Justify Your Shitty Taste: Venom’s “Possessed”

Almost every band has that album: you know, the critically and/or commercially reviled dud in an otherwise passable-to-radical back catalog. Well, every Wednesday morning, a Decibel staffer or special guest will take to the Deciblog to bitch and moan at length as to why everybody’s full of shit and said dud is, in fact, The Shit. Today, one of our more convincing and thorough Justifiers, Greg Moffitt, makes his case for Venom’s Possessed.
Although recorded by the classic lineup that gave the world Welcome to Hell, Black Metal and At War With Satan, Venom’s fourth album is often casually disregarded. Released on April 1, 1985 and featuring 13 tracks (that’s a joke and some bad luck right there), Possessed has been, I believe, unfairly segregated from its predecessors. I’m going to argue that not only is it ill-deserving of its role as runt of the diabolical litter, Possessed is actually the last great album Venom ever made. Later efforts such as 1989’s Prime Evil and 1997’s Cast in Stone (a one–off reunion of the original lineup) certainly have their fans, but, crucially, Possessed is, erm, possessed of the self-same spirit and drive as the band’s first three records. Venom was a toxic and dangerously unstable chemical cocktail guaranteed to explode; it was just a question of when. They fought with the media, they fought with their label and, in the end, they fought with themselves. Possessed is the sound of Venom going supernova and burning out. I had a front row ticket and, believe me, it was a hell of a show.

pos cover

Although internal tensions were on the rise throughout 1984 and ’85, there were few outward signs that Venom were about to come off the rails or even slow down. 1985 was a busy year, which, besides Possessed, saw the release of non-album single “Nightmare” and the Hell at Hammersmith EP, as well as the videos Hell at Hammersmith and Video Nightmare. The band also embarked on their biggest ever tour, dubbed the World Possession tour, which took them to Canada, the U.S. and most of Western Europe supported variously by Slayer, Exodus and others. They even found time to record a four-track session for the BBC’s Friday Rock Show. Possessed itself enjoyed a substantial promotional push, and somehow managed to sneak into the U.K. top 100 album chart at position 99. In 1985, Venom were bigger and brasher than ever, and Possessed was the sound of champagne corks popping on the deck of the Titanic. Everyone was too drunk to notice the iceberg.

So, if I view Possessed as a hedonistic and beguiling last hurrah for a trio of coarse, combustible and thoroughly obnoxious yobs from England’s industrial North (think Detroit on a bad day), why does it still suffer such a woeful reputation? For me there are two things. Firstly, Venom’s “relationship” with the press, such that it was, had plunged to an all-time nadir come 1985. They’d never seen eye to eye with the largely London-centered media, but the reviews for Possessed seemed to unleash years of pent-up vitriol, amazing in itself given the dismal notices previous releases had received. Even Kerrang! scribe Geoff Barton, a longtime Venom supporter, awarded Possessed a solitary “K” out of a possible five, cursing the album as “execrable.” Thus, as with many other entries in this series, history judges Possessed to be worthless garbage because some people said it was so. People whose opinion, in the pre-Internet age, actually mattered.

venom dudez

The second, and in fact central, issue with Possessed is its production. Or, as the old adage goes, the lack of it, and I’ll be the first to admit that it doesn’t sound all that great. If you haven’t heard the album, you may well be thinking, “Come on man, all Venom’s stuff sounds like shit!” and that it’s all part of the charm. Well, not quite. With Possessed, Venom ventured outside of Impulse Studios (Neat Records’ in-house facility) for the first time. It seems likely that with both band and regular producer Keith Nichol—a guy with a decidedly patchy résumé—cast out of their cozy comfort zone, the wheels simply came off the cart. Traveling south to Moorhall in Sussex and recording on the famous Manor Mobile, the party subsequently returned to Impulse for mixing. Listening to the finished album, although the drums sound pretty good, the bass is in critical need of a boost and the guitar seriously lacks power. It’s obvious, however, that no amount of tinkering or application of Keith’s beloved reverb could fix what were simply poor source recordings. Had Neat not been a cowboy operation mainly interested in money, Possessed might well have been re-recorded. But as axeman Mantas has told yours truly more than once, Venom didn’t plan anything; they just showed up, plugged in and went nuts. When I listen to Possessed, that’s what I hear.

We’ve established that my passion for Possessed does not stem from either its production or the tumultuous times from which it came. We’ve also established that I just cannot view this album as somehow separate from the first three. I was heavily into the band from the get-go, so when Possessed rolled around, it was simply the next Venom album. Yes, the guitar sounds kinda crappy, but crank that mother up to unsafe levels and it all just bleeds into one big Satanic racket. Job done. You may be surprised to learn that much of the material on Possessed was written before the release of At War With Satan. Having attempted to prove themselves as “serious” musicians with At War—and gotten a critical drubbing for their efforts—the band were keen to get back to basics. What better way to return to their roots than with a stack of unused songs from their glory days?

7inch venom

Opening with the pummeling “Powerdrive” (Abaddon the human metronome—not!), Possessed is a collection of short, sharp shocks characterized by bristling energy and dark, disarming melody. It’s a rollercoaster ride, each track attacking before spinning wildly around and slamming headlong into the next. Math isn’t my strong suit, but I’ve probably played Possessed as often as any other Venom album, even Black Metal, and unlike the band’s most celebrated work, I never skip any of the songs. This isn’t to suggest that Possessed is uniformly brilliant—Venom, like most bands, just don’t make albums that way—but each track has something brilliant about it, even fleetingly. The pretty little guitar solos in “Flytrap” and “Suffer Not the Children,” the intriguing visual imagery of “Harmony Dies” (Unveil the hysterskies, when dogs of war can fly), the inspired introduction to the title track—this is a restlessly inventive and interesting album. Elsewhere, Possessed offers up several of my all-time favorite Venom tunes: “Satanachist,” “Burn This Place to the Ground” and the Eastern-flavored “Mystique” which also happens to feature Mantas’ best ever solo (begins 3:51). And, of course, closing number “Too Loud (for the Crowd)” immediately became the opening number on the World Possession tour. Even at their most prosaic (“Moonshine”) and puerile (“Voyeur”), Possessed’s songs fizz and flow, and find their place on the last will and testament of what may well turn out to be the most important heavy metal band ever to enter my life.

So, Venom went on tour with Slayer and got their asses handed to them. So, Mantas, at the end of his tether, then departed amid bitter acrimony. So, the world turned and metal moved on and Venom never recovered. So what? You either get Possessed or you don’t; it’s one of those albums. But the moment that 12-inch slab of royal blue vinyl dropped onto my long-suffering turntable, I was hooked. Maybe you’ll get Possessed too—the last great Venom album, not the least.

1. “Powerdrive”
2. “Flytrap”
3. “Satanachist”
4. “Burn This Place to the Ground”
5. “Harmony Dies”
6. “Possessed”
7. “Hellchild”
8. “Moonshine”
9. “Wing and a Prayer”
10. “Suffer Not the Children”
11. “Voyeur”
12. “Mystique”
13. “Too Loud (for the Crowd)”