A few short years ago, VON appeared to be one of those seminal black metal bands who were only recognized for their genius and influence post-mortem. Hailing from San Francisco, CA, VON were arguably the first American black metal band, and inarguably were hugely influential in establishing black metal’s second wave aesthetic. Formed in 1987, the band disbanded in 1992 after a releasing a pair of demos and recording, but not releasing, a third. Over the years, copies of their demos and live bootlegs were hunted by collectors, especially before the internet made sharing and copying as simple as it is now. For over twenty years, aside from the 2003 release of the Satanic Blood Angel demo compilation and live record, VON were silent and inactive, though their influence has touched bands from Dark Funeral and Enthroned to Taake and Watain.
Then, VON played a reunion show in 2010 at Armageddon Fest and have been active again ever since, releasing first a seven-inch, their debut studio full-length Satanic Blood, and now, finally, their second album of all-new material, Dark Gods: Seven Billion Slaves.
(An aside: since to many of their records have similar names or names that are a combination/permutation of earlier releases, telling them apart can be tricky for the newly indoctrinated. Their first demo, released in 1990, was Satanic, then in 1992 they released Satanic Blood. Their third demo, Blood Angel, was never released on its own. In 2003, Nuclear War Now! released Satanic Blood Angel, a compilation that included the entirety of the Satanic Blood and Blood Angel demos, as well as a live recording. Upon reforming in 2010, the band released a new version of Satanic Blood, a seven-inch featuring entirely re-written and re-recorded versions of tracks “Satanic Blood,” “Veadtuck” and a new song, “Blood Von.” Their debut full-length, released in 2012, is also called Satanic Blood, and is composed of a combination of revisitations to their past material as well as a few new things. Got it? Good [Ah, so they’re taking the Iron Maiden approach to releasing records. Ah, sweet re-releases. - AMG]).
With Dark Gods: Seven Billion Slaves, VON have finally worked through everything they needed to do in reworking their previous demos, and have come forward with a record on new material. Not only that, but they have started what they conceive of as the Dark Gods Trilogy. It’s exciting for a band who has always been so obsessed with manically refining one idea to finally make the leap to a new starting place, and VON waste no time establishing that they intend to explore new territory with this record, musically as well as thematically. Seven Billion Slaves is surprising from the first track, “They Have Come,” which trades VON‘s typically hard, fast and ugly aesthetic for something more atmospheric, brooding and slow-building. “Ancient Flesh of the Dark Gods” is even more of a departure, a ten-minute slog of thick, filthy, doom-influenced dirge. It’s not until the fourth track, “Dark Gods,” that the record becomes entirely recognizable as VON’s lo-fi, snarling blasphemy again.
These variations in style and pace serve the band well, proving they are more than just a one-trick demon pony. The sound and the tone is always recognizable as VON, but whereas the debut full-length felt like a time capsule, Seven Billion Slaves acknowledges the passage of time and the evolution of the black metal genre. With doom, drone, sludge, and even some creepy atmospheric passages thrown into the mix, VON prove that they are not just a foundational band with their own rock-solid (though dated) aesthetic, but also capable of growing and changing. The second half of the album returns to their core sound a style a bit more, but still played with an expanded repertoire of sounds, weapons and influences.
VON have been myopic for a very long time, forced by either their own obsessions or the pressures of their cult status to revisit their earlier material until they were finally content with the state that it was in. Now that they have the freedom to look beyond it, they have cast their net wide, beginning a immense narrative about the rise of a new dark power and the dark fate of humanity in its wake. Sonically varied and conceptually vast, VON seem to have finally taken up the mantle of black metal royalty in a way they have always deserved. What the Dark Gods Trilogy will ultimately become is yet to be seen, but the beginning is a promising one.