Writing about VON in 2012 seems wrong: For some a footnote and others a foundation, the San Francisco group earns the distinction of being one of America’s first black metal bands. Especially in a field that favors merchandise and memorabilia, they’re also incredibly under-documented, with a pair of atavistic EPs followed more than a decade later by a compilation collecting those early works and a live set captured in San Francisco in 1991. Still, the band’s reputation supersedes their relative commercial obscurity: Their early demos are clear forebears of the current United States black metal scene, with VON’s uniform pugnacity helping set the stage for a later caste of norm-breakers. It also didn’t hurt that Burzum’s Varg Vikernes wore a long-sleeve VON shirt while on trial for the murder of Mayhem’s Øystein Aarseth.
In 2010, both as the wave of legacy acts reforming surged along and as coverage of United States black metal began reached the mainstream media, VON reunited. They played London’s Armageddon Fest with Watain, the corpsepaint Swedes who’d taken one of their tunes as a name, and released a three-song 7” of reworked older tunes. In a subsequent interview, cofounders VENIEN and Goat seemed amicable enough, saying “being in action feels exhilarating, my friend” and describing the second leg of their career as fortuitous happenstance. “Goat and I got back in touch and decided to discuss matters and it sort of started at that point,” VENIEN told Vladimir Petković. “It really had to make sense to both Goat and I, and it just worked out to be something we were comfortable with.”The demand for mutual comfort didn’t last very long: Though VENIEN said that there was no full-length in the works only two years ago,
VON has returned again with its full-length debut, Satanic Blood— and, importantly, without Goat. Satanic Blood is the name of the band’s most infamous demo tape, and this LP’s 17 tracks consist largely of reworked archival material; you’ll find original versions of almost every tune on Satanic Blood Angel, a 2003 Nuclear War Now! :BOOTLEG” compilation. Goat sang those songs then, but VENIEN sings them now. He’s not an especially great vocalist, but his barely decipherable grunts lend themselves to the quartet’s dense roil. His singing doesn’t lead the band so much as fit within it, the functional wedge between VON’s constant blast beats and repetition-as-a-lifestyle riffs.
VENIEN’s move hasn’t necessarily been a popular one, invoking ire on online forums by raising the question of what exactly VON is and who it belongs to, but it works: Satanic Blood is a grueling, sloppy mass of low-fidelity, high-energy metal that gets by on enthusiasm and vigor. VON roar through the title cut, multi-tracked vocals forming a militia of demons around a band that races toward the end. This quartet’s take at “Devil Pig" is a hilariously direct VON gem about a porcine in pentagrams. The band treats the tune’s simple guitar lead and militant rhythmic approach as though they were edicts to be exalted. No matter the authenticity objections of those playing, the tune is a triumphant 150-second jaunt in the dark. VON’s truncated take on "Goat Christ" moves with grindcore speed, while VENIEN chants with the joined force of hardcore and death metal. VON gives new oomph to an old standard.
Still, Satanic Blood falters when VENIEN pushes away from sheer propulsion. Tedious instrumental “Veadtuck" aims to evidence the band’s instrumental chops and stylistic prescience but fails on both counts. Mostly, it stalls the mountain of momentum created by the first four tracks. This is the sign and sound of a band— or part of a band, as it were— who finally got around to recording an LP after a quarter-century. "Dissection InHuman”, meanwhile, storms at the start, its messy riff buried within serrated vocals and ceaseless drums. Toward the middle, VENIEN drops into a ghoulish lurk, letting wind howl around the microphones as the band fecklessly tries to recreate a moonlit ritual. It’s as scary as grocery store Halloween decorations; luckily, they lift above the murk one more time, ending the song on one of the record’s most convincing black metal bursts. The new “Jesus Stain" pummels without apology for most of its four minutes, but it falters at the end when the band switches to stop-time, breaking up the motion like they’re auditioning to be the Who. Given the factions that Satanic Blood created, it’s tempting to wish for a little progression here, for the addition of some unforeseen flourishes. But VON only sounds convincing when they sound mawkishly simple, too; most everything else comes across as forced. VENIEN mostly understands that.
The line between perpetuating a legacy and publicly shaming it is a daunting and unpredictable one. In forms that emerged to lash back at the powers that be, whether that be indie rock or heavy metal, simple cash grabs or quick attempts to reiterate a reputation are nauseating reminders of art’s function as simple commodity. Already playing some small club shows, if VENIEN trots this bastardized VON onto the metal festival circuits, that’s likely the judgment that awaits his return— an entitled old guy trying to cash in on inspirational youthful activity. But I’d be lying if I said I despised the band that made Satanic Blood in 2012. They delight in their own shambles, racing off into euphoric, energetic madness like teenagers catching on to an outlandish sound.