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When one thinks of classic Bolt Thrower releases, "Realm of Chaos", "IVth Crusade" and "Those Once Loyal" most often come to mind and Mercenary more times than not is lay by the side as a relic of a time when death metal was in decline and Bolt Thrower were going through a turbulent time in the band. It's almost as if the album never had a chance from it's conception, like an under privileged kid striving to be more this album screams for your attention but due to stigma's perpetrated by some the album is often looked over. Mercenary isn't only a good album but it's absolutely amazing and one of the best in a fine discography such as Bolt Thrower's.
Mercenary may have slowed down compared to it's predecessors and the production values may seem more polished but that can't take away from this album's overall epic feel and heaviness. There is a nice sprinkling of melody throughout but done so very tastefully that Bolt Thrower don't venture into the realms of melodeath. The opening track "Zeroed" does a very good job of starting off this album. No shit taken, a nice blast off and a track that really gets everything going. The guitar tone on this song and throughout the album is cleaner than previous Bolt Thrower releases but still crunchy in typical Bolt Thrower fashion you will recognise this as an atypical Bolt Thrower release straight away. All the features are there, big heavy hitting riffs, nice bassy sound and Karl Willets excellently pronounced and deep vocals.
Some of the strong points in this album are when everything grinds to a halt and slowly builds up again. Like in "Laid to Waste" the intro riff is a blast from the past and wouldn't feel to out of place on "IVth Crusade" or "...For Victory" but at a certain point everything comes crashing down and a more groove oriented riff takes over before frenetically speeding up accompanied by Karl Willets roars before settling back down into the groove. This type of riffing is evident throughout the whole album from "Return From Chaos" middle section onto the main body of "To the Last" into the frantic riff fest that is "No Guts, No Glory" it is a prominent feature throughout yet rarely feels overdone.
The lead guitar on this album can be described as tasteful and melodic without too much technicality. I really like the simplicity of the leads on this album, they're not easy by any stretch of the imagination but they're not overtly technical and long gone are the days of frantic dissonant solos of yesteryear. Everything is tight and neat and well done, it's hard not to appreciate the solos and leads when they kick in.
In the lyrics department Karl really excels again. One thing Karl Willets was always able to do well is write a damn good lyric about war, he has it down to a tee, he makes them flow well with the songs and knows when to really roar to accentuate a particular word. This is evident in every single Bolt Thrower release except for "Honour, Valour, Pride" where Karl is not in the band, that release only further compounds Karls lyric writing prowess. The best example of this on the album is in the title track, not only do the lyrics flow well throughout the song but if you read the lyrics in the booklet you'll see what I'm talking about, very intelligent and very well written. The album closes in truly epic fashion. "Sixth Chapter" has a final closing section not so dissimilar to the closing section of the song "...For Victory" but this song is intelligently placed to finish off this album, a bid farewell.
I find it hard not to be impressed by this record, I never understood where the hatred came from. I nearly stayed away from this album based on some people's opinions. It is a worthy addition to the spectacular discography of Bolt Thrower. It has the signature Bolt Thrower sound and all the bells and whistles associated with a Bolt Thrower record and in this humble reviewers honest opinion it is no worse than any of the previous records.
One might presume that, coming after the longest studio hiatus Bolt Thrower had taken since its initiation, the British battalion might have discovered some means by wish to refresh itself, innovate its tried and true, formidable formula. Four years wasn't a whole lot of time, granted, and after the productivity of their 1988-1994 period (5 albums, EPs and live recordings, touring, making a name for themselves), they were well deserved of a pause in the action, but once Mercenary at last arrived, I was rather shocked at just how bland an experience it proved to be. I have long described the record as '...For Victory with most of the life sucked out of it', and that holds up 15 years later, as I still struggle to extract any value whatsoever from this...
What we've got here is a selection of even more simplified-than-usual Bolt Thrower groove riffs, which might have been reorganized from earlier songs, or really belonged to just about any boring mosh oriented groove metal act of the 90s to come along in the wake of a Pantera or Machine Head. Add to these a pitiful few old school death metal tremolo progressions with double bass, and a handful of those majestic melodies that dominated ...For Victory, and phone the whole fucking shebang in. That's Mercenary in a nutshell, the nadir of this band's career, and the first landmark in a decade plus span of mediocrity post ...For Victory that often has me questioning why so many hold the band up as some bastion of consistency. This is quite easily the least amount of effort they've exhibited on any full-length, with a fraction too much repetition of unworthy riffs, a vocal performance that is entirely dry and monotonous, drums that feel far too relaxed against the meatier rhythm guitar tone, and bass lines so disinterested and ineffectual that I very often forget they're even a part of the album. I can count the number of Mercenary's quality guitar progressions on my testicles, pre-orchidectomy.
One of these is in "Behind Enemy Lines", and the other is the central melody to "Power Burns", which is quite understandably a favorite among this track list. Yet even there the damn notes are repeated too often that it struggles to hold up. Elsewhere, the material fails to leave any impression on the conscience. Bolt Thrower were no strangers to incorporating slower, trudging chord and mute patterns into their tunes from as early as the first two records, but their they at least felt crushing, oppressive and visceral. The guitars in tracks like "Return from Chaos", "Laid to Waste" and "Zeroed" basically just sound like beefed up reruns of their older songs, with no memorable note sequences and a predilection towards boring accessibility. Snail paced grind for pub metal mules, and even when they get some half-assed momentum building, the riffs are continuously recycled, and it seems Mercenary is fresh out of ideas. Even the most 'death metal' moments on the album smack of the mid-90s mediocrity of what Six Feet Under and Obituary were releasing.
The lyrics are essentially also retread from themes the band had beaten to death; but while that was probably to be expected, Willetts might have at least delivered them with some punishing panache. It almost feels as if the band woke him up one morning while hungover, too disaffected to care, and had him record his lines regardless. 'Guys, do I have to do this right now? Aww, alright.' Mercenary would have sounded just as lackluster without him. Perhaps the one area in which the album doesn't completely fuck off is Ewan Davies production, if only because he pulls such punch from the limited palette of guitar riffs. Granted, the drums, bass and vocals are nothing at all to write home about, and the album by nature lacks the brightness of its predecessor, but it's certainly forceful when cranked through a decent pair of speakers. Unfortunately, the usual Bolt Thrower brawn here is betrayed by the dull songwriting, and they seem to have transformed temporarily into another casualty of the 90s. It's not the worst album I've heard from a death metal band of this period, but reeks mildly of contractual filler. No wonder Karl took off after this.
Let's make one thing clear right off the bat: Even the worst Bolt Thrower album is still miles ahead of the best output of most other bands, and "Mercenary" is no exception. However, it seems as if the consensus of the metal community is that this album is a sub-par piece of work brought on by some unfortunate circumstances that surrounded Bolt Thrower at the time, namely lineup problems as well as the general state of metal in 1998. This could not be more untrue, because "Mercenary", while not a masterpiece, is still a solid slab of death metal that blew away much of the competition in the late '90's. When one thinks of the state of metal in the '90's, it's a wonder that Bolt Thrower managed to hang in there and create nothing but uncompromising death metal in an era of alternative and rap-influenced "metal" acts.
Unusually, the first track of the album, "Zeroed" is rather weak by the rest of the album's standards, but the second and third songs quickly pick up the pace , intertwining quick beats with slow, crusty riffs that keep the song's pace varied for a more refreshing listening experience. These songs set a pattern for the rest of the album, which doesn't deviate too strongly from the formulas present in these initial songs. The songs all clock in at roughly five minutes, and all are chock-full of riffs that live up to Bolt Thrower's mighty reputation.
Although a groove permeates throughout this album, it's not groove in the sense that it's overly repetitive, nor that it sounds anything like "groove metal" bands like Machine Head. Rather, the groove allows the listener to get caught up in the sludgy riffs and bang their head until the song is over, all while completely losing track of time, allowing the songs to go on for four to five minutes without getting stale. Before the listener knows it, the album is already over, and the ability to make low-tempo riffs so powerful is an ability that Bolt Thrower has always excelled at. The guitar tone is absolutely crushing on this album, like all Bolt Thrower albums, and enhances the riffs to the point to where they're absolutely bludgeoning, so keeping this album away from children and pregnant women would probably be a good idea. There aren't too many guitar solos on this album, although they aren't really necessary within the confines of the songs themselves. There are, however, several melodies that are played over the riffs, most prominently in the title track (which also features a superb guitar solo towards the end of the track).
It's well known among Bolt Thrower fans that vocalist Karl Willlets was unsure of whether or not he wanted to stay in Bolt Thrower at the time this album was released, but you'd never know it based on his performance on "Mercenary". His growls are just as deep and manly as they've ever been, securing his reputation as one of the best death metal vocalists of all time. His vocals are the perfect counterpart to the war-infused music of Bolt Thrower, and any of their work would be most appropriate for any war-themed movie or video game. The rest of the band is able to bring their A-game as well, as every instrumentalist is able to contribute to the Bolt Thrower sound in a way that benefits the album substantially.
If there is a flaw in this album, it's that many of the songs end with a fade-out or with a held chord that drags on the song length for 30-45 seconds longer than it should, although these are minor offenses when compared to other bands who do the same thing and don't have music as solid as Bolt Thrower's. And yes, some may say that the album does have somewhat of a monotonous feel to it, but Bolt Thrower always abided by the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" school of thought, and the simple fact that the album maintains a consistent feel should not put off any fan from checking it out. While "Mercenary" isn't the best Bolt Thrower album, it's still a great death metal album with an unfair reputation that owes itself to being listened to.
This review was originally written for Examiner.com and can be found at its original source here: http://www.examiner.com/x-44499-San-Antonio-Heavy-Metal-Examiner
As it has been previously stated, the late 90's were not an excellent time for Bolt Thrower. Line-up shifts and a vocalist who didn't know if he wanted to stay or go, Bolt Thrower found themselves in a worrisome situation during that time. All of this would play into an album like "Mercenary," one which isn't as warmly recieved by their fans as its predecessors, particularly "For Victory" and the widely regarded masterwork, "IVth Crusade." In fact, "Mercenary" isn't discussed hardly at all amongst fans, instead pushed aside for those favored albums.
One could guess that fans choosing not to talk about a certain album would mean its mediocre at best, not necessarily bad nor great, as both of those usually warrant discussion. Instead, "Mercenary" seems like the forgotten child of Bolt Thrower's catalog, managing to get a "meh" out of fans instead of "wow," the reaction that is usually seen upon hearing "IVth Crusade" for the first time. I personally view this album in a different regard, possibly due to my sentimental attachment to it. For one, it was the first Bolt Thrower album I ever encountered and heard, not to mention the album that actually got me into death metal, a genre I thought I would never like. One spin of this war-laden mid-tempo machine proves that not all death metal is about flying guts and mindless gore, nor that its vocalists sound like they are regurgiating their intestines on record, a lesson I learned several years ago when I first heard the contents of "Mercenary."
As I have broadened my horizons with death metal and more specifically, this band, I've come to realize that there are better things out there than "Mercenary." I'll even admit it seems to be rather lacking when compared to previous efforts (and with "Those Once Loyal," more recent as well) but it manages to contain what you'd expect out of this band, thus making it a reliable effort. It doesn't seek to forge any new paths, instead sticking to the same formula of songwriting the band had been doing for a while. I don't consider such consistency a bad thing, though perhaps a comparison could be with "Mercenary" and Bolt Thrower's general catalog that could be made with Dark Tranquillity in recent years. Not that their music is similiar, but everyone basically knows that DT's "Character" and "Fiction" releases were basically remakes of "Damage Done." "Mercenary" has that same feel, like you've heard it all before on other albums (or vice versa in my case) and instead of listening incredibly, this album manages to listen well.
This same feeling is encountered on the instrumental front. Both the drums and guitars are just as heavy as they ever were, but upon comparison to more celebrated works they don't have much power behind them. Tracks like "Laid to Waste" and "Behind Enemy Lines" both pound away like relentless artillery fire, but neither one has much of a lasting effect. They seem to drift on without a whole lot happening, and while both commendable songs they just don't seem to know where they're headed. Karl Willets manages to pull off a respectable performance, but again, not as noteworthy as other releases. The bassist in Jo Bench is pretty much removed as well, but this is nothing new in Bolt Thrower's catalog as it wouldn't be until "Those Once Loyal" that we really knew she was there anyway.
Despite that, the production is quite good and maintains an edgy sound that fits Bolt Thrower and this style very well. This also allows some of the better tracks like "Zeroed," "Powder Burns," and the title track to unleash the usual shell shock that this band is known for. The sound quality is distinctly better here than previously, and had "IVth Crusade" has this level of quality in the production, it would be an ever greater gem than it already is. I feel this aspect helps to save this album from being even further down on the totem pole, as it allows the recording's better moments to truly stick out.
While I doubt that "Mercenary" will ever be a celebrated Bolt Thrower release, its certainly nothing worth mocking. In fact, its a good listen, just not anything truly spectacular. As others have said, it does become a bit monotous on repeat listens which makes the desire to hear it in its entirety sometimes hard to come by. Even with my sentimental attachment to it as my first Bolt Thrower album, I usually find myself selecting about half of the tracks for a playlist, as opposed to hearing the entire thing. That said, I suggest Bolt Thrower fans do keep an eye out for it, as it possesses all the qualities you want out of this, they've only done it better on other releases. Still, it contains reliable songwriting and music and for diehard fans of this group, remains a must listen.
'Mercenary' is a full-length that highlighted a period in time when Bolt Thrower fans were seemingly unhappy. The band had parted ways with several artists and Karl Willets didn't seem to know if he wanted to stay or go. Turbulent times have always followed this band, where ever they roamed, where ever they raged war on the death metal scene. I think 'Mercenary' signifies a time when fans had started to get sick of it. Change in terms of musical direction is one thing, but constantly changing the outfit wasn't healthy. It shows through on this particular full-length, unfortunately.
'Mercenary', although not my idea of a mediocre full-length, by any means is just lacking. It came at a bad time, as I said. The following full-length also received mixed reviews as time went on. I think as things have settled down and the band seem to be hitting some form, Bolt Thrower's era between 1998 and 2001 has actually been better received since the arrival of 'Those Once Loyal'. People are seemingly realising that perhaps all this change was for a good reason. This album isn't a monument to Bolt Thrower's power. Although the vast majority of their albums sound reasonably similar in sound, 'Mercenary' doesn't feature as many gut-wrenching riffs and the consuming power behind every instrument appears jaded, perhaps due to the denser production, whereas on later albums things opened up a bit more.
Bolt Thrower needed a wake up call, and perhaps this was it. 'Mercenary' is by no stretch of the imagination one of the poorest death metal full-lengths you will ever hear, but it's not the greatest. 'Mercenary' tends to get overlooked whenever a discussion about Bolt Thrower rages on. It's got a different sound to it, that's why. The production of this full-length appears to be different to any other the band have produced. It took four years to eventually get around to making 'Mercenary', so one has to wonder what occurred during that time. The percussion is another side to 'Mercenary' that lets it down.
Andy Whale was relieved of his duties at a Bolt Thrower member and it's clear to see. Whilst Alex Thomas is an accomplished drummer, he doesn't stand up to the tall task confronting him here with some of the drumming sounding quite static against the controlling riffs, a la songs like 'Behind Enemy Lines'. It would seem the very name of Bolt Thrower was too much for him to comprehend, though he doesn't put in what you would call an abysmal performance, he just doesn't have Bolt Thrower in his heart. Where the percussion used to act as a bomb dropping with every hit, it now takes a step back and the cymbals and snare sound fairly timid, again shown perfectly on 'Behind Enemy Lines', which actually has some decent riffs. It's as if the percussion is a retiring war veteran. It's no longer able to stand the test of time and must give it. The percussion is effected by this thick production.
The lining of the sound of the guitars, whether it be the lead, or the rhythmic, is just too heavy for the percussion. It's one side that become overshadowed by the heavy riffs and this is another new addition to Bolt Thrower's game on 'Mercenary'. The riffs are just as heavy as ever, but they're not as powerful. They sound intimidated and tired. They pack no real punch and the mere fact that two rhythmic guitars are being used already takes Jo Bench out of the equation. The bass is thick, but it's not prominent. It's no longer that creeping barrage behind the rest of the music. It's scared of war, it's not Bolt Thrower.
There is the odd occasion when we get a glimpse at the old powerful style that blended war with rhythm, but it's hidden in-between the mediocrity of some of the songs, which is a shame. Tracks like Mercenary and Behind Enemy Lines sound more upbeat. The production isn't quite as relaxed. It's on edge and that's the style that suits Bolt Thrower. The lyrics seem to point to something I said earlier, which I found quite odd:
Ask no forgiveness
No tears, no regrets
Bolt Thrower are that freelance veteran and had seemingly completed their mission by '...For Victory'. Some would have thought that this full-length signalled the end of the Bolt Thrower they once knew, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. As time goes by, I'm sure this full-length will grow in stature. It's old sound which is purely driven on by melodic solos will delight many, for sure. The vocals aren't on top form either. Karl Willets took a break from Bolt Thrower and it shows. It's like they're not acting like a team. It's all about individual performance.
Let me start by saying ‘Mercenary’ isn’t a bad album. It just didn’t live up to expectations and the Bolt Thrower quality standard. Of course between 1994 and 1997 there had been a few line-up changes, but in my opinion that’s not really an excuse. Eventually Karl Willets came back and provided the vocals for this album and drummer Alex Thomas does a good job.
Two key elements, intensity and melody, were what Bolt Thrower was all about. Especially those two elements were missed at certain important points on this album. The pace was once again decreased after their more brutal ‘For Victory’ album but this time the album lacked some critical catchiness or melody to compensate. Nor were there songs that can – afterwards - be considered classic in their discography although maybe ‘Zeroed’ and ‘No Guts No Glory’ stand out a bit here.
The result was an album that proved to be Bolt Throwers impression of background-music. The individual songs do come more alive when played at random order with songs from other albums or between songs from other artist for that matter, which proves that the quality of the material wasn’t actually ‘bad’ but as a whole the ‘Mercenary’ concept just didn’t have enough variation to stay interesting the whole length.
Bolt Thrower is a band more often cheered than jeered however "Mercenary" doesnt get full cheers from this listener. Although it is an extremely heavy tome, the music refuses to instill much energy or excitement in my metal craving mind. The nine tracks all have their respectable moments but listening to "Mercenary" in full is, for me, slightly tedious work. As much as I want to be lost in the groove, songs such as "Zeroed", "Laid To Rest", and "To The Last..." simply dont pull me in.
First on my list of cheers is the production on Bolt Thrower's sixth album. For the most part, it is fantastic. Occasionally the production doest lack. The rhythm tracks are absolutely beautiful; packed with tone and texture. Jo Bench is a bit too low in the mix and I would have sincerely loved to hear her bass lines more prominently displayed. Baz Thompson and Gavin Ward's tone is fantastic - each so distinct yet in wonderful harmony with each other. Some of the lead work doesn't really shine through the mix though and is a bit hard to hear. What should have been heard easily becomes merely a subtle detail. A prime example would be "Laid To Waste," during the bridge into the first verse.. That lead should scream but simply yells unemotionlessly instead. Similar moments mimic this particular example throughout the album. Karl Willets is in prime form and delivers nicely; his comprehendable growling both recognizable and powerful. The production helps wonderfully also. One jeer, and a major jeer at that, must be given for the drum tone. It is just not powerful at all and sounds somewhat hollow in just about every song. This may be a major reason why the songs just dont grab and choke me.
The musicianship is great for the majority of this album. Both Baz and Gavin deliver rhythmically and Jo follows though as stated previously, somewhat inaudibly. Baz also handles the solos throughout the album which can be described as good solos though mostly unmemorable outside the context of the songs. Once again, I found the drumming unremarkable. Although possibly due to the production, Alex Thomas' playing falls short. It lacks the overall energy and vitality that I demand metal drumming to contain. Although he can't do much to make nine songs with very similar tempos completely seperate entities, (the songs slow in a way they all sounds like one quite large song) the songs definitely could use some increased variance drumming-wise.
Even with somewhat lacking drum production and playing, an album is ultimately only as good as the songs and athough his album has some winners, most are filler. Opener "Zeroed" has some good riffing and "Mercenary", the title track is also quite good. "No Guts, No Glory" is my personal favority witih "Powder Burns" being a close second. Neither however is completely satisfying. "No Guts, No Glory" is quite a builder of a song though the charge never amounts to much. I found myself imagining what I would ideally want to go in the places that were lacking. Maybe this is why I enjoyed these songs so much? I experienced a similar infusion of what I would have played and what was actually there in "Powder Burns."
What the whole exists as, is in fact, a monotonous album with little to offer aside from occasional good riffs and catchy melodies. The album does leave a dent but is my no means a monster album. Bolt Thrower would have done better to quicken the pace in one or two songs and throw some tempo variety into the album. Some half decent tracks help the album along though they do little to save it from the downing characteristics. Mercenaries are known for going into a warzone and unleashing hell however Bolt Thrower's "Mercenary" simply goes in, kills one or two enemies and then half runs, half walks out.
If Bolt Thrower were composed of five paraplegic midgets, they'd still be able to kick our asses. If they were forced to perform live with no instruments, they'd still ram our heads right through the nearest wall while slapping desks, twanging rubber bands and growling along to Bench's improvised ass-blaster basslines.
Bolt Thrower exist to kick our asses, and as we head 'into the killing zone' with Mercenary, they succeed admirably. Although all of Bolt Thrower's albums (and indeed songs) after Realm of Chaos share a very homogenous style, something about Mercenary just sounds like the artillery of Bolt Thrower greased, loaded, aimed, and firing on all fucking cylinders. The production is second-to-none; gone are the thin Scott Burns-like buzzing guitars wafting all over Warmaster and IVth Crusade. Gone is the super-slick, punishingly heavy and almost characterless sound on For Victory. Mercenary grooves along between those two with a warm, bottom heavy furnace of guitar roarings; bubbling, clear bass; punchy, concise drum hits; and the storm of Willets' growls nestling into the guitars: not overthrowing them. It is a sound that is both clear and heavy, yet just raw enough to feel like it's got some real balls to it.
Sound is nothing without the music, but Bolt Thrower cannot disappoint on this album. If it wasn't for Realm of Chaos, this would easily be Bolt Thrower's best collection of songs in terms of sheer riffage and malevolence, and is certainly the best example of their pure death metal style now. A fine variation of tempos are catered-for, with slow numbers like Return From Chaos and Mercenary being lumbering but not redundant or pedestrian; the former instead conjuring some of the best Bolt Thrower opening chug since World Eater, the latter offering sinister mood-setting melody as it works its way into that grandiose, piston-driven engine kind of a song we know Bolt Thrower have perfected. On this album seemingly not a band to relax on the trodden path, they speed things-up with some of Bolt Thrower's best loved scorchers; Powder Burns and No Guts, No Glory blaze with aggressive, fast, yet chunky riffs and excitable soloing; their quality attested-to by their being live staples, and forced to stay there by fan requests!
Although by this time Karl Willets' growl had lost a little of its edge, it detracts nothing from the quality of the album, and he was in fact on good form this close to his first departure from the band; there's a gruffness there that is probably just fatigue but, suitably, is quite fitted to Mercenary's atmosphere. Also working in its favour were the talents of Alex Thomas on this, his only recording with the band. His style progresses the straightforward, grinding but otherwise restrained efforts of Andy Whale, but scales it back even further; restricting the pummelling double bass to less frequent song sections (and thereby increasing a song's potential impact) and adopting in the interim a delicately measured and minimalist approach that just teases with the idea of real groove. It is Bolt Thrower's most solid album in the drum department (although not their most unique; Andy Whale's insanity on Realm of Chaos forever claiming that accolade.)
All told, Mercenary has very few frills. However, Bolt Thrower demand attention nonetheless because there are simply no other Bolt Throwers; no-one else since Obituary has ever sounded so heavy and relentless with so measured and unhurried a death metal sound. Temperance, thy name is Mercenary!