A chat with the guitarist of Welsh death metallers Venom Prison, taken from Astral Noize Issue 5.
For the hardened, dyed-in-the-wool death metal aficionado, the sort of sonic violence that would have the average music lover clutching their crucifix and dousing themselves in holy water has long since become easy listening, making those genuinely thrilling, genuinely terrifying “HOLY FUCK!” moments few and far between. Samsara, the second LP from UK firebrands Venom Prison, is the sort of stonkingly intense and deliciously twisted experience that can pin even the most hardy of underground death-heads to the wall.
Espousing levels of pitiless brutality, enough to compete with battle-scarred veterans or the gnarliest of their new-school peers, the band’s zeitgeist-capturing rage taps into the genre’s immortal, unearthly horror whilst embarking on a thoroughly modern, patriarchy-slaying journey beyond the generally inescapable underground circles reserved for extreme metal.
In Astral Noize Issue 5, we talk to guitarist Ash Gray about the band’s crossover appeal, lyrical themes and much more. Here’s an extract on Ash’s origins in ’00s hardcore.
I’ve seen you describe the sound of VP as “organic” in other interviews, which is definitely recognisable. A lot of the time when we listen to death metal, it can sound quite clinical and precise, but for me, it’s those punky hardcore roots in VP with give it that edge. Wherever you play, you fit right in and are equally comfortable fucking up a tiny room with Renounced as you are with huge festival crowds. With the growing success of crossover acts generating new fans and interest, would you like to see more mixed bill shows, and more cohesion between different extreme music communities?
Yeah, definitely. Even going back a little bit before VP, my father always listened to metal and stuff which was my gateway to music. A little later, when I was in school there was a guy who was a little older than me who saw I had a camo Route One backpack on, and he came up to me and was like “Yo, do you listen to hardcore?”, and I was like “Yo what the fuck is that?” I must have been eleven or twelve and said “Okay, meet me at the gate at the end of school tomorrow,” and I did and he handed me a Hellfest 2002 DVD and said “Make sure you listen to all of this”, so I wound up getting into bands like Bleeding Through and Buried Alive, Walls of Jericho, No Warning etc. That’s how it all really started for me, and then [I got] into powerviolence and then grindcore and brutal death metal, but I was still into hardcore all along. That crossover has always been there for me, so I’ve never known any better, but I’ve never understood the metal/hardcore divide. Like, I’m not too clued up on deathcore, but if you put a hardcore band and a deathcore band on the same bill, they’re both playing heavy shit. People are moshing regardless, because it’s heavy. I think that’s the way we need to start utilising mixed bills, because if people want energy, it doesn’t really matter who you stick on it as long as they’re heavy, you know?
Similarly to you, I had someone who told me to listen to very heavy music at quite a young age, which pointed me towards death metal. I didn’t wind up getting into hardcore until I was around sixteen, though. I got put off by death metal for a while because of some elements of the culture; there seemed to be at once a counter-cultural ideology, at the same time upholding a lot of elements of the social status quo. There is a lot of homophobia, misogyny and violent ideation, and lots of men acting in toxic ways, spearheaded mainly by the lyrical content of (some of) the music. Something I like about VP is how this gets reclaimed; that wordy, visceral style of lyricism typical of death metal being used to explore issues of gendered violence is very refreshing. There is definitely something of a stigma surrounding challenging the toxic elements of the culture, particularly in death metal. Do you think that more acts engaging with progressive subject matter in this reclamatory manner could lead to more open dialogues regarding social and political issues within extreme music communities?
Yeah, I think bringing up these problems is important. You’ve always had bands, for example, Napalm Death, having a strong stance on a number of subjects, and I think it is about raising awareness. However, I do feel that no matter how much you try to do that, there will always been someone who’s like “Fuck these guys”. For me, that is okay. We’re not here to preach, we’re here to educate. If they say, “Fuck this, I can’t be bothered” then there is no point wasting more time on those people, they don’t want change and they’re not going to accept change. I was speaking to someone about it not long ago, who was asking “Do you think this is mainly in metal/death metal?” The more I stand back and look at it, it feels more like a global problem than a music problem. Look at all the shit with Harvey Weinstien and Brock Turner over the last few years. I think music creates a platform to stand on, which makes individuals more susceptible to being targeted for being outspoken on certain issues, and I don’t think that is likely to change, unfortunately. However, it doesn’t hurt to try to influence and educate along the way. When VP gets into writing songs, Larissa [Stupar, vocalist] will send me lyrics and I’ll key into what the topic is, and we’ll brainstorm the subject. A lot of the time, they are very much centred around social and humanitarian issues. ‘Uterine Industrialisation’, for example, grew from a podcast we listened to on tour about forced surrogacies. It was eye opening to hear the degree to which female bodily autonomy is manipulated and abused worldwide. To me, it definitely feels more like a global issue, rather than one which is specific to smaller, closed-circle communities.
I first saw you play in Brutality Will Prevail (BWP) years ago. One of the things which sticks in my mind about that era of UK hardcore is how big Purgatory Records was. You couldn’t go to a show without seeing a Purgz hoodie. You’ve mentioned in other interviews an interest in cultivating an image alongside your music. This is clear insofar as choosing the same artist for thematic album artwork, and while it’s quite different from Purgatory, the collusion of themes in your merch and artwork makes it seem like a “brand”, if you will. Do you feel this thematic consistency in VP’s image has had a positive impact on how you have been received?
Definitely. I’m really glad you picked up on that, actually. I think a lot of things people forget in bands, the mistake a lot of new bands make, is they do not find their image. When a band is starting up, writing a demo and finding their feet, they don’t think about everything around what they’ve written, and that imagery and aesthetic is something people really pick up on and connect with a lot more. Once that is missed, that branding never really catches its image. Just because you play in a band, you are still an artist. A lot of people play this down and think “Oh, I’m just playing guitar in a band.” You are still creating something, no matter how much you undermine yourself. I feel a lot of the time the fact that branding works with imagery and aesthetics gets overlooked. BWP followed the same thing. I learned a lot from that band, I was still in school when I was asked to join them. A lot of lessons of being in a band, I learned from BWP; what people were into and what they latched onto, etc. I think BWP was a prime example of how important it can be for people to connect to that branding.
For more on Venom Prison’s crossover appeal, lyrical themes and scene politics, pick up Issue 5 here.
Intro: Tony Bliss