An interesting thing about British metal is how the UK has always led the way as far as groundbreaking acts go, but rarely do we see bands who continue to push the genre’s boundaries in the years following their breakthrough albums. Judas Priest turned heavy rock on its ear in 1976, and have comfortably stayed the course after 1979. Iron Maiden led the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, their songs still following the same Steve Harris-driven formula to this day. Motorhead keep recycling the same formula from 1975, to great effect. Napalm Death continue to grind away effectively, and Cradle of Filth do the commercial black metal better than anyone. In fact, as great as all those bands are (and we love ‘em all to death), save for the ever-adventurous Justin Broadrick (he of Napalm Death, Godflesh, Techno Animal, and Jesu notoriety), British metal rarely if ever produces true mavericks, the kind of mad geniuses that challenge listeners with each release. Most Brit metal exports seem perfectly happy churning out the same stuff, and while some may consider the end product continually monotonous, there’s a certain charm in the fact that we can always rely on these kinds of bands to put out quality, rather formulaic records, while other acts from America and Europe continue to innovate.
You can count Bolt Thrower among those bands who don’t see the point of fixing something that sure as hell ain’t broke. An integral cog in the evolution of death metal, and like Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, a product of the industrial city of Birmingham, Bolt Thrower benefited from the help of the late, great John Peel, who instantly took to the band’s melding of hardcore and thrash metal in the late 1980s, his seal of approval giving them instant credibility. Their key albums, 1989’s Realm of Chaos and 1991’s Warmaster, paved the way for the likes of Cryptopsy and Nile, who would continue to take death metal to new heights in the following decade. All the while, the band rarely, if ever, wavered from the sound of their early albums, and their eighth studio release, and first in four years, Those Once Loyal, is much of the same. Which is not a bad thing in the least.
In fact, with a band so averse to change, fans are in for a treat this time around, as Those Once Loyal marks the return of vocalist Karl Willets, who returns after a decade-long absence. His booming roar is a welcome change from the previous vocalist Dave Ingram, and like Napalm Death’s Barney Greenway, what Willets lacks in nuance is made up for by his mere presence, his vocals taking command alongside lead guitarists Barry Thompson and Gavin Ward. As is always the case with Bolt Thrower, war history is the primary subject of the compositions, and the band is in superb form here, offering a reverential tribute to the soldiers of World War One. The brutality of trench warfare, the empty feeling of facing certain death as the sun rises, and the poignancy of both the quiet battlefield and the granite cenotaphs are all touched on in remarkably eloquent detail.
Musically, the album is every bit as intense as its subject matter, and whether it’s the presence of Willets or not, the quintet sounds reinvigorated. Both “Entrenched” and “Last Stand of Humanity” bear a strong resemblance to classic Slayer, highlighted by Martin Kearns’s doubletime thrash beats and the atonal, dive-bombing solos by Thompson and Ward, while the massive “Salvo” veers closer to the slower, doom side of metal that Bolt Thrower has always drifted towards from time to time. It’s the midtempo songs that provide the most enjoyment, though, highlighted by the simultaneously majestic and thunderous opener “At First Light”, the walloping one-two punch of “The Killchain” and “Granite Wall”, and the stately concluding track “When Cannons Fade”.
The production by Andy Faulkner hits all the right notes; while the guitars and drums carry the load, bassist Jo Bench keeps the music grounded, her bass tone warm, yet commanding, making the already massive Bolt Thrower sound even more enormous. As the band draws closer to their 20th year together, it’s especially reassuring to know that while little has changed in their music, most importantly the passion has never died.