Natives of Houston, Texas’ well-populated heavy underground, the dual-guitar four-piece Venomous Maximus distinguished themselves early into their run with their first two EPs, 2010’s Give up the Witch and 2011’s The Mission (review here). Their subsequent debut full-length, 2012’s Beg upon the Light (review here), built upon the momentum they’d gleaned through touring and the response to their shorter offerings, earning a release through Napalm Records — their riotous live show made them an easy sell — and it seemed at the time like the band would issue their next album through that label as well. A quick follow-up was expected after the roll they got on between their EPs and debut LP, but it’s three years later that Firewalker, their sophomore outing, arrives, and it does so through Shadow Kingdom Records.
There has to be some question as to whether that three-year span cost Venomous Maximus in terms of the momentum they had coming out of Beg upon the Light, though they’d hardly been inactive in that time between touring, releasing videos, writing and so on, but to listen to the 10 tracks/46 minutes of Firewalker itself makes it clear the band — guitarist/vocalist Gregg Higgins, guitarist Christian Larson, bassist Trevi Biles and drummer Bongo Brungardt — haven’t missed a step in terms of their approach. Songs like “Dark Waves,” “Angel Heart” and “Fire in the Night” maintain the blend of classic metal precision and darker heavy rock atmospherics, bordering on doom but never quite crossing over, that the first album proffered, and build upon those achievements while further establishing Venomous Maximus‘ sound as distinct from the various influences of which it is constructed.
One could rattle off a list of those influences and come up with names as aesthetically widespread as Celtic Frost, Mötley Crüe, Uncle Acid and Samhain, but no single outfit or even a grouping of them really comes close to giving Venomous Maximus their due when it comes to the individualized stock they’ve boiled down from those component elements, taking a horror-minded vibe from here and a theatrical sense of drama from there and turning it into the post-“Intro” chug of “White Rose,” which gets the darkened bikerisms of Firewalker moving at a decent clip, setting the tone for what follows in natural sound and a persistent quality of songwriting that will be familiar to anyone who encountered Beg upon the Light.
They are identifiable, and more so than one might expect for an outfit even on their second record, with Higgins‘ vocals shifting from the proclamations of “White Rose” and “Through the Black” to grittier, more punkish fare by the time the memorable “October 14th” rolls around to follow “Dark Waves” at the end of what’s clearly intended to be side A, Venomous Maximus making no secret of the album’s structure by means of dual intros — “Intro” for the first half, “Firewalker Theme” for the second — and a forward progression that pushes each half of the outing toward its most resonant hook at the end, whether that’s “October 14th” or the finale of the album as a whole, “Take on the Grave.” That’s of course not to take anything away from the surrounding cuts, as the entirety of Firewalker belts out quality craftsmanship that feeds into a full-length flow across its two sides, just to say that Venomous Maximus have a clarity underlying the curling smoke of their malevolence and that all the thrust the album brings to bear leads it to a worthy destination.
Also not to be understated is the band’s attention to detail. Whether showing itself through the tape hiss that seems to pervade the record as a whole to more specific factors like the layered-in acoustics for the second half of “Fire in the Night,” the mad scientist yowl that marks the launch point for “My Machine,” strange, almost taunting vocals on “Take on the Grave” or the fuzzer tone of “Dark Waves” that sits as well with that song’s ’70s swing as the layered shouts of “Angel Heart”‘s midsection do with its “Looks that Kill”-style riffing. Across the board, Venomous Maximus deliver a cohesiveness of concept and performance that seems in its complexity to justify the three years it took for Firewalker to surface, at the same time completely avoiding any kind of self-congratulatory indulgence and keeping their focus where it belongs: on kicking ass.
As “Take on the Grave” winds itself down and loses the drums, bass and vocals to the ether, the guitar remains to set a final moment of ambience in motion, giving Firewalker an appropriately cinematic conclusion. At the same time, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if — whenever it might surface — Venomous Maximus‘ next record didn’t start off with a similar progression to pick up right where they left off. That’s calling a shot in the dark, maybe, but something about that last minute or so feels just as much like a beginning as an ending, and time will of course tell if it winds up being precisely that. Either way, Venomous Maximus‘ second album should more than thrill anyone who got on board with the first, and it’s bound to turn plenty of new heads in their direction as well, as it grabs and holds attention with likewise ease and poise. They’d probably object to the album being called classy, but it is anyway.