantas, and Abaddon eventually crumbled, with Mantas and Abaddon hijacking the Venom name one minute, and Cronos wrestling it back the next for his own reincarnation of the group. A reunion of the original three ensued in 1993, and by 1995 the pioneers of black metal had again gone their separate ways.
A quarter century since bursting forth from the gates of hell like a pack of wild dogs, Venom soldiers on. The band recently issued the comprehensive four-CD box set MMV (Castle/Sanctuary), which chronicles the group’s entire history and features many never before heard demos, outtakes, and rarities. In March, the current Venom lineup of Cronos, guitarist Mike Hickey (who first appeared on 1998’s Cast in Stone), and Cronos’ brother Antony Lant on drums will unveil a new album, one that Cronos feels is the perfect bookend to the Black Metal days. Appropriately, it will be called Metal Black.
“I wanted to recapture that energy of the early Venom records. I wanted all three of us in the room playing like we were playing live — like, if you wanted to drop to your knees to play a guitar solo, go for it, and don’t worry about making mistakes. I wanted everybody to get into the spirit, and I think we came up with an album that’s got all the piss and shit and snot of the early Venom records.”
GUITAR WORLD Much has been written about Venom’s impact over the years, but little has been said about your life. You were born in London, correct?
CRONOS Yeah, but we moved up north because all these family members were dying of old age and things, and me parents thought it would be better to stay up north and be with the family. It just seemed like a whole load of family just dropped like flies at one point.
GW Is that where you were discovered music?
CRONOS There was always a lot of music in the home and instruments all around. My uncle played in a bluegrass band, and my two brothers and sister and me would always bash about on instruments and make some noise and have a laugh. My parents, who are in their Seventies now and are still together, weren’t necessarily musical, but they always encouraged us to play. And I knew I was doing right by my music when I found out that my parents hated it. [laughs]
GW Did you take music lessons at any point?
CRONOS Yeah, but I just wanted to throw that rulebook out the window. After I left school I started working in a recording studio, and I would see all these new bands coming in who thought they were different, but to me they were just younger versions of Judas Priest or Saxon or Iron Maiden. I just didn’t see any originality in these bands, and I wanted my band to be unlike anything else around — which is exactly what Venom was.
GW Venom’s sound on Welcome to Hell and Black Metal was very much metal, but there was also an obvious punk influence.
CRONOS Oh yeah, I was a big fan of punk at the time — to me, there was nothing else like it, and seeing the Sex Pistols for the first time was just one of greatest things for me. And it wasn’t about some guy being technically correct with his fingerwork — it was more about creating a vibe and an atmosphere and making a connection with the crowd, like the band and crowd were one big gang. Which is something I definitely wanted Venom to be.
We always used to say that Venom was all of our favorite bands thrown into a pot and mixed up — the stage show of Kiss, the lyrics of Sabbath, the speed of Motorhead, the look of Judas Priest. Trying to use as many influences as we could to make the ultimate metal band, but also being original.
GW Lets talk about Venom’s lyrics and image. To say Venom embraced the dark side of life would be an understatement.
CRONOS I’ve been interested in death ever since we moved up north when I was a kid. My mother always insisted that we go and say goodbye to our relatives who died, which meant going to see them in the coffin and giving them a kiss goodbye. So death was all around us growing up, and I’ve always been interested in the subject.
Lyrically, I loved the whole horror thing and was a big fan of Sabbath, but I always felt that Ozzy stopped at a certain line and wouldn’t cross it — but I wanted to cross that line and scare the fuck out of people.
In the early days of Venom I would look at kids in the crowd as if to say ‘You can do this — you can get on this stage and do this.’ And what I’m saying with the lyrics is, ‘You can have your own life. You can do what you want. Don’t just be a sheep and follow along with what everybody does.’ It’s all about empowering yourself.
GW What are your views on religion? Did you come from a family of church goers?
CRONOS No, not at all — we weren’t even Christened. My philosophy is this: you’re born and one day you’re in a box, and what you do in between is your own choice. And to live by a dogma that tells you that you can’t do this and you can’t do that is one of the most absurd things I’ve ever heard. After you’ve gotten out of school you’re supposed to have learned everything you need to know to get on in life, so what the fuck do you need religion for? You should be your own boss.
GW Did Mantas and Abaddon share that sentiment outside of the band?
CRONOS To me, Mantas and Abaddon were just living the image in Venom. I mean, these are guys who would always use what would be considered blasphemous phrases like ‘Jesus Christ!’ and ‘Fucking Hell!’ and they’d be wearing crucifixes around their necks — that’s hypocrisy to me. I remember once Abaddon went on some TV show in England and the guy asked him if he was a Satanist, and when he said yes, the guy interrogated him and Abaddon fell flat because he couldn’t answer any of the questions.
GW Venom’s third album, 1983’s At War with Satan, was a concept album that featured a sprawling 20-minute song as Side A. Was that album an attempt to broaden the band’s perception?
CRONOS No, it was just me being a huge Rush fan and wanting to do something like 2112. [laughs] I had been writing this story called “At War with Satan” back in school, and it basically tells the story of how Hell revolts and takes over the heavens and throws God into Hell and whatnot. And by the time the third album came around I had all these cassettes with all this music I had been writing. So when I started writing “At War with Satan,” I knew that I didn’t have to go verse-verse-chorus, etc., but that I could go riff to riff to riff to riff without the song repeating itself.
GW How did the metal community respond to it?
CRONOS Oh, people didn’t get it. It freaked everybody out—they were like, “where’s the three-minute track?” Looking back on it, I do feel that concept albums are suicide for a band unless you’re a concept band like Rush.
GW Your 1985 album, Possessed, was obviously a response to people’s reaction to At War with Satan — a more traditional Venom album, if slightly off the mark.
CRONOS Unrehearsed bollocks was what that album was. It was around the time that Mantas was just, like, staring at the wall — his heart wasn’t in it anymore. He wasn’t even talking — he was just lost, his mind was on other things. And when he didn’t show up for rehearsals, me and Abaddon had to rehearse all the songs alone. When it came time to record, I just felt that the songs were so stale. None of the songs had found the right speed or integrity or intensity. That’s one of the reasons why I rehearse my stuff — because a song needs to find itself.
GW Also in 1985, you toured with Slayer and Exodus in the U.S. The New York City concert was filmed and released as a home video called The Ultimate Revenge, a now out of print VHS tape that was many fans’ introduction to these three seminal bands in a live setting. Why is the Venom performance on that video from a U.K. performance instead of the night The Ultimate Revenge was shot?
CRONOS We were sitting backstage at Studio 54 in New York City, and all of a sudden the video guys from Combat Records came back and said how they were planning to shoot the show. And we asked them to see a contract, and they were like “What contract?” “The contract where we get paid,” we said. They just hemmed and hawed and said they had the right to film the band, and no one seemed to have the balls to be able to stop them, so I took an axe off the wall that was next to a fire extinguisher and severed their cables right before we went on. So they couldn’t film us. It was amazing to me that these guys were all prepared to film us, to have Venom footage that no one else would have and would sell it for the next 20 or 30 years, and yet they weren’t in way going to make a deal with us. One of the things we found out early on was that, in this business, if you let somebody rip you off, then it’s a free for all. And you just didn’t do that to Venom.
GW You’ve spoken out about the 1993 “Norwegian black metal” murder of Mayhem’s Aarseth by Burzum’s Count Grishnackh — an incident that saw Venom’s name back in the press being cited as an influence on these bands and the various murders, suicides, and church burnings that brought their scene worldwide attention.
CRONOS Look, civilized creatures on this planet who have all gone to school and learned about society should know the difference between burning churches and fantasy. We are entertainers first and foremost — if I wanted to be a murderer or a Satanist, I’d do that full time instead of playing songs for a living. And if the guy in Norway wants to blame Venom for what he did, that’s entirely up to him — but I think he should blame himself.
GW It must make you proud when you think about how black metal is still thriving today — still going strong from what you, Mantas and Abaddon created 25 years ago.
CRONOS It’s a massive scene now, and I really enjoy it. It’s always nice to hear that we came up with the phrase “black metal,” but I get a lot more pride from seeing just how much metal is out there now. I mean, a long time ago I had an idea for a band, and I thought that idea was only mine and the two guys I was with. But when I realized that there are so many millions of people around the world who also like that style of music, well, that’s just the most amazing thing in the world to me.