Starting in the mid to late Eighties, many of the originators of death and black metal started to commercialize their music into straight speed metal for mass appeal to a bar show, beer metal audience; social concert goers in the uniforms of leather jackets, band tees, and high tops who treated shows as a time to socialize and shoot the shit with their friends while listening to typical bands that never challenged their musical preconceptions or startled them away from their ritualized moshing. Just a few years prior, many of these types would’ve been the same idiots seen in Heavy Metal Parking Lot. While most of their peers moved on from Judas Priest to Motley Crue and Guns ‘n’ Roses, many listened to what was considered an “acceptable” fusion of heavy metal and radio rock played by groups like post-Ride the Lightning Metallica, Anthrax, and Testament.
These scenesters wouldn’t be caught dead listening to the earlier New Wave of British Heavy Metal. The underground at the time NWOBHM adopted the lyrical topics of Led Zeppelin, progressive rock, and Black Sabbath, the music of the previous generation of high school social outcasts. Speed metal scenesters couldn’t emotionally relate to it as they could they could the pop cultural and politically liberal topics of commercialized speed metal. NWOBHM mostly sharing the same production aesthetics as dirty Seventies guitar rock didn’t help then compete sales wise with pop metal’s slick radio rock aesthetics with production techniques barely differing from Bruce Springsteen and Def Leppard.
Early underground metal groups playing what would eventually be termed death and black metal fared even worse. Since the scenesters weren’t spinning Mercyful Fate LPs, there was zero hope that they would even even consider touching stuff like Slayer‘s Hell Awaits, Possessed‘s Seven Churches, or Sepultura‘s Morbid Visions. Record labels wanting to sell products pressured Possessed and Sepultura to conform to to commercially-accessible speed metal conventions starting from their second albums while Rick Rubin encourage Slayer to economize their composition on Reign in Blood and write simpler, more radio friendly heavy metal songs as Iron Maiden eventually did with Bruce Dickinson.
Bolt Thrower was founded by two guitarists in a Coventry, England pub with one shared goal: be heavier than Slayer. They succeeded. Coming from the dying punk scene, Bolt Thrower quickly bashed out their first album, In Battle There Is No Law. A bombastic declaration of the nihilism of human existent and the Darwinism of nature led to an album that pushed the then limits of punk and metal to their breaking points like Carcass‘s contemporary Reek of Putrefaction. In addition to the heavy Slayer influence, the record featured distinct rhythm riffing style consisting of a couple chords grinding together, creating dissonant dissonant texture that the band interspersed with streams of single note melodies as phrasal development like Repulsion but unique in that Bolt Thrower emulated the galloping rhythm and epic composition of the earlier New Wave of British Heavy Metal that Slayer abandoned on Hell Awaits. Punk label Vinyl Solution had no idea how to market the relentless In Battle There is No Law complete with heads on sticks to their social issue oriented, hardcore crustfund audience yearning for reaffirmation of their leftist political beliefs so the band signed with Earache for their next record.
The backstory of the Warhammer 40K tabletop miniature wargame was a fitting theme for Realm of Chaos: past, present, and future human history was cast into a never-ending cycle of violent conflict over millennia propelled by Lovecraftian chaos gods of time and space. A faster, more aggressive, and more proficient band stripped back the heavy metal influences present on In Battle There Is No Law and expanded the variety of riffing styles with heavy influence from Hellhammer/Celtic Frost‘s punk power chord progressions. This combined arms without homogenization riffing approach enabled Bolt Thrower to ride out their riffs to build tension and clash offtype riffs together to form an unrelenting narratives of constant chaos. The compositions conveniently all conclude with NWOBHM-like reconciliations in consonance to produce the most distinct songs of Bolt Thrower’s career.
Realm of Chaos was pimped heavily to a “geek” audience by Games Workshop and Earache; so much so that many casual metal fans or former players know of them as the “Warhammer band” while the “war metal” crossover crowd appreciates the record only for being Bolt Thrower at their fastest and heavies. There is little appreciation for the bands’ fusing of their influences into a transcendent heavy metal resembling the best of the concurrently rising death metal movement. Instead Bolt Thrower’s mainstream metal appreciation comes from their inferior later works.
War Master attempted to genericize Bolt Thrower into a death metal mold. The songs lost all of the verse-chorus-verse structure of hard rock and the NWOBHM to become death metal riff mazes like many of their illustrious contemporaries. The maze walls were more melodically complex than on Bolt Thrower’s 1980s ouput, generally being constructed from longer chord progressions and melodies to enable them to fit the death metal song format. Unfortunately this compositional choice diluted the grinding textures of the various separate riffing types Bolt Thrower previously employed, leading to a loss of a riff identity. The tempo being slowed down to accommodate extended melodic leads, choruses, and bridges as hooks arrange the grinding riffs around simply spaces worse ideas. The grinding riffs to melodic leads at time sound like they could’ve been one of the less brain-dead ideas on a Cancer album. War Master in hindsight was pandering to a mainstream audience like Necroticism: Descanting the Insalubrious and Signs of the Decline. While a more complete than the aforementioned two as at least the songs all work individually with zero boneheaded stadium rock, there was little to differentiate them beyond hooks and lyrics; War Master was just as much of a slog with repeated listening.
Bolt Thrower clearly embraced their first taste of mainstream success and wanted more; The IVth Crusade was pure heavy metal with grindcore rhythm riffs. Chord progressions were reduced and songs rock structured instead of grinding riff mazes. Bolt Thrower’s new sound was essentially Iron Maiden if they emulated rolling tank treads instead of galloping horses; Bolt Thrower had become the type of commercialized heavy metal band they were founded in direct opposition to. The dirges and again indistinct rhythm riffs brought the IVth Crusade to slog. For Victory perked things up a bit, keeping the same grinding mainstream metal formula but with the exuberance of their earlier, extreme period and melodically tying the grind to the Maiden. Outside of the title track and “Armageddon Bound”, the album was packed with as much sing-along, arena rock filler as a later Bruce Dickinson album; its better underground reputation than The IVth Crusade is simply due to the filler flying by faster.
The Metal Blade albums took the For Victory formula and made it into stadium metal to have products to sell for festivals. Rehashed grind riffs and omnipresent bouncy rhythms gave the cargo short crowd something to slamdance to. The emotional, Slash-like leads were catchy – as diarrheal as apple juice – and resembled boss music from annoying Japanese arcade games. The beer-swilling, air guitar crowd ate these up while the band pruned most of the early material from setlists. If the the mid 90s album were Iron Maiden commanding a Challenger tank, these were Skid Row’s Slave to the Grind featuring Karl Willets; Bolt Thrower had become the sort of sing-along arena band for the idiot scenesters they despised as bitter-drunken pub dwellers in the Eighties.
Nowadays when I can fathom the desire to listen to Bolt Thrower it’s almost always Realm of Chaos, the only record of theirs filled with very distinct individual compositions. A few years ago Earache put out a “Full Dynamics Range” reissue with ersatz new art more Starcraft than Warhammer which was actually much fuller sounding than the original while retaining all the old school heavy metal grit. Sebastian Bach Thrower claim this CD is unauthorized but after pimping Those Once Loyal as the ultimate Bolt Thrower album at every show for a decade, they can shove it and continue selling hundreds of Mercenary t-shirts to fourteen year olds; I’m going to listen to the best version of their best material.