The sound that Houston-based four-piece Venomous Maximus capture on their Beg upon the Light full-length debut is a Frankenstein’s monster of influence. Here and there, one gets flashes of NWOBHM gallop in the guitars of Gregg Higgins and Christian Larson, that, combined with Higgins’ trad metal vocal style brings to mind a modernized version of Pagan Altar or some such cult curio. Theirs is heavy metal thunder, no doubt about it, and while some of the “occult” elements on Beg upon the Light (out, by no coincidence, on Occulture Records) feel like a put-on, there’s a genuine sense of atmosphere underlying the dudely thrust and all the talk of witches and “What name is this carved in my body?” The record is dark, as one might expect from its name, the band’s name (though it actually comes from G.I. Joe), the artwork, the song titles, etc., but also accessible musically in a way that reminds a bit of the horror rock that the Misfits once made seem so dangerous even though it was essentially pop songwriting sped up. Venomous Maximus’ prior EP, the self-released The Mission (review here), was by no means rudimentary, but one gets a clear sense of development in listening to Beg upon the Light, whether it’s the guitars, vocals, the bass work of Trevi Biles or the drumming of Bongo Brungardt, whose grounding effect seems at points to be the roots from which the album’s memorable hooks spring. Higgins proves a strong vocalist as the intro “Funeral Queen” gives way to “Path of Doom,” his approach straddling the line between semi-spoken and dramatic heavy goth metal wailing. They take elements from the genre, but more than they’re doom or singularly anything else, Venomous Maximus are a metal band, and these songs bear that out. With crisp production and flourishes of organ on “Funeral Queen” – it’s the first thing you hear on the album – and the soon to follow interlude “Father Time,” which also boasts spoken word vocals and acoustic guitar – violin on closing duo “Mother’s Milk” and “Hell’s Heroes” and a rich variety of vocal arrangements – a few guest spots persist there as well – the album never veers close to redundancy of method, and yet there’s a pervasive sense of cohesion throughout, heard as early as “Give up the Witch” follows from “Path of Doom” that underscores the professionalism at work throughout these tracks.
“Give up the Witch” is a highlight, and also likely among the oldest material here included, since Venomous Maximus made their debut with a 7” single of the same name. Still, if it has wear and tear for the band having trudged it through the last couple years since they got together, it doesn’t show. One of the strongest hooks plus one of the strongest riffs equals one of the strongest songs – it’s a pretty easy formula. Higgins lets out a couple screams as he backs himself on vocals, and the guitars behind showcase a touch of the extreme as well. More than enough to qualify as dangerous. Yet an overlying groove remains, and in that, “Give up the Witch” does even more of the work in setting a course for what follows than did the opener. Larson and Higgins bust out classic riff after classic riff, so that you’re through “Father Time” – curious to place your interlude two tracks after your intro, but it works in the overall context – and into “Dream Again (Hellenbach)” and the ensuing “Moonchild” (not a King Crimson cover, though part of me hoped for a dramatic reinterpretation) in the center of Beg upon the Light before you even realize the considerable amount of momentum the band has amassed. With 10 tracks and a runtime just under 46 minutes, the album is right in line with what one commonly thinks of as “full-length,” but it moves remarkably quick from one cut to the next, keeping a strong flow while not sacrificing a sense of the songs as individual pieces. “Dream Again (Hellenbach)” culminates with well-mixed interplay between the two guitars and formidable thud from Brungardt, and when Higgins says, “Everybody,” urging an imagined crowd to join him on the final chorus, it’s emblematic of the accessibility at the root of what Venomous Maximus are doing. There’s an audience for this kind of metal, they know it, and that’s who they’re reaching out toward. The push continues on “Moonchild,” which features guest spoken vocals, more strong screaming, and the begging question, “Why did the gods have to make us this way?” backed by mounting chants in the bridge, offering one of the most dramatic moments of the album.
To contrast, “Battle for the Cross” is classic metal front to back, from the tension in Brungardt’s initial bass-drum stomp, to the war-ready chug of its central riff, to its vaguely anti-Christian thematic. The methodology is similar in the stop-and-say-the-title chorus to that of “Give up the Witch,” but also effective. But for the closer, which just tops seven minutes, “Battle for the Cross” is the longest track at 5:52, but they use that time well, opening up to riff-led largesse with an epic feel well suited to the lyrics. Their eponymous song follows with a siren sound and somewhat less immediate impact. Bands only ever get one named after them, but as Venomous Maximus’ “Venomous Maximus” unfolds, its rush feels among the more punkish moments on Beg upon the Light, drawing a line between that and the early metallic shuffle as Higgins gives a rousing, multi-layered vocal, joined by samples and a guest spot. Turning left after what’s a well-structured if underwhelming cut, “Mother’s Milk” starts out in a similar vein to the interlude “Father Time” (appropriate enough for the two to complement each other), but ultimately proves more substantial, Higgins giving a brief couple verses over the acoustic guitar and violin, sounding a bit like Myke Hideous on the second The Bronx Casket Co. record, if you’ll pardon the East Coast reference, before the song fades to far-off horror-movie shrieks and sampled rain, in turn making way for the immediately anthemic-feeling finale of “Hell’s Heroes.” Biles’ bass, which has been understated for more or less the duration of the album, shows up in force on the closer, running alongside and then veering around the guitar lines skillfully, and Brungardt’s toms are suitably massive as well. Horses whinny before a build, laughter mounts, and then a witching first verse begins. The chorus picks up the pace somewhat, and they trade back and forth in a final show of dynamic, and even if there aren’t any last-minute surprises from “Hell’s Heroes,” it combines well the elements at play across the rest of the album and gives a fitting summation of the performance side of what Venomous Maximus do stylistically, because at their base, these songs feel written to be played live, headbanged to, and brought to life through speaker cabinets rather than headphones or a stereo. That’s not to say they lack presence – anything but – just that between Higgins acknowledging the crowd and the well-arranged touches, samples, a vocal twist, guitar lead, bass fill, etc., meant to hold the listener’s attention, audience is pretty clearly a factor in Venomous Maximus’ process. Since Beg upon the Light has the effect of making me want to see the band live, I can only judge it to be a success.Beg upon the Light, Houston, Occulture Records, Texas, Venomous Maximus, Venomous Maximus Beg upon the Light