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The Bolt Thrower warmongers are arguably the first death metal band to come up from the fertile metal land that is Great Britain. Death metal is an American creation put to life by Floridian and New-Yorker kids who were influenced by the new thing in the metal world at that time; thrash metal. Unlike their American counterparts, Bolt Thrower also drew their influences from a couple of British-grown genres namely crust and hardcore punk. While a genre creation may be a solitary affair, its evolution is pretty much a collective one where besides being influenced by the same core sound, they each have their own respective influences. That's why when new genres are born, the originators sound relatively different, they may go in completely different directions after some experimentation within their new sound, but after their first releases, most of them - sometimes with the help of new bands - build upon their work to develop the genre's defining sound. Bolt Thrower may be the most important figure in British death metal and an underground one but if they were first heading in a pure death metal direction is an interesting overlooked question.
Bolt Thrower's debut In Battle There Is No Law was released in '88, when death metal was just getting started in the United Sates. While the British probably got a sense of what was happening out there, something different was happening on their chunk of land. While metal pretty much came from the UK, so did punk. Most NWoBHM bands - which influenced thrash metal in turn - like Motörhead or Tank were influenced by punk as extreme metal bands that started popping up in the late '80s. While thrash bands were forming in the US and Europe, the UK didn't seem to get in the thing, maybe because they were all listening to punk bands, but still were probably somewhat influenced by their aggression and extreme sound - or just thought Motörhead wasn't extreme enough - which they blended with their own hardcore punk making what we know as grindcore. So while death metal was the new thing in the US, grind was so in the UK, with Earache starting to release some material of Napalm Death or Carcass. The Bolt Thrower guys were probably making their own bred of grindcore though their punk influences being a lot more apparent and with some death and thrash ones. As Carcass or Napalm Death, they probably were trying to write death metal, but probably saw the genre as extreme metal in general. Like stated earlier, they weren't in the thrash thing, so when wanting to do their kind of death metal, they didn't looked at American bands for much inspiration besides their aggression, but at their own hence the totally different direction people started to call grindcore. Since In Battle There Is No Law showcases an early stage of the band, you can clearly dissect every influence out there from the punk vibe some riffs or drumming of "Forgotten Existence" have to "Blind to Defeat"s grinding thrashiness. Each song at least grinds and has a clear influence of crust punk, thrash or death and Bolt Thrower's first album is arguably a grind release.
Other than its influences, In Battle There Is No Law is a raw, filthy and aggressive sounding album with the band member's inexperienced performance and songwriting giving a certain feel of youthful spontaneity at times. Well while not being really technical, the guitarists are competent, they do some solos and tapping with only small faults but another matter of interest is how they actually sound; raw and heavily down-tuned which help give the album a certain filthy atmosphere. As far as Jo's bass goes, you can hear it but besides sounding really raw and crunchy, that's pretty much it. If the riffs aren't that sloppy at all, it's not the same case for Andrew Whale's drumming. It's not a bad thing in itself, it does fit rather well the guitar's raw sound and he seems like beating the hell of his kit - we're at war, remember. You can also hear glimpses of the direction his style will take with some cymbal slashing moments. Actually he never really got that much better of a drummer, he kept his hard hitting playing but tweaked it with time, making some of the most headbangable, intense and... war beats in metal. Karl Willets isn't the beast he would become but he does a competent job, his vocals are less guttural and throatier, there are barely any growls but he still has a certain edge to his voice he would latter attain by doing some really low growls. Still, I find his voice rather appealing and fitting for their more primitive sound. The songwriting is mostly of the grindcore style; from the grinding riffs to the slower groovier ones, the other influences are mainly heard in the riffs and drumming themselves. And that's something that makes In Battle There Is No Law a most interesting listen; the songs have a certain duality to them, a riff can sound thrash and grind at the same time. The aforementioned “Blind to Defeat” is a good example; it starts with a unmistakably thrash riff played with one guitar while the other plays at the same time the end of the riff with an appropriate thrash drumming. After that a similar riff is played at grinding speed as the drumming, then the first riff is played in one of those groovy grind riffs fashion. Mostly the same thrash riff though with the exception of the beginning, it is played in a way that can't be more grind and a similar thing can be said about "Psychological Warfare" too, if not, there is something unmistakably grindcore for the better part of the song. Even the vocal delivery sounds grindcore for the most part. Otherwise, the thrash or grind riff may have a punkish vibe - or it may be a punk riff instead. Though it is not completely devoid of death metal influences, some riffs are definitely death metal, but there is too much other influences even in the most death metal songs to call the album that way.
While the album has an overall consistent quality, the title track is without a doubt the highlight, so much that it alone deserves a whole paragraph relating their first battle. It's highly unlikely that any Bolt Thrower fan who does not own the album has never heard the track. It's brutally simple, one dimensional but at the same time addictively appealing. It's a combination of simple yet genuinely catchy, aggressive riffs. The drumming isn't less sloppy either though being a high point of the song. While looking from the most possible objective point of view, it is surprising the song ends up being that good considering what has previously been stated, it probably works because it's an honest, effort full of youthful energy of some passionate kids. I mean it's one of those genuinely headbangable songs. With that almost-impossible-not-to-headbang-to cymbal-snare-cymbal-snare with the double bass drum accompanying beat shortly followed by a small roll fill and a kind of not any less headbangable groovy grind/thrash hybrid riff, two identical consecutive power chords played at the same time as a simultaneous cymbal/snare hit making you want to do two punches in the air and/or two headbangs, are played after three times the beginning of the riff. After the riff being repeated a couple of times, a really similar one - one that makes want more to do a kind of wave-like headbanging - with the two powerchords still at the end follows. Sure there are so many headbangable songs, but one that you can't resist its power? Not that many, if you're not doing so, you're either waging war in the pit - well you can always do both too - or not much of a warrior. The riffs have this kind of back and forth energy whose gravity it creates drawn you toward its unilateral motion as a black hole would do. War isn't that much of an easy place to escape, particularly when you have such a unit as the all-destroying-we-show-no-mercy Bolt Thrower.
So In Battle There Is No Law is far from what Bolt Thrower now plays, in fact, it's not that much of a death metal album. Early death metal could be a somewhat appropriate description since it's an album hard to clearly define while casually listening to it the first time as it's a mish-mash of several metal and non-metal genres with an aggressive and heavy sound. But after some listens, the grinding becomes far more apparent and with its "social context", I can safely say it is one of the first, defining grindcore albums sitting on the same shelve as Scum, Reek Of Putrefaction and World Downfall though it is not considered so. In fact, Bolt Thrower's first purely death metal album is Warmaster, Realm Of Chaos still had a lot of grind influences, though was pretty death metal. And their former was a lot more from the Swedish style than the American one, it was also released when Nihilist, then Entombed, put out their first materials. But as a grind album, as previously stated, In Battle There Is No Law is a most varied one. The raw, heavy as a tank sound is more akin to death metal as some attacks are more punk or thrash making their waging first battle a most effective one, being the first victory of the unstoppable onslaught the war machine would continue to bring upon Earth.