What happens when a band becomes too good? This sounds like a cheeky euphemism, but it also describes a very real phenomenon found perhaps most notably to some listeners in the music of Between the Buried and Me. BTBAM has been a band of shifting fortunes even as their instrumental prowess has stayed almost constantly at the 10/10 upper atmosphere. While the group has managed to return to a place of songwriting execution over their past two records—Automata and Colors II—their nadir was driven not by a lack of ability but seemingly the urge to follow their fingers wherever they’d go, no matter the genre or style, without real consideration for how that might effect the emotional logic of the song they were currently playing.
Thankfully Venom Prison doesn’t approach BTBAM at their worst, but a shadow of this problem still remains. First, the good: You can’t approach this problem unless you are good, like really good, at quite a lot of styles. Venom Prison may have started life as a fairly straightforward death metal band that folded in elements of deathcore for added punch, but on Primeval and now Erebos the band has effloresced previously nascent elements of prog, shred, nu-metal, black metal and more into discrete and fully realized elements of their songwriting. Where before, we might have called the band a death metal band because the final gestalt of all of their elements certainly aligned more with that idiom than any other, this new record by the group feels less at home there and closer to something like nu-metal, more specifically the nu-metal that has emerged in the wake of Korn’s reconfiguration into progressive forerunners of the genre they once founded. Or, at least, this is the narrative as presented for this record. I find that argument slightly specious if only because it presumes that the nu-metal elements form a clear tonal center to the record where I find, unfortunately, almost the opposite occurs. The increased elements present seem not to add spice to a clearly conceived work but instead to destabilize and discohere it.
This sense of incoherence on the record is not one that emerges on a song-by-song by level but instead primarily on the macroscale of the album as a whole. Songs like “Pain of Oizys” and “Golden Apples of the Hesperides” are fascinating expansions of the band’s sonic capacities, featuring progressive balladry, cinematic and inventive arrangements that feel closer at times to Cult of Luna than to Undeath or another contemporary death metal group, and instrumental flourishes both in terms of electronics, piano and more that are a refreshing addition to their palette. When a bluesy and soulful guitar comes in on “Oizys” playing tasteful pentatonic licks, it feels sincerely catching, an earned sense of sonic diversity from a fantastically competent and skilled band. That these songs emerge on the same record as songs like “Gorgon Sisters” with its lightly symphonic melodic death metal should on paper be an indication of the broader vision this band has for themselves. As much as I deeply and dearly love the old-school death metal revival we have been privileged to witness for roughly a decade now, a fair criticism of that space would be a kind of sonic conservatism that sees many of its less inventive bands being happily iterative of an existing set of influences rather than strongly seeking to contribute or amount to more. Venom Prison to their great credit clearly has higher aspirations, not to mention a wider listening palette they draw from.
The issue with Erebos is not that its aim is unworthy or even that the band is lacking in terms of the ability to pull it off but instead simply that they just aren’t. This, thankfully, isn’t a sinking condemnation by any metric. The group’s sonic aim here, to be the progressive and polychromatic death metal equivalent of the sonic chameleonism present on other breakthrough acts like Code Orange, is an admirable one and one that feels only just out of grasp at the moment. It is, to put it simply, a matter of emotional continuance and logic, of making each new sonic texture or each new song feel like it either builds on or complicates gainfully that which came before. Independently, these songs are whirling dervishes and acrobats, remarkable feats of skill and vision from a band many of us would have considered had much humbler goals given early exceptional death metal records like the group’s own Samsara. As a whole, they sit awkwardly together, leave me scratching my head by the end of the record rather than awed. This almost certainly is in part for me due to my own resistance to certain strands of melodic death metal and nu-metal, thus feeling perhaps that the band is simply turning away from the sonic spaces they once explored that were decidedly much more in my wheelhouse regarding extreme metal. But part is also a sober appreciation that, while the aim of this record is noble and certainly achievable by the band, they aren’t quite there yet. We never achieve our ambitions if we don’t set out for them and by god if the band nails what they are shooting for here it will be incredible, like the most recent Slipknot record or again the shocking aesthetic rejuvenation Korn have undergone with their past two records including Requiem their newest. Hopefully we see Venom Prison continuing to push outward and hone this great capacity they seem to have.
Label: Century Media
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.