Venom is generally credited with the birth of the black metal movement, and with good reason. They were so out of left field that it’s not even accurate to say Welcome to Hell was a massive leap forward in the progression of metal — more precisely, Venom’s debut was a mutation, an aberration far from the bounds of what metal was doing at the time, with not much leading up to it and (for the first few years, at least) not much stemming from it. Curious, then, that in the great graveyard of metal, you’ll find an upturned cross in the shadow of the mausoleum of Venom, labelled Death SS – The Horned God of the Witches, 1981.
The name might sound familiar — Death SS has proven themselves a long-lived and inventive band, eventually finding their niche in industrial metal. But that’s not what I’m interested in. What’s more interesting is that, as far as I can tell, The Horned God of the Witches is the first proto-black metal release ever, predating Welcome to Hell by ten months. Venom had released earlier, more NWOBHM-style demos, but it wasn’t until the debut album that their proto-black metal sound solidified via Cronos’ more guttural vocals and dirtier, more aggressive guitar playing.
The Horned God of the Witches begins rather tamely. Owls hoot, beasts of the night call, thunder rumbles. Some eerie singing in the background. Typical black metal stuff. Only two copies of this demo were ever made, but if you’re lucky enough to own one, you might take notice of the cover art as the drums kick in: a black-winged, goat-headed, cross-legged demon dominates the cover, with Satanic signs splayed on his fingers. Satanic imagery was in no way novel in 1981, but this kind of blatant blasphemy was certainly unusual.
“Terror” does begin innocuously, but note the tenets of proto-black metal as they come: we’ve already counted the blatant and profane Satanic imagery, and the opening ambient noises paint a black metal setting too. The riffing is very simple, but the guitars are almost ludicrously low-fi and fuzzed out, which serves to give them a satisfying depth. The most important aspect, though, is frontman Steve Sylvester’s vocals. The first few bars are sung in a disappointing half-spoken drawl, but soon enough Sylvester breaks out into a high-pitched, nasally rasp that sounds a lot better than the words “high-pitched nasally rasp” might lead you to believe. At home among the beefy fuzz of the rhythm guitars and piercing whine of the slow lead guitar, Sylvester’s harsh vocals are, in my estimation, the first true black metal vocals. His performance is what makes The Horned God of the Witches the first proto-black metal release.
And the song really lives up to it’s name, too. I dare you to turn your speakers up and listen to the final twenty seconds of “Terror”. A shiver will run down your spine. I have no idea what production tricks Sylvester and Co. used to make such an ungodly, purely terrifying noise, but they definitely succeeded in creating terror.
“Murder Angels” works well as a change of pace, showcasing Death SS’s proto-black metal sound in a more upbeat, catchy song as opposed to the more ponderous “Terror”. It’s a decent song, but ultimately it doesn’t carry the same weight “Terror” manages.
Distinctions like “First Proto-Black Metal Release” are utterly meaningless, and depend more on one’s personal distinctions of what exactly black metal is than on any quantifiable variables. But I think it’s high time Venom stops getting all the credit for getting the black metal parade started. Death SS may not have been the best, or the fastest, or the most obscene, but I do believe they were the first. That ought to count for something.