The Strange World Of… Bolt Thrower

Bolt Thrower, an influential death metal band formed in Coventry in 1986 have bequeathed the world a formidable back catalogue. Kez Whelan is on hand to help you pick your way through it

Fifteen years on from their last album (and four years since their official breakup), and the cult of Bolt Thrower still shows no signs of weakening – in fact, it seems to be growing if anything, with the band’s influence rippling out far beyond the death metal scene they helped create. Aside from Slayer, perhaps, you won’t find another band name that will instantly instil such feverish adoration from the metal community, and looking back at the unique, uncompromising sound they carved out for themselves in the annals of the genre’s history, it’s not hard to see why.

Inspired by bands like Crass and Discharge just as much as they were Slayer and Black Sabbath, Bolt Thrower, along with peers like Hellbastard and Deviated Instinct, were pivotal in bridging that gap between hardcore punk and thrash metal in the late 80s – but even when you compare their early work to their contemporaries back then, there was a darkness and palpable, physical weight to Bolt Thrower’s music that no other band even came close to. As their early punk leanings swiftly mutated into something far more in line with the nascent death metal sound, it wasn’t long before the quintet were picked up by Earache Records, who joined bands like Morbid Angel and Napalm Death on a roster that would prove to be the building blocks for extreme metal for years to come.

Instead of the typically gory or Satanic themes of early death metal or the overt social commentary of grindcore, Bolt Thrower’s lyrical subject matter focussed entirely on warfare and, more specifically, Games Workshop’s Warhammer series – even the band name itself is taken from a dwarven artillery unit from the table top game. Whilst this gave the band a robust aesthetic that looked cool on a T-shirt, it also allowed them (as the best fantasy and sci-fi often does) to tackle deeper, more existential topics. For all the heroic imagery of space marines occupying bullet strewn panoramas and fantastical, cosmos-faring journeys the Bolt Thrower name conjures there’s an unflinchingly gritty realism that is part and parcel of their vision.

This depiction, which is more interested in revealing the injustices of war and the physical and mental damage conflict can wreak on an individual, does not glorify. In that sense, you could look at the band as a direct continuation of the theme behind Black Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs’; but if ‘War Pigs’ luxurious, menacing swagger was a fitting sound for a room full of generals sat in relative comfort whilst plotting to send thousands of young men to their demise, then Bolt Thrower’s hectic, confrontational style takes you right down into the trenches themselves, as bullets ricochet mere centimetres above your head as you struggle to comprehend the horror unfurling around you.

While you get the impression that many self-proclaimed “war metal” bands merely skimmed through their history text books to pick out the gnarliest looking fonts, Bolt Thrower’s bleak, oppressive sound is informed just as much by genuine historical conflict as it is the aesthetic of table-top fantasy games – to the point that their fourth full-length The IVth Crusade, as much a reference to the capturing of Constantinople in 1204 as it is the chronological placement in their discography, actually concludes with what could be described as a sonic bibliography in ‘Through The Ages’, as vocalist Karl Willets reads a list of real life battles he has referenced atop one of the band’s most ominous riffs.

As you’d expect from anyone with at least a rudimentary grasp of history too, Bolt Thrower have been defiantly anti-fascist since day one. In stark contrast to the apathetic “apolitical” leanings of many war obsessed metal bands, Bolt Thrower’s principled ethics have seen them get into some scraps over the years, most infamously perhaps being the time they beat the shit out of a group of neo-Nazis with a baseball bat whilst on tour with Immolation. Recalling the tale in the comment section of a fan’s blog, of all places, Karl recounts meeting “with the guys from Immolation, top blokes… off their tits on PCP, the load in was amusing… I’d had a bit of crystal meth that night which may have added to the overall weirdness of the night.”

After noticing “Nazi pricks had started to do that stupid arm stretching routine” in the crowd, Willets threw himself at them, flanked by the band’s baseball bat wielding tour manager. “The place descended into chaos, the security guards were related to the skinheads, it could have got bad,” he says. “We loaded our gear out super quick thanks to a more together Immolation and high-tailed it out of there. As we left, Baz [Thomson, Bolt Thrower guitarist] remembered we left the baseball bat in the venue, he went back in to retrieve it just as the skinheads returned to the venue for vengeance… I have never seen a man move so quick through a melee of flailing limbs!”

As vital as Bolt Thrower are to the fabric of death metal, it’s stories like this that demonstrate the punk mentality that has always underpinned the band. It manifests itself in numerous ways, be it their stubborn refusal to gouge fans on merch costs (a Bolt Thrower shirt may go for silly money on eBay nowadays, but you’d expect to pay no more than a fiver at one of their shows) or their willingness to defy the early “boy’s club” mentality of extreme metal, with iconic four-stringer Jo Bench being notable not only for her planet-shattering, game-changingly filthy bass tone, but also for being one of the first women (along with Nuclear Death’s Lori Bravo, of course) to play in a death metal band.

Given this, it’s hardly surprising to see modern hardcore bands taking huge amounts of inspiration from Bolt Thrower’s rhythmic style and uncompromising ethos, as well as abrasive electronic artists like Bong-Ra paying homage to their thick wall-of-sound on his Full Metal Racket EP. If you yourself are keen to delve into the strange world of Bolt Thrower but have never really known where to start, we’ve prepared this brief road map to the band’s discography; ten points of entry that should hopefully amount to a clear image of how the Bolt Thrower sound evolved, and why it continues to spark imaginations and be held in such reverence today.

‘Forgotten Existence’ from The Peel Sessions(1988)

Whilst it seems odd there’s never been an official re-release or exhumation of the band’s demo recordings, an early incarnation of Bolt Thrower is captured in top form on this early 88 Peel Session, recorded just a few months after Napalm Death had terrorized the BBC recording studios for the first time. Before Karl Willets’ guttural, roaring voice would come to help define the Bolt Thrower sound, original frontman Alan West brought a far more traditional punk flavour to the band, enunciating stark, throaty vocal patterns that wouldn’t have sounded out of place atop bare bones Discharge-style D-beat.

As punky as the band’s sound is at this point, that uniquely cacophonous, flattening style they’d later grow into is still very evident here. That writhing, grotesque riff that kicks in about half-way through ‘Forgotten Existence’ is pure death metal, pre-dating the similarly twisted and sinister riffing style Autopsy would popularise on their debut Severed Survival by a year.

‘In Battle There Is No Law’ from In Battle There Is No Law(1988)

Although it only hints at the huge, rhythmic sound they’d later become known for, Bolt Thrower’s debut full-length is still an incredibly unique record, fusing the hard, crusty riffing style of bands like Sacrilege with the raw speed and intensity of the emerging grindcore genre. This is easily their most barbaric and abrasive recording; it’s almost as if the band hadn’t fully settled into their own sound yet, and they’re going like the absolute clappers here to make up for it. There’s something about the sheer speed of this recording compared with the overtly thrashy riffs and genuinely apocalyptic atmosphere that feels more akin to South American extreme metal acts of the era like Sarcófago than it does their peers in Napalm Death or Doom.

However, the title track still manages to incorporate one of those gigantic grooves that would later become their trademark, but there’s a bristling, curiously stunted quality to the rhythm here that keeps it sounding more anxious and jittery than their later work. It eventually explodes into one of those classic tremolo picked Bolt Thrower riffs, but complimented by an absolutely blistering blastbeat, giving it a genuinely chaotic energy that you won’t really find elsewhere in their discography.

‘World Eater’ from Realm Of Chaos(1989)

The band’s sound tightened up considerably in the space of just a year, and their first full-length for Earache Records showcased an ever darker, heavier Bolt Thrower. The furious, youthful exuberance that defined the debut is still here in spades, but the guitar tone is thicker and much more metallic, Willets’ vocals are deeper and more inhuman and the songs themselves are more clearly defined.

Whilst the whole album is essential, it’s undoubtedly ‘World Eater’ that has become the record’s calling card. Armed with one of their catchiest and most memorable riffs and drummer Andy Whale’s pulverising patterns, it’s the sound of a band gleefully discovering that their music’s destructive force actually becomes even more powerful when they ease their foot off the gas a little.

Realm Of Chaos also saw the band’s visual aesthetic coming into firmer focus, with the label striking a deal with local business Games Workshop to use one of Warhammer artist John Sibbick’s paintings for the cover. Much like salt and vinegar or Reeves and Mortimer, the combination of Sibbick’s futuristic yet barbaric visions and Bolt Thrower’s violent but increasingly otherworldly sounding death metal was one of those pairings that just works, distinguishing the band from the more generic gore approach of many of their peers and going a long way towards helping the Realm Of Chaos feel like a real, tangible place.

‘Destructive Infinity’ from Cenotaph(1991)

Serving as a warm-up for their next full-length Warmaster, the Cenotaph EP is an important step in the development of the Bolt Thrower sound, acting as a bridge between their early, rougher style and the more robust, steamrollering approach they’d later adopt. ‘Cenotaph’ itself is obviously one of the finest jewels in the Bolt Thrower crown, but it’s the B-Side ‘Destructive Infinity’ that really demonstrates how confident the band have become at slower tempos. There’s very little trace of grindcore left here at all as the song begins with a gigantic, doomy swagger, and the scratchier, acidic guitar sound has been usurped by a thick, steel plated dirge that seems to envelop all in its path.

1991 was almost certainly the most important year in death metal’s history, but whilst records like Death’s Human, Morbid Angel’s Blessed Are The Sick, Suffocation’s Effigy Of The Forgotten, Gorguts’ Considered Dead, Atheist’s Unquestionable Presence and Immolation’s Dawn Of Possession were all pushing the boundaries of the genre in terms of technicality and progressive song-writing, Bolt Thrower would make a similarly indelible mark on death metal by pushing hard in the opposite direction here, emphasising primitiveness and the sheer, unstoppable power of simplicity.

‘What Dwells Within’ from War Master(1991)

Arriving just a month after Cenotaph, the War Master album would take the heavier sound of that EP to even more devastating places. The album has a genuinely oppressive weight to it, and is easily one of the band’s most harrowing, atmospheric recordings. If the first two albums were like being stuck in the middle of a fire fight, then this is the sound of the aftermath, as the explosions start to subside and you’re left to survey the acres of mud and corpses surrounding you in wide-eyed, sweat-drenched horror.

This atmosphere doesn’t come at the expense of Bolt Thrower’s thunderous power however; in fact, the tighter, colder feel the band achieve here makes their trademark death metal sound even more impactful and destructive (so destructive, in fact, that Slaughterhouse Studios actually burnt down just two weeks after the band finished recording there). ‘What Dwells Within’ is another all-time classic Bolt Thrower tune, its iconic opening riff a testament to how much power the band can wring out of just a handful of notes. Lyrically it finds Willets getting slightly more abstract than the preceding albums, although the band’s defiant punk ethos still rings through in lines like “our status is classed through amounting possessions/whilst shrouding the truth through delightful expression”.

‘As The World Burns’ from The IVth Crusade(1992)

After discovering their riffs hit even harder at a more mid-paced tempo on War Master, the band’s fourth record follows this idea through to its logical conclusion and slows right down to almost doom metal speeds. Whilst Andy Whale’s rock-solid double-kick work is the beating heart of this album, the actual riffs themselves have more in common with the grandiose, dramatic atmosphere of Candlemass than they do any of the band’s death metal peers. This yearning, almost romantic quality seems to be reflected in the artwork too, with the band opting for French painter Eugène Delacroix’s 1804 piece ‘The Entry Of The Crusaders Into Constantinople’ instead of anything Games Workshop affiliated this time.

‘As The World Burns’ is a great example of this album’s overall style, with its stirring guitar harmonies taking on a far more mournful, reflective tone than the all-out blitzkrieg of their first two records as Willets offers up perhaps the neatest encapsulation of the band’s anti-war sentiment so far: “Life expectancy now decreases/ as atomic warfare rapidly increases/ Our foolish games, what have we learnt?/ No time for sorrow as the world burns”.

‘Lest We Forget’ from …For Victory(1994)

The final album from the band’s “classic” lineup and their last for Earache, …For Victory is not only a crisp summation of Bolt Thrower’s prior evolutionary process, but also something of a blueprint for the direction their Metal Blade material would take. Eschewing the lumbering doomy pace of The IVth Crusade whilst retaining its suffocating density, this album really hones in on the band’s percussive, pulsating groove. That irresistible rolling rhythmic quality has always set Bolt Thrower apart from their blastbeat hungry contemporaries, but they’re embracing that rumbling swagger more than ever before here, letting it take centre-stage and really propel songs like the galloping ‘Lest We Forget’ into thunderous, mosh-pit friendly riff-fests.

Perhaps this subtle shift in focus isn’t surprising when looking at the era this was released – Sepultura had ushered in a wave of palm-muted chug obsessed groove metal with Chaos AD just a year beforehand, and its influence was already starting to seep into death metal with even peers Napalm Death embarking on a more industrial tinged, groove powered direction beginning with Fear, Emptiness Despair mere months before the release of …For Victory. But for Bolt Thrower, this didn’t really feel like a seismic leap or a betrayal of their established style, given that these huge, buoyant rhythms had always laid dormant in their sound, and in bringing them to the forefront, …For Victory still couldn’t help but sound like anyone but Bolt Thrower.

‘No Guts, No Glory’ from Mercenary(1998)

The years that followed …For Victory would see many changes in the Bolt Thrower camp, with the band not only leaving Earache, but both Karl Willets and Andy Whale opting out of the group due to touring fatigue as well. The band would enlist legendary Pestilence and Asphyx frontman Martin van Drunen for a European tour, and although it’s a shame he never stuck around to record anything with them, fans were relieved to see Willets returning to the fold in time for their Metal Blade debut (the drum stool would be filled by session percussionist Andy Thomas, who has drummed for everyone from Squarepusher to Badly Drawn Boy, and more recently Lee Dorrian’s post-Cathedral act With The Dead).

Despite the line-up turbulence, Mercenary feels very much like a continuation of the last record, with an even bouncier groove and keener melodic sensibility. Any increased accessibility hasn’t come at the expense of the band’s trademark power however, with that assuredly crushing mid-paced stomp sounding more authoritative than ever on songs like the anthemic live favourite ‘No Guts, No Glory’. It’s worth noting how far Baz Thomson has come as a lead guitarist here too; whilst Bolt Thrower are certainly more renowned for their pulverising riffs than they are extravagant guitar solos, the leads here are incredibly expressive, memorable and catchy, a far cry from the wild, atonal bursts of Slayer-esque squealing that punctuated their early work.

‘K-Machine’ from Honour Valour Pride<2001

Whilst Bolt Thrower’s drummer problems were now over as Martin “Kiddie” Kearns joined the band full-time, Willets had once again left shortly after the release of Mercenary with Benediction’s Dave Ingram stepping in to provide vocals on their seventh full-length. Ingram’s voice is not dissimilar to Willets’, sporting the same hoarse, bellowing style, but unfortunately, when combined with the band’s now-formulaic song-writing, the album as a whole has a kind of “uncanny valley” feel to it, wherein the more it tries to sound like classic Bolt Thrower, the more uncomfortable it becomes. If …For Victory had felt like a refinement of the band’s sound, Honour Valour Pride doesn’t really add anything else at all, resulting in what feels like their safest and least adventurous record.

That said however, this is by no means a bad album; Bolt Thrower on auto-pilot is still fuckin’ Bolt Thrower and this thing still has an exceptionally strong sound to it. Kearns’ drumming is reliably ferocious throughout, and there are some bona-fide Bolt bangers here like ‘K-Machine’, a punishing cut that really emphasises Kearn’s steady double-kick work and one of the band’s most unbelievably murky, suffocating guitar tones. The wailing melodic leads that made Mercenary so memorable are out in full force on this track too.

‘The Killchain’ from Those Once Loyal(2005)

Determined to go out on a much bigger bang than Honour Valour Pride, Bolt Thrower reunited with Karl Willets once again for Those Once Loyal, an album they were so pleased with they never tried to follow it. They’d always promised that they’d stop recording after the creation of “the perfect Bolt Thrower album”, and whilst surely every fan would have a slightly different conception of what the perfect Bolt Thrower album would sound like, it’s hard not to agree that Those Once Loyal is, at the very least, an extremely fucking good Bolt Thrower album. Their late-period groove has never sounded more efficient or destructive than it does here, managing to out-do their last couple of albums in terms of heaviness, energy and the sheer emotive power of the riffs, that feel much more invigorating and profound here.

Every track from this one is a certified classic (the title track itself features one of the most genuinely spine-chilling, evil sounding riffs the band have concocted), but ‘The Killchain’ is notable not only for demonstrating this line-up’s absolute mastery of that pounding, infectious groove, but also for rounding off a thematic series that began with Realm Of Chaos’s ‘World Eater’ and continued through War Master’s ‘Cenotaph’, The IVth Crusade’s ‘Embers’ and Mercenary’s ‘Powder Burns’ – all songs linked together by one of the band’s most thrilling yet simplistic riffs, a riff that’s sure to echo on through the ears of metal fans for years to come.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today