Those Once Loyal
olt fuckin' Thrower. Some things should never change. Like AC/DC and Motörhead, Bolt Thrower has earned its stripes by finding a sound and sticking to it. The band's sound is the no-frills death metal that flourished in the mid-'90s. While death metal has split into infinite variations and merged into the larger fabric of metal today, Bolt Thrower has adhered to death metal's basics: growled vocals, dark riffs replete with tritones and flatted seconds, and thundering double bass drums.
Perhaps only Obituary rivals Bolt Thrower in preserving the old school death metal sound. But what sets Bolt Thrower apart is its "war metal" concept. Every album and every song by the band is about war. Guns, axes, shields, and martial flags spill across the battle scenes on the band's album covers. With titles like Warmaster, …For Victory, and Honour, Valour, Pride, this much is clear: Bolt Thrower is manly. The manliness doesn't reach the parodic levels of, say, Manowar, and Bolt Thrower is one of the few death metal bands with a female member, bassist Jo Bench. But this is definitely chest-beating stuff. The band understands that heaviness occurs in inverse proportion to speed, so its songs, while sometimes brisk, are never too fast. Bolt Thrower songs are strong, simple, and built for one thing: headbanging.
Inspired by bands like Sacrilege, Discharge, and Slayer, Bolt Thrower arose in 1986 out of the Birmingham, England crust punk/grindcore scene. The band's name came from a siege weapon in the role-playing game Warhammer. Bolt Thrower found an early ally in John Peel, whose airplay of the band's demos resulted in its first record deal. After a raw, spirited debut, In Battle There Is No Law, the band signed to then-mighty Earache Records, home of seminal death metal bands like Napalm Death and Carcass. Over its next six albums, Bolt Thrower's sound shifted to straightforward death metal, topped by the unmistakable growl of Karl Willetts.
After 1994's crushing …For Victory, Bolt Thrower left Earache, while Willetts quit to pursue university studies. Willetts did the vocals for 1998's Mercenary, but otherwise fell out of the picture as the band signed to Metal Blade and cycled through singers and drummers. Dave Ingram's vocals on 2001's fine Honour, Valour, Pride were adequate, but he left in 2004 due to a rare illness which caused his hair to fall out. The band then brought Willetts back into the fold. To prove his mettle after a ten-year absence, Willetts faced an unusual audition: re-record the vocals for the entire Honour, Valour, Pride album. The results remain unreleased, but judging from Those Once Loyal, Willetts passed with flying colors.
The album finds Bolt Thrower same as it ever was. The only differences from before are that the band is tighter than ever, with faultless production. Guitars churn with clarity, drums pound out heavy, reliable beats, and the bass has both presence and bottom end. Willetts' growl is still ferocious. As for the material, much of it sounds the same. The band mines mid-paced grooves in almost every song, though this is not necessarily a drawback. Bolt Thrower has always been more about sound than the song, and the band is one of the few that can pull off riding the same riff for an entire song. Thankfully, this album is full of top-notch riffs. "Killchain" stands out with its monstrous stomp, "Those Once Loyal" has triumphantly anthemic guitars, and "Anti-Tank (Dead Armour)" features an unstoppably sinuous half-speed breakdown. Bolt Thrower may not write the most memorable songs, but it has mastered the art of the riff.
Although the band is lyrically obsessed with war, it does not comment on the current state of the world. Instead, the lyrics discuss war in the abstract: "To those once loyal wreathed in crimson / Solemn reminder of silent sacrifice / To the once loyal forever wrapped in glory / In white crossed acres, lines of sorrow laid." It's tough to extract emotional significance from lyrics like these, but this approach ensures longevity. For almost 20 years, Bolt Thrower has championed hammer-of-the-gods metal without compromise. For that, it deserves a salute.