I was a very lucky teenager in some ways, one of them being that when my interest in extreme and underground metal really kicked off, it coincided with my mum getting broadband for the house for the first time. Suddenly bands that had previously just been names in issues of Metal Hammer and Kerrang! were now at my fingertips (albeit courtesy of a slow as sludge download speed). So at a time in the early ‘00s when my peers were either up to their necks in emo or diving deep into metalcore (neither bad things) I was like a hermetic scholar, studying the sacred texts of ‘80s and ‘90s death metal, black metal and grindcore.
During this time I was fairly undiscerning. If it was loud and evil sounding it was for me. There were however a few exceptions, and one of them, I’m ashamed to say, was Bolt Thrower. There were several reasons for this. At the time the band were being derided in the rock press as a sort of anachronism, unsophisticated death metal for unsophisticated people.
There was also the band’s seeming obsession with war. This was the time of the invasion of Iraq and I was a budding peace activist, so you can imagine this was something of a turn off for me. Finally was the band’s association with Games Workshop and Warhammer. Even as a massive nerd myself (and I can’t stress this enough, I was and am a massive nerd) Space Marines and Orcs were a step too far and I was too preoccupied with what I considered cool.
According to legend, Bolt Thrower formed in a pub toilet in Coventry and emerged from the same crusty punk/metal crossover scene as Napalm Death and Benediction. Inspired by bands like Crass, Amebix, Venom and Slayer they started out as a grindcore unit before transitioning into a more death metal-influenced unit, singing to the legendary Earache Records in the process.
Debate among the faithful still rages on about the band’s best album, but several of my friends who know about this sort of thing suggested I start with their fourth album, the aptly named The IVth Crusade, when finally I gave the band the time they deserve.
You may have guessed from my tone already that I’ve become a convert. From the off, this album is exactly the kind of death metal I love, with the band mixing in some mid-paced, doom-influenced grooves into the ripping, thrash riffs. Songs such as ‘Where Next To Conquer’ and the title-track bring to mind Covenant-era Morbid Angel, with a touch of Candlemass chucked in. Back in the day, when people derided them as unsophisticated, they were clearly missing the point. Both Thrower were not musical luddites, they were refined, no-frill songwriters that understood that good riffs, well-structured songs and commitment were all that was necessary to make great metal.
My concerns about their war obsession were quickly swept aside as well. A cursory listen to the album’s lyrics reveal a band clearly taking their cues from their anarcho-punk heritage. Sure, all the songs are about war but the overarching message is war is hell. The title-track details the crusaders sacking of Constantinople and laments the futility of religious war. ‘As The World Burns’ is an anti-nuclear war song that Discharge would be proud of, and the final track ‘Through The Ages’ is a Crass-influenced spoken word piece where vocalist Karl Willetts lists a long and grim litany of wars, culminating in the then recent first gulf war. These death metallers were bigger peaceniks than I am.
As for the band’s mortifying preoccupation with Warhammer, well it’d be beyond hypocritical for me to sit in judgement of someone else’s passion considering my love of comics and science fiction. Besides, I’m old now and I don’t give a fuck about what’s cool, only what’s good, and Bolt Thrower are most certainly good.
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Words: Dan Cadwallader