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Loyal Unto Death (And Beyond) - 98%

televiper11, September 18th, 2015
Written based on this version: 2005, CD, Metal Blade Records (Limited edition, Digipak)

I've been meaning to write this review for a long time and the sad news of Martin "Kiddie" Kearns dying finally spurred me on. Kearns drummed on this, Bolt Thrower's seemingly final album, the monumental Those Once Loyal.

Ten years ago, Bolt Thrower were in an awkward place. Their previous two albums had been warmly, if somewhat mutedly, received but it was clear that very little gas was in the tank. Vocalist Karl Willets was in-and-out of the band and Benediction's Dave Ingram did the vocals for the underwhelming Honour - Valor - Pride album. Questions as to Bolt Thrower's relevancy were being trumpeted and I was among those who wondered if BT could re-capture previous glory. Then Those Once Loyal dropped and all questions of form dropped with it.

This is a mammoth record. Staked the continuing goodwill of their fanbase and the full and honest return of Karl Willets on vocals, BT deliver nine enormous tracks that highlight the band's powerful songwriting dynamics. The opening one-two punch of "At First Light / Entrenched" settles all claims. The first of the two is a grandiose, melodic, rabble-rousing epic of glory in battle followed immediately by a churning, double-kick extravaganza of muddy, sweat drenched death metal reality. Here the band do what they've always done: reveal the Janus face of war.

And unlike other war-minded death metal bands, BT aren't afraid to switch up their songwriting: "The Killchain" is death-n-roll where the roll is the tread of tanks; "Last Stand Of Humanity" brings back a burst of speed under the soloing not heard since War Master; hell, all the songs are dynamically articulated with rising crescendos in the choruses, slight melodic underpinnings, and a titanic fury of riffs and vocals. Some people mistake BT's musical simplicity for poverty of ideas but each track here is smartly written, catchy and heavy, delivering on the promise of war.

Rhythmically speaking, Baz and Gavin's riffs and solos are straight neck-breakers; and Jo's bass is finally, truly present as a dark, gloomy rumble beneath the surface. Kiddie's drums are to-the-point simplicity, delivering just the right amount of double-kick energy, tasteful fills, and highlighted dynamics. And Karl's vocals are as righteously gruff as ever. It is unfortunate that the Metal Blade production job again robs the band of some its necessary heft. None of the Metal Blade albums sound quite as heavy, harsh, and nasty as the previous Earache ones and I do wish they dirtied up the guitars a little more here. They're a touch too bright and clean for my taste. It's a minor nitpick but the one bone of contention that keeps this from a perfect score from me. That said, Those Once Loyal is one of the best Bolt Thrower recordings and a great access point for those new to the band as the songwriting and production are catchier and less extreme overall than their earlier, more seminal releases.

RIP, Martin "Kiddie" Kearns, 1977-2015.