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Venom Prison Guitarist Ash Gray on the Musical Growth and Compassion Channelled into ‘Erebos’ [w/ Audio]

Ash Gray, guitarist for the Welsh death metal band Venom Prison, discusses the growth and compassion channelled into the new Century Media release, ‘Erebos.’



Be it black metal, death metal, whatever, we are barely into 2022 and already the extreme metal scene is packed with albums pushing the boundaries of heavy music. One of the groups leading the charge on the UK side of the pond is Welsh death metal titans Venom Prison who have just dropped their stunning new album Erebos (read our review here, friends).

Ahead of the release of the album through their new home Century Media, V13 sat down and spoke to guitarist Ash Gray about Erebos, the growth in their sound, and what the record and the band offer to the discerning extreme metal fan in 2022.

First of all thanks for your time I really appreciate it. It’s nice to catch up with you since the last time we spoke was at Bloodstock.

The new album is ready to drop. I’ve literally only had a chance to listen to it once so I’ve not really had a chance to dig into it yet properly, but what I’ve heard so far has been excellent. I can’t wait to give it a proper spin. The new album is coming out on a new label, Century Media. Restrictions have been lifted as announced today so that’s all changing. Does this feel like a new chapter or a fresh start for the band?

Ash Gray: “It certainly feels like a fresh start. It’s so hard to explain because I feel like we’ve just done what we were supposed to do if that makes sense? Like, I feel like we always said we would deliver something better than, you know, the last record and we would always make sure that we didn’t do the same record. It’s more of a personal attachment. I feel like it’s like, ‘Oh, how do I outdo this?’ It’s like that challenge is set.

So when I listened to Erebos, I think it is an evolution and it is a progression, but nothing feels forced. It doesn’t feel like a very forced album. Like there’s a lot of additional layers. There’s a lot of new stuff going on but, for me, personally, when I listened to it, I don’t feel like those sections are forced. It just feels like a natural evolution of what Venom Prison wants to do.”

I think we probably touched on this at Bloodstock, but do you think having the freedom of not being in that cycle of write, record, tour, write, record, tour, gave you a chance for you to breathe on this record?

“Yeah, definitely. I think it was really helpful for reflection. Before we just went relentless with writing and we had 20 songs in the pre-production demo folder. It was nice to like, then after all that writing and manicness between me and (guitarist) Ben (Thomas), it was nice to then meet up and just get the laptop put on our headphones on and be like, ‘right… what do we like this folder?’ Then we’d slim it down and then all the Frankenstein elements would start coming in and we’d start swapping and changing ideas and parts in different songs. But yeah, it all felt like there wasn’t a single process that didn’t feel natural with this record.”

Does that surprise you considering it was a very different way of working for a band? Did it surprise you that the end result sounded so natural?

“I think it was more the fact that I am lucky enough to have a home set up here and Ben also has a home setup where we can just demo all day long. It was nice because there were no boundaries set for me or him because we weren’t together so we fully went with these ideas where some ended up complete insanity. But, you know, then when we got together and it was like, ‘what’s the wildest thing you’ve done on your own?’ and then combined those ideas. We did run into a dilemma of not seeing each other then our bassist Mike (Jefferies) received the link for this folder of 20 demos, and he sent us a text message back telling us who wrote which song without even knowing.

He said to us that this didn’t solidify a Venom Prison song. He said we need both of you to have the input on one song. It was really interesting because he literally did get it pitch-perfect as to who did which ones like it was too identifiable when it was just one of us. I think that then, when restrictions started easing a bit, we had the luxury of getting together and just going ‘oh, I like that bit in your song. Can I have it in this song?,’ and then we started to get the best of both of us into one song.

That was definitely different because, normally, we just get together and write whether it be at my place or his place, but that was certainly an interesting moment when we thought we’ve written 20 songs, this is great, then our bassist said, ‘you haven’t because I know who’s done what.’ Yes, it felt natural, ultimately, and overall with how it sounded but there were like a few things like that which I thought were interesting.”

Just going back to the very beginning. Forgetting lockdown and what happened over the last two years. What was your vision for the next record when you sat down and started to think about it? Did you have a vision for where you want to head with it?

“Yeah, there was a lot of thought put into it before going into the writing. It was the one thing that me and Ben said to each other, which was that we want to write songs. To some people that may just seem ridiculous but, sometimes, when we look at songs in the past we look at it like a dynamic and an energy and the song goes where the song goes. Erebos was different. We treated it as if we were writing songs. So, it would be like, ‘Oh, we’ve got this cool riff here, it only goes for like, you know, so many bars, and then (lead singer) Larissa (Stupar) puts vocals on it, and it’s like, well, that hooks too good to leave it there, we need to extend this riff even longer.’

Then we started running into the chorus territories and having bits that made up a really good chorus, but needed to come back and eventually it all started falling into place. It was thinking very differently as to how we were approaching songs. It was always something in the back of your mind when you were writing a song when you were wanting to do something wild or some shorter bars or weird transitions and you’re thinking how you’re going to get this back. That was the hardest part trying to make it as catchy as possible while making sure that bits are coming back properly, not just randomly thrown in. That was harder than writing the riffs. Generally trying to build the foundations of the songs and then go out of our way a little bit to make it more Venom Prison. That was really difficult, but it was one thing we knew we wanted to achieve before we even started writing.”

Artwork for ‘Eerebos’ by Venom Prison

In terms of the themes on Erebos, previous you’ve been described as lyrically a very politically-minded band. Is that the case for this record?

“I would say so. There’s still a lot of it there but I think there are more personal elements. The way I described it not long ago, which only dawned on me recently, is that it’s not that aggressive politically in a way that maybe you would have known from Animus or Samsara. I feel like this is a lot more compassionate. I feel like the political elements it’s touching, it’s trying to reveal it in more of a compassionate way. Kind of like what is happening rather than, you know, the brutal assault of what it may have been on previous records. I think the overall message hasn’t changed. I just think it’s delivered in a different way this time.”

That being the case, is it inspired by what has been going on not just in terms of lockdown, but there’s a whole lot of stuff going on?

“Yeah, there’s a lot to do with justice system incarceration. Like the song ‘Castigated In Steel and Concrete,’ or ‘Judges of the Underworld’ with systematic oppression and stuff. Then you get to ‘Pain Of Oizys’ which is more self-personal. I just feel that, this time, it’s delivered a bit differently than we would have in the past. I feel like it’s got that aggression, but it’s more of a compassionate aggression rather than an assault.”

That’s quite interesting because obviously Erebos is the personification of darkness. In terms of what you said in your previous answer, how does that connect with the themes? What was the reason behind choosing the title?

“Whenever we go into these titles and stuff, we always have a good research on it. Larissa would spend possibly months going into it. She wants to make sure that she’s reading everything. Like the mythology of these stories of Erebos, the one born from chaos, and trying to find the personalities within these mythologies, linking them to modern-day issues. It’s crazy because I was saying to Larissa some of these stories from mythology still link to modern-day things just in a different light or way.

I think once Larissa did it for the first time with Animus, it was amazing that we found how closely it links. Then it gave that artistic approach to it where we weren’t just being overly transparent, we were giving it a creative edge to tell a story with it. More so that listeners can just dissect it rather than force it straight at them. It’s fine if someone just listens to the song and thinks it sounds cool or if they go further because it’s not forced. I think that’s why people become more intrigued about it.”

Something you’ve also touched on is that there are some very personal subjects on the album. It sounds like it’s been a very challenging year for you on a personal level, within the band. Has having the band as an outlet helped?

“Definitely. I think there was so much going on, you know, bad shit happening constantly. I know it was the same for the others, but in my head personally, I just didn’t care about anything other than just trying to do the best thing I could do and just using it as an outlet. It’s the same for everyone else in Venom Prison. I know they all feel the same. This needed to personally be the best selves of each thing. I feel like, the more you listen to the record and the more you dissect it, I think the more you hear that every single member of that band has really taken their playing and musicianship to another level. Because we’ve gone with (producer) Scott Atkins, who really helped with the recording, we’ve managed to highlight this a lot more in this album.”

You’ve said that Scott has pushed you to another level. Do you think you learned a lot from that?

“I don’t think I’ve learned so much in my entire life playing music. I don’t think I’ve learned more than I learned from Scott. Even just the way I approach things I feel differently about now. Like, even the way I play the way I think about, the songs and everything. As soon as I left the studio, it was like I almost just had this insane understanding of all the flaws I may have had in the past. I was acknowledging these flaws and things that I may have done in the past and then leaving them behind.”

You’ve talked about really pushing yourselves on the new record. What do you think fans will be most surprised by when they listen to the record?

“That’s really tough because I think the album is full of surprises. The interesting thing with this record is when we came to pick the singles, not one member had the same single as each other. Maybe we had one matching together, which I think was ‘Judges of the Underworld,’ but nobody else had their two and three picks the same. That was reassuring to know because it’s like we’d completed that mission of writing songs. I think anyone that comes to listen to Erebos will find every song has its own characteristics and personality. It does it for me every time I listen back to it. We get to these surprise moments. I always think ‘right, we did what we wanted to do there. I really did.’”

Another thing with this album, the videos we’ve seen so far are really strong visually. Was that thought of as part of the whole package? Was that something you looked at from day one?

“We always talk about video ideas if I’m honest, we always make sure we’re aware that they’re coming up at some point. It is important because bands are a package, whether you look at it from an artwork perspective, a video visual perspective, a promotional photo, like it’s an aesthetic for your band, and I feel like, maybe not lots, but bands do miss that sometimes. They forget that it is an aesthetic, especially this genre of music, I think it’d be like that it would be a given that the visuals will be so strong.

Yeah, that’s how I felt going into this album cycle where I was a bit like, it was weird because I was speaking to someone about it and I said that hip hop never has bad videos. The production in hip hop videos is always incredible. They’re so well shot, everything’s perfect, and then you see things sometimes in the metal world where you’re wondering who used their Nokia 3310 with an attached camera or something? There is no reason that they can’t make this effort.

There are other genres in the world proving that music can have amazing aesthetics, and I always gravitate towards hip hop, because it is the one that always has videos that are always top-notch. Sometimes it’s not even from someone high there in that genre. Sometimes it’s just local people and you’re wondering how they’re doing that work? So, it can be done. It just takes thought and you know, you got to act, you got to do it, you know.”

Just to round things off. There’s been a lot of great extreme metal records out already this year. There are bands really starting to push the boundaries whether it’s black metal, grindcore, death metal, whatever you want. With Erebos coming out, what do you think the album offers the extreme metal fan in 2022?

“That’s a tough question. That is a tough question. I feel like, and this is a clichéd thing to say which I do understand, but I feel like it’s our most metal record to date. I really do in terms of like, when I think of metal, I love listening to like Ozzy and stuff like Ultimate Sin, and even like Metallica, Iron Maiden, and all that. They were the things I grew up listening to especially guitar-wise.

Ben’s very much the same as well, and I think we just wanted to achieve, you know, having that influence with us again. I feel like it doesn’t neglect any of those metal moments, even when you get to ‘Pain Of Oizys,’ it’s no different to ‘One,’ or ‘Nothing Else Matters,’ or ‘Pillar of Giants’ on Ozzy’s Ultimate Sin. I think when we finished it, I said that this is our most metal record to date whether people see it or not. It definitely is. So hopefully, people will just like the fact that there’s just a record that’s coming out that’s metal for once. Not sub-genred to hell. Erebos is just a proper metal album.”

I have an unhealthy obsession with bad horror movies, the song Wanted Dead Or Alive and crap British game shows. I do this not because of the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll lifestyle it affords me but more because it gives me an excuse to listen to bands that sound like hippos mating.