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Magisterial Madness - 94%

televiper11, April 22nd, 2011

Bolt Thrower occupy a curious place in the death metal pantheon. Rightly hailed as legends, they are also curiously underrated. Their dedicated niche of followers support them on all fronts (line-up changes, interminable waits between albums, etc.) for which they are rewarded with a consistently excellent string of mid-paced death metal records. And yet the band is hardly ever held up as one of the true guiding lights of the genre. Perhaps this is because their lyrical focus is so doggedly war-oriented. Or maybe because their music, while crushingly heavy and well-constructed, isn't particularly brutal or accomplished. Personally, I would rather listen to Bolt Thrower than just about any other death metal band out there, current or otherwise, because the elements that go into making a great Bolt Thrower song are so simple yet so powerful that they stay locked in your brain for days.

Take, for example, the title track, "The IVth Crusade", that drops in with one monster riff, a riff so powerful, so eerie and heavy, that it just stops you dead. It's as good a riff as any ever written. Once the beat kicks in, an overwhelming aura of majesty and grandeur takes over, a swelling sense of power, fear, and awe all stoked by this crushing, lumbering beast of a riff. Then there's Karl Willets, whose massive vocals eloquently survey the scene, a belting forth of carnage from the lower diaphragm. Few singers can go so deep, so clearly, with every word enunciated. This song sets the stage: take a mammoth riff over pounding rhythms, add some vocals and a few tasteful leads and you get a deceptively simple formula that yields devastating results.

Now most albums would falter on the enormity of such an opening but BT just keeps the tank rolling, gradually gaining speed with the dual chariot assault of "Icon" and "Embers" - pounding drums, rattling bass, the whole earth a tremor beneath the oncoming assault. "Where Next To Conquer" thunders forth with another super-catchy riff that laces your brain like embedded shrapnel. And the hits just keep coming: the slow groove of "This Time It's War;" the epic scale of "Spearhead;" and the supreme heaviness of "Dying Creed." Each track a deliberate variation on theme, each tweek an emphasis on craft. Bolt Thrower are songsmiths, forging in the darkest bellows, hammering out a heavy metal madness.

A few things possibly hold this album back: Jo Bench's bass is near-inaudible, a misfortune for how much power she could add. Also, the production is airless, a vacuum that sucks up any residual heaviness. Bolt Thrower is not a band that should sound enclosed. Luckily, the songwriting trumps these faults. As do the guitars, which are full and rangy, crisp and heavy. I'm also not really a fan of the "Through The Ages" outro, which runs long and adds little to an otherwise excellent album.