Arguably the biggest UK death metal to emerge since Carcass hacked their way into the world’s consciousness, Venom Prison have never looked back since their debut, Animus, dropped in 2016. And with new album Primeval, they’re both revisiting the past and ushering in a new chapter, as vocalist Larissa Stupar revealed to Rich Holmes.
It has been quite a journey for Venom Prison.
Emerging from the Welsh underground in 2015 with two EPs, Defy The Tyrant and The Primal Chaos, they swiftly signed to US indie Prosthetic Records, releasing the politically-charged Animus a year later – and confronting misogyny, fascism and prejudice with a vicious death metal onslaught.
That was the breakthrough.
Its follow up was the emotionally fraught Samsara, where Russian-born vocalist and lyricist Larissa Stupar delved into mental health struggles, and the band upped their technical game even further.
The album propelled Venom Prison to bigger stages, including Glastonbury. It cemented their position as UK death metal torch bearers. Unlike many acts to emerge from the British scene over the last 20 years, they now have a global presence… and international clout.
And while 2020 has stomped all over any plans for live shows, it hasn’t dented Venom Prison’s momentum.
This month, the quintet released Primeval, featuring re-recordings of Defy The Tyrant and The Primal Chaos.
Primeval is much more than a stopgap though.
As Stupar explains, it simply needed to be made.
“We stopped liking our old songs,” says Venom Prison’s co-founder. “That kind of happens when you release new music!
“We even took Defy The Tyrant off Spotify a few years ago because we thought, ‘we don’t really like this’.
“The songs never sounded like we intended them to sound because when we first started the band it was just Ash Gray (guitars) and myself, and Defy The Tyrant was recorded in our living room. It sounds like it!
“We didn’t have the budget when we were recording The Primal Chaos EP. That also never really sounded the way we wanted it to sound.”
She continues: “My vocal range has changed, Ben (Thomas) and Ash’s guitars have improved, we have a new drummer (Joe Bills) who is amazing… so we thought about diving back into it and making it sound like we wanted it to.
“We have evolved a lot as musicians. Being able to put all of that on to the old songs was exciting.
“When we were recording and practicing those songs again, we realised that we were still into them – and it was nice to discover the love for your older material.”
Venom Prison step into the future
Primeval is graced with the presence of two new songs.
Slayer of Holofernes and Defiant To The Will Of God see Venom Prison weaving more melodies into their sonic savagery, while Stupar stretches her wings further than we’ve ever seen before.
The results are stunning…
“Those songs were put in on purpose, because we wanted to show where we started and where we are going,” the vocalist explains. “They are definitely heading in the direction that the new Venom Prison is going to be like.
“I hope people are up for it!”
Slayer Of Holofernes is based on the assassination of the Assyrian general Holofernes by the Israelite heroine Judith, an act recounted in The Old Testament and depicted in numerous renaissance paintings.
It’s a tale of resistance, a story of defiance in the face of oppression and tyranny.
Perfect, then, for Venom Prison.
Stupar sheds more light on the song…
“I have always been interested in these biblical stories,” she says. “If you look at The Primal Chaos there is a song about Babylon the Whore on it and ever since we have been writing the new record, I have wanted to incorporate Christian mythology, which is what we grew up with.”
The singer is an atheist, but religion – courtesy of her Protestant parents – was core to her upbringing in Germany.
“We had to have a confirmation,” she says. “When you are 12 you go to Bible school once a week and go to church every Sunday, 30 times. I had to do that because my mum wanted me to – I was 12 and couldn’t really say that much!
“So I sucked all of that in… and they are interesting stories. They are also spread between these big religions.
“They use the same format they just change the names a little. That’s what is interesting about religion – you find these stories in Judaism and you find them in Muslim culture as well. But the female protagonists are either overlooked or demonised, like Babylon. So I like to reinvent them with my own imagination and give them life, and show that these badass women were talked about back in the day!
“Judith freed her city from this tyrant and when I first heard about this when I was younger, I saw it as really cool.
“I just wanted to talk about this strong woman who saved her whole city from death and slavery.”
And Defiant To The Will Of God?
“On that song the main message is that a woman’s body is her own fucking business,” asserts Stupar. “It’s a pro-choice song about abortion and how unwanted pregnancy can feel like an invasion of the woman’s body, especially if she is not aware of it and she never planned to be pregnant.
“Being able to have the decision to abort the pregnancy, I think, is vital and we sometimes forget how lucky we are that we have the right to do this.
“There are countries where this is not possible. For me it’s important to show that the right to abortion is a human right.”
Indeed, human rights are at the very heart of Stupar’s world view.
She rails against the treatment of asylum seekers (“no human should be illegal”) and reveals that much of her writing for the next Venom Prison album has focused on incarceration. “It tackles the subject that race has a big impact on how people are being incarcerated in America.”
In 2020 many metal acts have condemned white supremacist rhetoric, voiced support for the Black Lives Matter movement and hit back at police brutality.
But for some metalheads, this seems to be a little unsettling – with everyone from Black Sabbath to (laughably) Rage Against The Machine being told to ‘concentrate on the music’.
Stupar’s response to this?
“It’s absolutely stupid! Music has always been political.
“You just have to look back at Nina Simone and the things she was singing about.
“If you have that platform to be able to say something and reach people with your opinions and political views then it would be a complete waste if you are not able to utilise it.
“I get that not everyone wants to be politically involved but you don’t have to if you don’t want to.
“It’s just someone’s personal opinion that they want to share with you, which is something I would be grateful for if I was a kid getting into music.
“That is also why Venom Prison is the way it is, because we all grew up listening to hardcore and punk bands who have political views.”
In a death metal scene traditionally dominated by the occult, gore, horror and lately, extraterrestrials, does she think it’s unusual for a band to sing about political issues?
“It doesn’t matter,” she replies. “There are always going to be some people who don’t give a fuck about what you sing about, they just want to listen to some riffs and have a mosh and a headbang.
“But there are people who do have a political opinion and appreciate bands speaking out about things that matter.
“Also, there are personal things that people might have been through, like suicidal thoughts, depression, sexual abuse and things like that.
“It is always good from an outside perspective if you have someone you can relate to on a personal level.”
The band – Covid-19 permitting – will be spreading their gospel across Europe in January and February.
In tow will be Texan DM upstarts Creeping Death, plus Manchester noisemongers and Prosthetic labelmates Leeched.
It’s a sign of Venom Prison’s strength that as a relatively new UK death metal act, they can headline a tour package of this scale.
And not since the heady days of the late 80s and early 90s have we seen as many exciting, musically punishing and politically savvy acts emerge from the UK underground.
Black metallers Dawn Ray’d, post-crust outfit Svalbard, progressive sludgers OHHMS, metallic HC ragers Employed To Serve – and of course Venom Prison – are all gaining attention from the worldwide metal and hardcore communities… and even mainstream press coverage.
“It’s nice to see that there is this ‘moment’ where there are all of these bands who have something to say… and who are all so different,” Stupar concludes. “There is something for everyone.”
Primeval is out now on Prosthetic Records.