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In Battle There Is No Law has always seemed to me to be a low point in the inimitable Bolt Thrower’s career. In some ways, I’ve really wanted to enjoy this album, but I find that I just can’t get much out of it. Although to many it may seem to some like blasphemy to write a review for a Bolt Thrower album that is anything but unambiguously positive, I’m afraid that Bolt Thrower’s first outing simply doesn’t have the power that the band would develop so well on later releases. Before you cry out “For the love of Scarlett Johanssen, what folly could possibly motivate you to write of our beloved Bolt Thrower in this way?” hear me out. In Battle There Is No Law may not be a bad album, but it suffers from a couple of flaws that prevent it from realizing the band’s potential.
For a start, there’s the unfortunate production. The production fails to distinguish the trebles and mids sufficiently, which results in the drums and vocals overwhelming the guitars. I’m all for chaotic, dirty death metal but inaudible mud is another thing entirely. Instead of serving the listener a delicious, heaping helping of riffs to form the main course of a feast worthy of Valhalla, the production seems to highlight the brussel sprouts of the album, by which I mean the cringe-inducing, overused hi-hat that scrapes away insistently at your eardrums throughout most of the album. Granted, the production does contribute in some small way to the warlike atmosphere of brutality that characterizes Bolt Thrower’s sound, but that’s not enough to save the album. The low, almost gurgling guitar and bass sound sounds mean but it’s too muddy for this to translate into any sort of visceral impact.
The result is that the riffs are completely inaudible which, as any metalhead will tell you, is a fucking catastrophe. Furthermore, once I figured out what riffs the band was actually playing, I generally found that the riffs just didn’t strike my fancy. There are some notable exceptions, particularly on the title track/opener and a couple of tracks toward the end of the album. However, the bulk of the album just doesn’t cut it, which is made all the clearer by the occasional moments of inspiration that remind you that, well, Bolt Thrower is a really talented death metal band. It’s hard not to be disappointed after you hear the title track, which commands you to bang your head with one of the greatest Bolt Thrower riffs ever. After I’ve just finished making a fool of myself singing along to the riff – DUN-NA-NA-NA-DUN-NA-NA! DUN-NA-NA-NA-DUN DUN! – it’s hard for me to get very excited over “Challenge for Power,” which just sounds sloppy. The same idea was definitely executed better on Morbid Angel’s Blessed are the Sick, which set the standard for bizarre, aggressive riffs and chaotic solos.
Most of the time, though, the problem with the album isn’t that there’s so much happening that it all just gets lost, as on “Challenge for Power.” Rather, a lot of songs just have ridiculously simple riffs – two chords and a slow, simple picking pattern do not make a song, unfortunately. Granted, there are some interesting ideas on the album – the bass, for example, is well-done, considering the fact that it’s relegated to a very small role on the album most of the time, following the guitar parts through the murky production. However, the album fails to provide a really enjoyable listening experience, particularly when compared to the band’s later output.
For all that, this album does have at least one thing standing in its favor: variety. The band doesn’t stick to just one compositional style or song structure, simplistic riffing notwithstanding. The drum parts, in particular, are quite varied, including everything from early, old-school blast beats to slower (but still driving) rock beats. As a consequence, the album does demonstrate Bolt Thrower’s versatility and creativity. The problem isn’t that the band lacks ideas or artistic motivation but, rather, that those ideas are simply not executed well on this album. Indeed, this almost leads me to believe that Bolt Thrower were possibly too ambitious on their debut effort. As a young band, their songwriting and playing just doesn’t seem as focused as it does on later albums.
Considering the significant improvement that could be noted already on Bolt Thrower’s sophomore effort, Realm of Chaos, and the general awesomeness of the band’s discography, I feel pretty safe in saying that this album is not at all essential for most metalheads. If you’re a total Bolt Thrower fanboy, and there’s certainly no shame in that, then you might be interested in this album for the sake of completeness. In Battle There Is No Law has some major flaws but, in one sense, those flaws just demonstrate that the album gives insight into the band while the band was still developing into the War Master that it would later become. Thus, I’m fairly confident that I can recommend it to fans of Bolt Thrower but, if you don’t regularly pleasure yourself to Jo Bench, you probably don’t need to own this album.