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Conquering death metal - 93%

HeavenDuff, July 11th, 2019
Written based on this version: 2003, CD, Earache Records (Reissue)

Bolt Thrower’s fourth LP, rightfully entitled The IVth Crusade is somewhat of a departure from the early material of the band. Through their first three records, the English old-school death metal quintet had been establishing themselves as major players of the scene, displaying obvious roots in grindcore and borrowing their imagery heavily from the Warhammer 40k universe. If the band had been slowly moving away from grindcore for their last two releases, The IVth Crusade still takes a huge leap forward by being the first purely death metal record of the band. The artwork of the album also shows a break from their early material by going for a completely different aesthetic. While the themes, both lyrically and visually, remain strongly tied with war, this release moves away from the more sci-fi, outer space war themes and focuses on more realistic and historic wars. The cover art is an 1840 historical oil painting by French painter Eugène Delacroix entitled “Entrée des Croisés à Constantinople” (Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople) with the logo of the band and album title added on. When picking up this album, this should be the first tell of what’s to come; Bolt Thrower announces its fourth release, of course, but they’re also announcing a big change in sound.

The album opens with one of the most iconic death metal pieces, in my humble opinion. It’s obviously one of the best show openers two as the band has been known to use it when playing festivals and gigs all over the world. The self-titled track starts with a heavy, ominous and slow riff, reaffirming Bolt Thrower’s ability to write slow and mid paced death metal heavy hitters. This album is not however, and by any means, a slow record. Bolt Thrower uses these kinds of riffs with parsimony and intelligence, spreading them throughout the album, offering a breath of fresh air between the faster, more traditional death metal sections.

What really makes The IVth Crusade stand-out from the rest of Bolt Thrower’s discography up until that point in time is, like I mentioned earlier, it’s departure from deathgrind towards a purer form of death metal, if you will. It’s not to say that their earlier work was by any means inferior; I personally rank Realm of Chaos as one of their top three records, but by refining their style, Bolt Thrower really left more room for their very own personality to shine. In this sense, The IVth Crusade is considered by many to be Bolt Thrower’s best but also their most iconic, as the very recognizable riffing of Gavin Ward and Barry Thomson, really takes a central role here. I already mentioned the opening riff of the album as a memorable riff, but you will find countless of these through and through. Other examples of riffs that will be stuck in your head for days after listening to the album are the opening riff of Where Next to Conquer, the chorus riff of Dying Creed and the main riffs from both Embers and Spearhead.

The secret behind the efficiency of Bolt Thrower, especially on The IVth Crusade is repetition and slow build-ups. Repeated riffs that slowly evolve throughout the tracks. If Bolt Thrower is a band built around riffs, the production on this beast of an album really helps to make the other musicians shine. If Jo-Anne Bench’s bass had been mostly drowned out in the first three LPs of the band, here, where the riffs are even more important to the success of this record, the bass is much more hearable and provides a much-appreciated support to the heavy hitting riffs. It’s worth mentioning at this point that this was Andrew Whale’s last contribution with the band behind the drum kit before Kiddie joined in. And it’s one hell of a solid contribution. As the whole ensemble has slowed down compared to the first three records, so did the drums, focusing less on blastbeats and going for a steadier and more supportive role.

If the tracks from this album get stuck in your head like some pop death metal singles, it’s also thanks to the vocals of Karl Willets, which really help with the heavy, metallic and clear production of this album to make it the most brutal of Bolt Thrower’s record up to that point. His vocals, especially during the choruses is like the cherry on the top of the cake. As he screams the chorus to Where Next To Conquer, I always get goosebumps.

The war theme carries us throughout the whole album. Karl Willets brings us through a history of human violence and how we’ve torn each other since the very dawn of our existence. As the band started to deal less with science-fiction and fictional wars and more with real wars, they started to take a more critical approach to this theme. The closing track here, Through the Ages, is a slow-paced instrumental track with Willets listing major historical wars. The track goes on for a little less than four minutes, and the effect of accumulation works really well as he keeps going on and on. So while a big part of the band’s popularity comes from their military and war imagery, they took a step back here and tried to approach the whole thing from a more critical, but also more open perspective and tried to deal with the theme by looking at it from a few different angles, including the spiritual with Celestial Sanctuary and how humans may want to escape the miseries of life through spirituality. They also dealt with how religions may give false conceptions of reality, on tracks like Icon, or talked about capitalistic greed that leads to wars and auto-destruction on tracks like Dying Creed. As a whole, I think that this works pretty well. While the fictional war theme of the early days was fun, here we have a more mature, more realistic and definitely more pessimistic look on war, making the album darker in tone and matching the heaviness of the production and song writing.

Overall, I see this album as maybe the best entry point, alongside Those Once Loyal, to the band’s discography. It’s the band’s most accessible record, and it also shows all the most recognizable and decisively unique elements of Bolt Thrower’s music. It’s a very enjoyable listen and you’ll have its badass riffs stuck in your head for days after just one listen!