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Arm Yourself... Bolt Thrower is Here - 88%

lord_ghengis, March 13th, 2007

Bolt Thrower’s “Those Once Loyal”, an album I will proudly look upon as my first ever true death metal album. Ok, maybe not the most true death metal album around, but come on, tell me it’s Nu Metal.

Bolt Thrower has put out a stunning release almost 20 years since their debut. As a basic rule, it’s closer to old school death metal than the newer stuff. It’s not overly fast or technical, it doesn’t have super aggressive vocals, the vocals are truly growled, not “growl-screamed”, and finally the songs are mainly around the 4 minute mark, with no grind influence coming through at all.

However, it also has some of the best production I have ever heard on a death metal record on its side. As well as brilliant sense of groove and dare I say it melody, or at least rhythm, resulting in a far more coherent and less random and disjointed sound than many death bands. Both signs of more modern sounding death metal. So they’ve hardly got the most brutal reputation around.

The British band has been around for quite a while now, and this talent and knowledge of how to make good heavy music has obviously been developed well. The sound has no truly dominant elements, which is nice, seeing as almost every really heavy band in the last 10 years has lived off overpowering drums. Here everyone is given a fair go.

Karl Willets is a stunning vocalist, with his vocals not only being a stellar growl, they are also thrown into the mix at the perfect volume. They sit perfectly in amongst the guitars and are easily audible, while not getting in the way of other band members. It helps that his lyrics are miles above par for the genre, but his controlled, not calm or relaxed, but certainly not strained tone is able to make most songs extremely enjoyable.

Baz Thomson and Gavin Ward handle the guitars. Again, they are made to fit perfectly with the rest of the band. They’re not too technical, nor are they overly simplistic in their grooves. They provide so much flow for this album, the solos seem merely a way of changing the structure of the song, rather than simply showing off their talent. With that said, this album has very good solo work. While they don’t go too far out of the constraints of the instruments around them, the solos manage to still sound incredible, shown most openly with the intro solo of “At First Light”, which grabs the listener within the first minute.

The guitars are also really, really heavy and powerful. The tuning is low and they are used perfectly with the Bass of Jo Bench. Yes, Bench is female. Yes, that is “Un-death”. But no, she doesn’t suck. In fact she is amazingly talented, and also is amazingly powerful. If you’ve read any of my other reviews, you’d see that I can’t hear Bass. Bench manages to put the bass right up with the guitars. Just as powerful, yet not out of place.

Not only that, I’m not sure if it’s tuning or playing style or just plain studio cheating, but it sounds crazy. She actually makes it rattle and rumble and generally sound like something large is stomping around amongst the bands recording studio.

Completing the low-end pair is Martin Kearns on the drums. He is pretty much solely centred on the bass drums, not unlike most modern Death metal bands. However, he doesn’t use blast beats, I'm pretty sure he is triggered, but doesn't sound it, in other words, they sound like real drums. With that said, he doesn’t play complex, riff following stuff like Raymond Herrera of Fear Factory or Tomas Haake of Meshuggah, instead he sticks to simple bass rolls at high speeds. Not stupidly fast, just fast, his arms actually do most of the time keeping. And very little more. With that said, he is still impressive enough, and does sound perfect with the band. Like the rest, not being ambitiously technical or original, just focussed on what works.

“Just focus on what works” seems like it could be the bands motto when they wrote “Those Once Loyal” as the band seems comfortable with everything they do, unfortunately, this leads to its limit in brilliance. Don’t get me wrong, this album ranks pretty high on my list of favourite albums, but it does get a little tiring. Not because the band sounds the same often, "Salvo" seems to be the only song without any real original greatness, it’s just that there’s no deep listening here. Other than listening specifically to the abnormally loud bass of Jo Bench, I never found myself breaking the music apart section by section. Enjoying a brilliant drum fill here, or a strange melding of the guitars somewhere else. The lyrics, focussing on war, war heroes, remembering war heroes, are good, but not stunning, merely giving the brilliant Willet a chance to growl. Bolt Thrower simply made a brilliant album to listen to. Nothing more.

The album opens up with the stunning “At First Light”. The song features an intro solo, but other than that, it follows the structure of everything else on the album, it moves along a decent speed, has very little riff variation, however, the riffs used do ALL kick ass. Willet growls about being in war in his usual indecipherable, but somehow not overpowering voice.

Really, the whole album feels like a bunch of verses, with no choruses, simple 3 bridges in each instead of a chorus. As the “chorus” sections all sound different. With one of them being repeated at the end. Bolt Thrower don’t exactly have the most dynamic approach around, but mixed up enough to not be boring.

Entrenched is a nice quick number, it flies along with Willet sounding like he’s actually putting some stress on his voice. The low end on this song is killer, with Bench’s bass, while oddly quiet, roars along helping the tempo, and Kearns manages to fire of some stellar double bass work, specifically on the slow downs. Everything just sounds in control here, even when making you shake your head aggressively for no reason. Like basically all the songs here, the solo kills.

One of the only pot-holes in the album comes along in "The Killchain". Where, after a nice build up, the band seems to get lost and simply wander around in a pretty dull mid pace sleeping pill for almost five minutes. However, all is recovered in "Granite Wall" which successfully manages to tap the accelerator a few times, creating an energetic sound, with extremely catchy riffs. The song tests out the mid tempo waters some more, without sounding lost or directionless.

The title track drops into midpace properly, but sounds perfectly war-machine like. However the tempo picks up big time in the best track on the album… "Anti-Tank (Dead Armour)". It features a fantastic catchy as all hell riff, insane Bass work. Vocals which sound like there’s some effort. This will cause you to make messes in your pants.

Unfortunately, the next three songs all follow a more mid-paced vibe, Last Stand Of Humanity still sounds fresh, and is still a pretty damn good fast to mid-paced song. However Salvo seems to be lacking a little, and runs on way too long, and lacks any catchy riffs, or simply aggressive rhythms. "When Cannons Fade" is mid-paced again. However it still manages to be a catchy, addictive song, and rightfully deserves to be a fan favourite, Despite having some of it’s thunder being taken away due to the previous song, which doesn’t really put you in the mood for another mid-paced song.

Where Swedish bands like Opeth and At the Gates are Modern Death Metal’s training wheels, Bolt Thrower is Old School Death Metal’s training wheels. Definitely not deep enough for someone deeply rooted in the genre, but to someone with an urge to move into Death Metal, Those Once Loyal is a good place to start.