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Whether or not one can appreciate the powerful piece of artistic aggression that is Bolt Thrower’s “In Battle There Is No Law” largely depends on what they view as death metal and when it truly became a fully evolved beast. It tends to exist in two worlds, one to a lesser extent than the other, largely because of when it was put together. For most modern trustees of all things brutal and atonal, most of what came out in the mid to late 80s under the death metal moniker was nothing more than the most aggressive extreme within the thrash metal paradigm without actually crossing over, often referring to it as death/thrash or extreme thrash. By the same token, those who enjoy the crisp, percussive quality of thrashing death metal albums like “Seven Churches”, “Schizophrenia” and “Scream Bloody Gore” would probably have a hard time getting around some of the production practices that were beginning to work their way into the death style by the later 80s, hearing it as a sloppy version of thrash metal with too much of a drum presence and guitars that go way muddier than Slayer and the Teutonic trio would have dared to venture at this point.
Ultimately this album shows the greatest appeal to those who either have a keen sense of death metal history and an appreciation for its evolution, or those who are also predisposed to liking the early works of Morbid Angel and Cannibal Corpse, albeit in a much simpler format and with a less guttural interpretation of the vocal style. It is essentially a step forward to the modern approach in terms of its heavily raw and untamed production, as well as the heavy use of blast beats and a very loosely tonal approach to harmony. It is driven along by a fairly simple riff set that varies between the wild tremolo characteristics of German thrash and the mid-tempo crunch of various American thrash bands. But the extremely dark and low end guitar tone goes well beyond anything conceived of within the thrash metal realm, creating this post mortem mixed with live suffering type of atmosphere that is quite morbid, yet not crossing over into the exaggerated state of brutality that started rearing its head with early Suffocation and Cannibal Corpse’s “Butchered At Birth”.
This is one of those albums that can be picked apart for a number of flaws if one dwells upon the parts rather than the whole. Many could point out the formulaic and very limited approach to riffing that often settles itself into a fairly standard groove, and then remark that the album is primitive and obsolete compared to the wildly technical and extremely dissonant character of various later albums in the genre. Some can and have pointed out that the muddied guitar character and bombastic drum presence, which when coupled with a still 80s analog and reverb injected production creates a sound that detracts from the overall heaviness of the album. But the truth is, the whole of this doesn’t lend itself to some sort of new pinnacle of heaviness, but instead an atmosphere of horror and dread that lives up to its title. The overloud drums become a series of artillery rounds, the muddy guitar tone becomes the sound of flesh being ripped by lead bullets, and the aggressive yet still human sounding voice of Karl Willetts becomes the mutterings of a deranged eye witness to the carnage taking place.
When approaching the twisted death march that starts off the opening song and title track “In Battle There Is No Law”, in all its post-Black Sabbath meets thrash metal glory, and the chaotic nature of the rest of the song and all the individual anthems of destruction that follow, what emerges is a combination of a battlefield atmospheric aesthetic and the interpretation of those unfortunate enough to be caught in it. In other words, when heard for what it intends to be, you’re too busy being freaked out by the implicit gore and violence in each muddled riff, pummeling blast beat and morose vocal bark to care about whether or not breaks the speed of sound, throws in a thousand unrelated riffs, or meets the Deicide standard of groovy death metal. It does contain a somewhat similar lead guitar tinge to the wild and highly ornamented style of Slayer, which tended to influence a large number of early death metal bands even into the mid 90s, but otherwise it is in a completely separate class from what many consider to be the standard for death metal in the modern sense.
Obviously not every classic needs to be either perfect or genre defining in order to claim such a status. There does tend to be a level of sameness between a lot of the shorter songs, thought to a lesser degree than was present on “Reign In Blood”, and the band does tend to refer to a rather limited riff set. This band would get even better over the years with multiple albums, evolving the character of their sound while sticking pretty close to the basics established early on in this genre’s development. But this is not the equivalent of an SRB rocket that becomes obsolete once it has launched the shuttle into orbit. This is an essential part of a rich history and tradition for arguably the best death metal band to ever come out of England. For its time it was an extremely bleak and forbidding album that likely tortured many a virgin eardrum, and a good deal of it does translate to modern listeners, though it will naturally take on a different character for those raised on bands like Cryptopsy. But its greatness as an album is obvious, and its status among classic early releases in this genre is well earned.
Originally submitted to (www.metal-observer.com) on May 31, 2009.