Houston’s Venomous Maximus are a metal band committed to the classic definition of heavy metal. On Beg Upon the Light, their debut full-length, they rely on chunky riffs, hard-pounding drums, and the occasional creepy organ to power through songs about subjects like witches, epic battles, and mystical sorceresses. This kind of material is often classified as “stoner” rock or metal these days, but Venomous Maximus has no real interest in the kind of spacey musical digressions that are the other hallmark of stoner metal. The band is much more indebted to the metal of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, like Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Dio.
And musically, the band is right in that sweet spot, with strong riffs and a solid low end. The rhythm section of drummer Bongo and bassist Trevi Biles support the guitars without doubling them all the time, and it gives their songs a sense of motion that doesn’t rely on speed-riffing. The guitars, courtesy of Christian Larson and Gregg Higgins, are very good throughout the album, sounding huge when they need to and laying back on several more sedate interludes.
The band’s problem, then, is that guitarist Higgins, who also serves as vocalist, can’t sing. If Venomous Maximus were a more modern metal band, that might not be such a big deal if he could growl or scream. But this is the sort of style that has always worked best with a strong, often over the top, singer. Higgins is the opposite of that. Sometimes he works his way through the songs using a sort of spoken word chant, and that’s decent. Just as often, though, his attempts to sing end up sounding like sort of a high-pitched, throaty, off-key moan. It distracts from both the riffing and the lyrics, which are really a lot of fun, and drags the rest of the band down.
“Dream Again” features truly punishing doom metal style guitar work and may be the album’s heaviest track. But since Higgins moan-sings his way through the song, he pulls the focus away from the excellent music every time he opens his mouth. Single “Moonchild” similarly suffers because of Higgins’ moaning. This song has a potentially catchy chorus and interesting lyrics involving wayward entities needing human souls. Higgins can’t even get close to singing a true melody during the chorus, though, so the song falls short of being the great sing-along it could be.
When Higgins isn’t really attempting to sing, Beg Upon the Light fares better. The album has three quiet tracks that nicely break up the heaviness. The record opens with “Funeral Queen”, a two-minute organ solo that sets a dark tone for the album without a single guitar. “Father Time” is a minor key acoustic guitar piece where Higgins speaks dramatically, just above a whisper, as organ chords flit around in the background to make it all a bit unsettled. And the album’s penultimate track, “Mother Milk”, comes in between the band’s raging theme song “Venomous Maximus” and epic closer “Hell’s Heroes.” “Mother Milk” features violin work inspired by the famous “Danse Macabre” violin solo laid over a gentle acoustic guitar melody. When Higgins eventually comes in, he’s once again not attempting to sing and it feels like a dramatic reading of a short poem.
When Higgins chooses to just yell or speak his way through the tracks, the songs still feel like they’re missing a real singer. But at least he isn’t doing anything to actively hurt the tracks. “Venomous Maximus” begins with a cool riff and a pulsing drumbeat Higgins comes in shouting “Venomous Maximus!” at the top of his lungs and continues in that vein throughout the song. “Hell’s Heroes” manages to justify its seven-minute running time with a series of building riffs and lyrics about men who died in battle. The way the guitar riffs keep shifting throughout the song is inventive and it keeps the track from getting repetitive. It’s the band’s best moment and placed wisely at the end of the album, it sends Beg Upon the Light out on a high note.
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