In pictures: Download Festival’s huge launch party in London
Take a stroll down the black carpet and into the exclusive Download Festival launch party to kickstart their 20th birthday extravaganza!
In a just world, April 2020 would have been a glorious month for Venom Prison. It was the month that they were meant to bring their caustic, thunderous death metal to the biggest stages they’d ever set foot on in support of Parkway Drive. They were supposed to sweep the biggest venues in Europe, culminating in a gargantuan night at Wembley Arena, where Larissa Stupar should have watched the biggest mosh-pits she had ever commanded open up before her eyes.
At that point, Venom Prison were blazing brighter than ever. The previous year, they had released their second album Samsara to rapturous success. With savage riffs, knife-edged attacks on worldwide injustices and explorations of mental health dredged from the depths of a personal Hell, the quintet stepped forward and announced themselves as one of the most important bands in British metal. Upon release, it received a full five Ks, and at the end of 2019, Samsara was named one of Kerrang!’s Top 10 albums of the year.
The reason why they never made it onto the Wembley stage, or onto their planned tours of Australia and South East Asia, goes without saying. Yet while others found misery in this unprecedented time, Larissa found inspiration. Looking at the pandemic-ravaged world, the singer found herself drawn to its sense of chaos. It could be felt in the images of people scrambling for toilet roll in supermarkets, ICUs full to bursting with COVID patients struggling to breathe, and the rapid spread of hysterical, error-ridden conspiracies on social media. “We’ve been able to be creative within that chaos.”
Enter the figure of Erebos, the Greek god of darkness who lends his name to the band's third album. “Erebos was born from chaos, from nothing into something, and brought darkness into the world,” explains Larissa. Chaos is the backbone of the record, and as with Venom Prison’s other releases, mythological concepts are the ties that bind the songs together. There’s a thoughtful, creative attention to detail within their albums, which reward the most careful and curious of listeners, who may well be sent trawling through the internet in search of deeper meaning and understanding of what they hear.
“Songs can be about so many different things, but if you connect [them] in a certain way, it makes the whole experience [of an album] that little bit different,” continues Larissa. “When you compare it to other religions or other mythical stories within [human] history, what really distinguishes Greek mythology is the fact that they tried to explain human emotions and everything they experience, even the weather, or day and night, with mythology. I think it’s so human, and it’s really relatable in that sense.”
Just as its namesake was born from chaos, so was Erebos the album. Without the disarray of the pandemic, where everything in life that seemed solid and dependable was uprooted, Venom Prison’s third album would not have taken the form that it has. It is never really referred to overtly, so the record won’t begin to rapidly feel dated when coronavirus is finally behind us. Where the record is concerned, the pandemic is an invisible seam – though it’s inspired so much of its content, its influence is felt like a tremor more than a destabilising rumble. It is quiet, but no less stark, and no less present.
It’s the album Venom Prison didn’t know they needed to make.
The theme of isolation weighed heavily upon Larissa’s mind as she was writing the lyrics for Erebos. This distinguishing feature of lockdown, and one of its most distressing elements, inevitably led her to think about how isolation is used for more nefarious means across the world, specifically within the prison system. The psychological distress of being cut off from other humans, going against our own nature as social beings, was felt the world over, intensifying the loneliness that was endemic before COVID-19 even entered existence.
That distress is the tip of the iceberg of what a person placed in solitary confinement experiences, which Larissa explores in the pulsing, devastating Castigated In Steel And Concrete. “It can really damage you,” she explains with the measured eloquence of someone who has done their research. “It can completely ruin you. Because you’re stuck on your own all the time, your mind just wanders off. There’s lots of different psychological issues that can arise that [prisoners] never recover from. A lot of people who have been released from prison, and have been in solitary confinement, end up committing suicide because they just can’t function in the real world anymore. It’s really fucking awful.”
At the same time, a wave of Black Lives Matter protests were unfolding on a global scale, pushing people throughout the world to start thinking about racial injustice and the societal structures that facilitate it in ways they might have never done before. Larissa took it upon herself to use her free time to educate herself on systemic racism, finding that the issues stemming from it were inevitably entangled with issues within the justice system. This inspired Erebos’ pummelling lead single, Judges Of The Underworld, a snarling indictment of the violent cycle of incarceration that particularly people of colour and those born into poverty are mercilessly thrown into, with no hope of escape.
“We live in a society that disadvantages people in poverty by making it impossible for them to break through the cycles of violence,” Larissa asserts. “Children [born into poverty] grow up in circles where they may be forced into doing illegal things like selling drugs or stealing because they don’t have the money or opportunities to make money in a legal way. These people are victims, offenders and often witnesses at the same time. You can’t see them as one thing – they’re everything at once. Once they go through the route of being incarcerated, being imprisoned, they’re released into the same environment without being offered any help or support. There’s often just no way for them other than to go back into the same cycle and just continue it endlessly.”
Rock and metal has often kept a close eye on the injustices of the world. What sets Venom Prison apart is that they venture into topics that, until now, have barely been touched, especially the injustices that play out beyond the borders of our tiny island. Sometimes these are issues that listeners may never have heard about themselves, like the realities of the carceral system, or the forced sterilisation of immigrant women, which is explored on Erebos in the song Gorgon Sisters. “I like spreading a message,” says Larissa, “spreading awareness about certain issues that you don’t really come across in everyday life. I think it’s really important to show that we live in a world that is quite dark, even when we don’t see it as such.”
Yet political songwriting has never been the only string in this band’s bow, as Larissa is keen to stress. Throughout her career, she’s consistently lain bare the darkness that manifests in her mind as a result of suffering from depression and PTSD, including thoughts of self-harm and suicide. That continues on Erebos, but in a vein, and in a musical style, that we have never quite heard from her before. It’s radical new territory, but it doesn’t see the band becoming totally unrecognisable. “We’re the same band,” says Larissa, “but also not the same band."
The song that showcases this is Pain Of Oizys. It has already garnered considerable attention for its sonic departure, building a slow-burning atmosphere of fragility before biting back with a burst of pride and triumphance in its back half. ‘Bow to no-one, off your knees,’ Larissa roars, willing herself to keep going. Notably, it features her first major foray into clean vocals, brought about by a desire to connect more deeply with her words in a different way from what screaming would allow. It didn’t come without its challenges, however. The singer estimates that it took her around 10 hours in the recording booth to get her vocals exactly as she wanted them. At one point, the frustration brought her to tears.
“I felt vulnerable, recording the clean vocals,” she remembers. “Learning to put emotions into the clean singing was very challenging. When you scream, you have anger fuelling you, but when you sing clean, you have to convey emotion in a different way.” Despite the initial difficulty she faced, however, she insists she wants to attempt clean vocals more in the future, and plans on taking more vocal lessons. “I like a challenge. I like to master something.”
If Erebos is a storm, Pain Of Oizys is the moment where the cloud begins to break even as the rain still lashes on. Where most of the album comes from chaos – and arguably, elements of this song still do – this song scrapes towards a place of peace, with Larissa accepting her depression and PTSD as part of who she is and finding empowerment in it, refusing to let it rule her life. “I feel like I’ve really been able to work through certain issues,” she admits. “I had therapy on video [throughout lockdown] and I just felt so much more at ease with my mental health, and I still do. [It helped] being able to spend more time at home with my partner and our cats, getting to see family sometimes – well, part of my family as most of them live in Germany. [I was] able to be at peace in a way I didn’t get to be when on tour.”
This period has also brought about another change for Larissa as well. She’s currently expecting her first child, who will be born in March. She didn’t always think she would want to become a mother, but after witnessing the unconditional love her sister had for her children when she became a parent, she began to reconsider, realising that she wanted that sort of love in her life.
Longtime fans familiar with the outlook Larissa has displayed in her music might be surprised by this. After all, there are some people who believe the world is too bleak for them to want to bring new life into it. It’s become an especially pertinent concern in relation to the climate crisis, with some deciding against parenthood to avoid contributing to it through overpopulation, or in fear of what their child will witness as the world continually heats up. It would be easy to assume Larissa Stupar might fall into this camp, having made a career out of eloquent rage, of scorn for the evil of which humans have proved themselves to be capable. However, the darkness of the world has never had a hand in her feelings on the matter of motherhood – indeed, she looks at the prospect of bringing a life into the world with optimism.
“I can understand that some people think the world is so awful already that you don’t want to bring a child into it,” she says. “But for me, [even though] the world is so awful, I want to bring life into it to make it better. We as parents have a chance to raise children, make them better people [than us], to raise them to be kind, open minded, accepting and respectful. I feel like the world deserves a little bit more love. The world might not be pleasant, but you can make yourself a pleasant life that’s fulfilling and full of love.”
Inevitably, things will be different in the Venom Prison camp, particularly when her baby is born and that becomes the obvious priority. Larissa, however, remains committed to making sure motherhood and band life can happily exist, as difficult as it may be. “With Venom Prison, we want to show that both things are possible. I don’t want to hide the fact that I’m going to be a parent. We didn’t feel like it was ever going to be a problem. Male members of bands become parents and the fact that I’m a woman shouldn’t really change that perspective.”
Parenthood, and particularly motherhood, is barely discussed in metal. Larissa herself didn’t even notice it until she became pregnant. Women fronting metal bands who also happen to have children are rarities – beyond Myrkur’s Amalie Bruun and Floor Jansen from Nightwish, Larissa cannot think of any others in her situation. There was so little discussion around the topic that she wasn’t sure if she could safely play shows while pregnant (the answer is yes, according to her midwife, but not in the third trimester, to avoid damaging the baby’s hearing).
Then again, for a long time, women in metal have hardly been afforded the visibility that they’re gaining now. Metal has not had to think about the experience of pregnancy and motherhood within touring music, or the toss-up between touring and parenting that women might fear they’d have to face because society lacks the infrastructure for women to accommodate both in their lives. “I think it comes from the problem that we want to be seen as equals with men,” says Larissa. “But there are differences – [women have to] take care of the baby more in the beginning while men are still free to go on tour. They don’t have to breastfeed.”
She’s optimistic for change, however. “I think that’s probably going to change in the future because there are more women. Not everyone wants to be a parent but we need to show that you don’t have to make the sacrifice of giving up your career.”
Though we may not be fighting for toilet rolls in the supermarket anymore, Erebos will arrive into a world that is still full of chaos, albeit a different kind from the one that originally inspired it. As what is hopefully the last act of the pandemic comes to a close, we’ll find ourselves returning to thinking about the worldly issues we had to put to one side while there were more pressing matters to deal with.
The world is primed for Venom Prison to be as vital as they need to be. They’re hardly shying away from the challenge, and the growth they’ve experienced has readied them for it. Their first show back – a storming main stage set at Bloodstock last summer – was their first to ever use pyrotechnics. What better way to say, ‘We have arrived’? Then there was the increased recording budget, which expanded the capacity for what they could do sonically on Erebos, with orchestral elements and sparklier production than they’ve ever had before.
Even then, Larissa says they never expected to be leading the charge among the bands that broke through at a similar time to them. Venom Prison was started with playing live shows in mind, healing the ache that their members felt without them after the dissolution of their previous bands. Politically, they had a lot to say. Larissa needed the catharsis that creating could bring. But now that they have an established platform, they are vowing to own it and make the most of it.
“We were just doing what felt right. [If] you have a chance to have a platform and you can reach a [wide audience] that other people can’t reach, you have a responsibility to use it, and in the right way. You don’t want to abuse a platform for personal gain,” she says.
Venom Prison have your attention. Now hear them roar.
Venom Prison's new album Erebos is out now via Century Media. Catch them at Download Festival this June – get your tickets now.
Take a stroll down the black carpet and into the exclusive Download Festival launch party to kickstart their 20th birthday extravaganza!
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