Texas has a long history within the heavy underground, whether it’s ZZ Top casting a heavy Southern influence for the likes of Honky to take as gospel or Solitude Aeturnus reaching into the depths of doomed emotionality and emerging with one of the genre’s most formative approaches. Houston-based Venomous Maximus are a kind of one-band melting pot. On their 2011 12” EP, The Mission (Cutthroat Records), the double-guitar four-piece bring together old and new, brash and foreboding, to result in a stew that’s remarkably their own. From the cover art, one might expect something in league with the likes of Doomriders, and I suppose there’s a bit of that thrash to a song like side A’s “The Rider,” but the gallop in the riffs of Christian Larson and Gregg Higgins feels more culled from Iron Maiden via High on Fire, and Higgins’ vocals – often doubled – are more trad doom and harder to place specifically. It’s a nuanced blend across The Mission’s four component tracks – “The Mission,” “The Rider,” “The Gift” and “Wicked Ways” – and it might take a few listens for the full breadth to reveal itself, but the way the songs touch on and reference other bands’ works without ever being fully derivative of them justifies both time and effort.
Presented on a gorgeous purple platter, The Mission also comes with a CD version called MMIX-MMXI that includes Venomous Maximus’ two-song debut 7”, Give up the Witch/The Living Dead. Even so, the whole thing accounts for a little over 26 minutes and 17 of it belongs to The Mission proper, so it’s a quick listen and the band adhere to pretty straightforward metallic structures, making the songs accessible as well as fast. Stylistically new school in a kind of post-Mastodonic punk, the title-track launches with forward push on the upper end of mid-paced, like doom sped up and energized without losing sight of its bluesy base. The rhythm section of Trevi Biles (bass) and Bongo (drums; duh) do well behind Larson and Higgins’ guitars, setting a bed of groove for interjected leads and adding to the sometimes surprisingly darkened atmosphere. The artwork might be part of it, but something in Venomous Maximus feels darker than the music would be on its own otherwise. Higgins’ vocals play to it as well. He laughs in horrific and metallic triumph in “The Rider” and tops the solos with a drama that’s stylized without undercutting the seriousness of the music. His contributions in terms of singing – which still feel rudimentary in comparison to the potential they show for growth given subsequent studio experience – are the band’s closest tie to doom or traditional metal. While “The Gift” starts off with a bombast that reminds distinctly of Through the Eyes of Heathens-era Dozer, the verses don a different character entirely once the wind begins to blow in the first lines of the song. It’s Higgins’ best performance vocally, and probably the best cut on The Mission altogether, but still just a fraction of what Venomous Maximus seem to offer in terms of their creative range.
Rhode Island riffers Megasus come to mind as a modern comparison point, but Venomous Maximus — despite like-mindedly unabashed metal riffing — are somewhat less intense and more apt to lock in a heavy rock groove. The Mission closer “Wicked Ways” works well in that regard, capping the EP’s loose-but-not-uncontrolled feel with its most condensed, concise attack yet. A memorable chorus bodes well for songwriting to come, and a second-half build shows off some dynamics in the music, speaking to more than just killer soloing on the part of the band’s still burgeoning methods. On the CD, “Give up the Witch” and “The Living Dead” both prove more basic than The Mission’s material, and that’s a good sign too, since it means that in just a year, Venomous Maximus have undertaken some considerable growth. The process doesn’t feel ironed out yet, but that’s part of what makes these tracks exciting, and hopefully as the band explores further what they want to accomplish, they bring in elements that further enhance the atmosphere and classic horror mood. Either way, they’ve begun to nestle themselves into a niche that seems to fit them precisely, and that’s about the best beginning you can get. Given the sense of professionalism already shown with The Mission, it should be interesting to see how they capitalize on it. If they can strengthen some of these choruses and make the most of their structural capacity without sacrificing the energy present in these four songs – probably easier said than done, I know – Venomous Maximus could hit on an excellent balance of familiar and genre-defying, ultimately adding to their home state’s storied legacy of heavy. Recommended.Cutthroat Records, Houston, Texas, Venomous Maximus