Venal I.V. plays thrash music. If you’ve never heard it, imagine jackhammer drums playing about five million beats a minute, deafening distorted guitar and screamed vocals that sound like they could be sampled from Jurassic Park. Some songs are as short as 16 seconds, sonic blasts that hit you in the adrenal glands like a triple espresso shot.
But it’s not caffeine that riles them up, nor is it pills, smack, booze or smokes. You see, Venal I.V. began as, and remain, a straight-edge band—adherents to a substance-free offshoot of the punk movement. “We wanted to give youth culture in Missoula something positive,” says guitarist Matt Svendsen says, “An alternative to just going out and getting wasted.”
Svendsen began Venal I.V. in November of 2000 with bassist Kate Keegan and Matt Brehe, who at the time was the drummer of local band the Reptile Dysfunction. The music they were playing then fell somewhere under the broad label of punk rock, with elements of ‘80s hardcore in the same vein of pioneer straight edge bands like Youth of Today and Gorilla Biscuits. In the guitar riffs one could also hear the influence of old ‘77 style punk rock, bringing to mind bands like Vice Squad.
The summer of 2001 was possibly the heyday of the Missoula straight edge hardcore scene, led by Venal I.V. and centered around the all-ages Higgins Hall at the Boys and Girls Club. Missoula youth turned out in droves for the shows, and you saw black Xs on the hands of dozens of kids. There was an almost palpable sensation of positive youthful energy in the air. It’s easy to look through rose-tinted lenses in reminiscing about that summer, but the scene felt vibrant and somehow immortal without that cocky, exclusionary attitude common to other cities’ straight edge scenes.
But, as the dreariness of autumn arrived, youth enthusiasm waned and simultaneously personal and musical conflicts within Venal I.V. escalated. In November of 2001, a year after the band started, they broke up. Then, in February, they reemerged as a two-piece, with Brehe on drums and Svendsen on guitar and both of them screaming. The new incarnation of Venal I.V. broadened its ideological horizons.
“We felt we made our point [about straight edge], and could focus on different, more political issues,” Svendsen says.
Both remaining members are anarchists with varying degrees of militancy. In regard to moving away from a straight-edge emphasis, “There are far more urgent matters at hand over an individual’s choice to poison their own body,” Brehe says. “Centralized government, combined with capitalism and political hierarchies, are what are at the root of drug consumption in this country,” he says.
“People think corporations are helping their economy,” adds Svendsen, “But the truth is they are exploiting their economy and sucking all the spirit from their cultures.”
Their most recent self-released CD, Denominations, exemplifies this new social view. It has songs addressing the School of the Americas, corporate pollution and government censorship, but doesn’t have a single straight-edge track. The intense music gives urgency to the sense of frustration and systemic rage of the lyrics.
“If you’re singing about a subject you feel strongly about, wouldn’t you want the sound to be a reflection of your attitude toward it?”
Svendsen asks. “I want something that’s going to break my head open and cram it with ideas.”
This is the drive of Venal I.V.: to jar people a little and make them think. However, they are not naïve enough to believe that simply playing in a band will bring about a revolution. “The music is a means to revolution,” Brehe says, “It is no different than any form of propaganda. Yet music is never enough. Armchair activism is not acceptable in the revolutionary community. Action is required.”
Brehe says he supports Wild Rockies Earth First!, Critical Mass, the Buffalo Field Campaign and “any group aiding in animal liberation.”
Svendsen is a father and busy with that, but teaches his daughter non-corporate values and is conscientious about what they consume.
“I boycott Coke,” he says. “It tastes like the blood of Colombian union organizers.”
Despite the strong ideological views, Svendsen says Venal I.V. isn’t trying to force their ideas. Since the decline of the Higgins Hall scene, most of Venal I.V.’s shows have been at Jay’s Upstairs. He says, “I have my opinions about alcohol, but I don’t push a hardliner attitude on anyone.
“When it comes down to it,” he muses, “Whether you’re drinking or not, we’re all at shows for the same reason: hearing music and venting frustrations.”