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blackmetalfan, April 8th, 2012

Venom is one of those groups whose existence has been one with major ups and downs. After At War With Satan and the Warhead single, Cronos, Mantas, and Abaddon were poised and ready to take on a larger audience. Then came Possessed, which suffered horribly due to its muddy and distant production. At the time it was a grave misstep, almost undoing all of what the group had worked for since forming in 1979. The band started work on a fifth record, tentatively titled "Deadline", but Mantas was quick to realize that things were not working out with the rest of the band and departed Venom to start a solo career.

Calm Before the Storm is unlike any Venom album before or since. Cronos and Abaddon decided to replace Mantas with not one but two guitarists in Mike Hickey and Jimmy Clare (or Mike H. and Jim C., as credited on the album) and also decided to shake up the Venom sound a bit. Instead of the usual women, leather, and hell of the first four albums and their related singles, the band (or maybe Cronos) decided to play a mix traditional and power metal, with emphasis on sword and sorcery lyrics as well as a few rock 'n rollish themes. Jimmy Clare doubled on keyboards, Cronos toned down his vocals, and Abaddon and the two guitarists added vocal harmonies to many of the choruses. The band was also afforded the luxury of a much higher quality production, which is a big step above Possessed. Sonically, it might be one of the best sounding Venom records as far as production is concerned.

And then there are the songs. Admittedly, there aren't any real classics to be found, except maybe The Chanting of the Priests, which is about as close to the "old" Venom sound from before (and the only one the old school fans will know). But the rest of the material is all over the place. There are the typical Venom thrashers in Under a Spell (which ends up being the best of the "sword and sorcery" songs) and Fire, the slower, more powerful tracks like the title track and Beauty and the Beast, the "rock 'n roll" tunes in Metal Punk and Deadline, and, as with most Venom albums, the obligatory chauvinist offering in Muscle. The title track is a great atmospheric tune, with very tasteful keyboards. Fire is some brutal fucking speed metal; Abaddon's drumming is about as manic as he's ever been (and that's saying something). Under a Spell in particular is an excellent song and probably my favorite on the record; the solo in the middle is a thing of beauty. (Collector's note - the version of Under a Spell on the In Memorium compilation features a different mix with keyboards at the end and different vocals. The same compilation also has two outtakes from the album in Nothing Sacred and Dead Love.)

Venom fans are rough on this album, and not all of the criticism is unwarranted. Krackin' Up, Gypsy, and Muscle suffer from some of the most banal and horrible lyrics ever to grace a Venom record. All of the songs sound the same for the most part. To make matters worse, after Beauty and the Beast the band never gains back any momentum; Calm Before the Storm might have one of the worst second sides on any LP. The two guitarists are competent when trading off on solos, but the riffs lack the manic excitement of earlier material. Mantas is clearly missed. Cronos' bass sticks out in the mix, and there are some fun basslines in many of the songs. Abaddon is...well...Abaddon. For those who know Venom in and out, this should not come as a surprise. Some of the songs that the band worked on in 1986 during the Deadline sessions, like A Bite Before Evil and Love Amongst the Dead, could have found a home on this record, but still remain unreleased.

The big thing that hurts the album (or at least lets you laugh at it a bit) is that in almost every song Cronos yells "WATCH OUT!", "COME ON!", or "LOOK OUT!" at one point or another. It's like the band had about three-quarters of the song and Cronos decided to improvise around the rest of the material. It's amusing on The Chanting of the Priests, but when it starts popping up more and more as the album goes on, it becomes tiresome. Hearing Cronos sing "put some great white muscle in between your thighs" on Muscle (in full-on lecherous mode, no less) might scar a few folks for life.

The band as a whole hit the brick wall with this one. It's not a bad album (I personally find it underrated) but it might have had more respect if it was either tightened up a bit with a few more songs or released as a Cronos album, since Cronos basically took the sound (and the guitarists) from this album and perfected the approach on Dancing in the Fire. The album is ultimately forgotten once it's over, and most times I can't be bothered to listen after Fire. Venom fans should at least give it a try, but it's by no means a required purchase.