Saturday, April 01, 2017

Those once (and always) loyal: Bolt Thrower's search for perfection

CoC: I'd say there isn't a huge progression of Bolt Thrower...
Thank you. We take that as a compliment.
CoC: Will you pretty much be staying the same from here onwards?
We think so. We look for perfection. That's what we're searching for. If we ever think that we can't release an album as good as the last one, we won't. Releasing a crap or watered down album means that it's gone for us, 'cause the music is gone.
Chronicles of Chaos interview with Bolt Thrower guitarist Gavin Ward, 1999

In a sense, it is gone for Bolt Thrower. Founded in 1986, the band broke up exactly 30 years later, following the sudden 2015 death of their drummer, Martin "Kiddie" Kearns. But the evidence of their search lives on, and as bodies of work go, it's an extremely sturdy one.

For me, recently, listening-wise, it's really been a Bolt Thrower binge. This began a couple weeks ago, when I started spinning the newly released For the Fallen heavily. That album is the first full-length by Memoriam, which is a sort of a Bolt Thrower sequel band — not to mention, in some ways, a Kearns tribute band — featuring BT frontman Karl Willetts and the band's early-period drummer Andrew Whale.

FtF is a highly enjoyable record, and I wrote some further thoughts here, in Rolling Stone's weekly new-releases round-up. But even with so much history behind it — in addition to the former Bolt Thrower dudes, the band features their fellow U.K. punk/metal scene vet Frank Healy, also of the bands Benediction and Sacrilege — it still feels like a debut, a powerful statement by a band that still has a couple of kinks to work out.

Bolt Thrower, on the other hand, had ample time to mature. They released three increasingly confident albums from '88 to '91 — many would call 1989's Realm of Chaos – Slaves to Darkness and 1991's War Master classics, but to me, as powerful as they are, they still sound developmental in light of the glories that were to follow— and then, with '92's The IVth Crusade, attained a new level of command and authority, shedding the grindcore-style rawness evident on the earlier records in favor of what I think of as the classic BT sound, a chiseled and charging form of epic heavy metal, a sonic manifestation of endurance, struggle and triumph, music that drives so hard and so far and so consistently that it really does embody Ward's words above. If perfection was what they were searching for, I'd say they achieved it on their later releases, especially 1994's …For Victory, 1998's Mercenary and 2005's Those Once Loyal. (I set 2001's very strong Honour – Valour – Pride slightly apart because it featured Benediction vocalist Dave Ingram rather than Willetts, thus rendering it a little less-than-canonical.)

Thematically, Bolt Thrower's music dealt pretty much exclusively with war, both in the sort of fantastical role-playing-game sense and the gritty, historically rooted one. You hear both a glorification of human conflict in their work as well as a condemnation of it. But what you mainly hear is this kind of relentless heave and churn, this flattening onslaught. Whether at the pace of a steady trudge or a headlong charge, Bolt Thrower's music is always pressing forward.

Ward, fellow guitarist Barry "Baz" Thomson and bassist Jo Bench (a rare and inspiring female presence in a truly iconic old-school extreme-metal band; I highly recommend checking out Kim Kelly's roundtable-style tribute piece to learn more), the three core members that appeared on every Bolt Thrower LP, formed this kind of ironclad, immovable center. In terms of that aforementioned search for perfection, they were the true keepers of the flame, the ones who clearly understood what an invaluable property Bolt Thrower's integrity was, that to "progress" or alter their approach in some essential way would be to break the spell, to breach the underground contract, as it were.

If you've read my thoughts on Obituary, for example, this might all sound quite familiar, and certainly, the basic principle is the same here. But what I feel each time I immerse in one of these masterful, decades-spanning catalogs by an underground institution, the concept hits me anew. You can pan out and lump bands together into convenient categories, pretend that the sensation of Obituary's raw, swampy nastiness, so clearly a product of their Florida roots, really feels anything like Bolt Thrower's unmistakably British air of might and majesty — with Willetts' inimitably grand-yet-gruff oaths, like the proclamations of some Harsh Narrator of Man's Eternal Struggle, leading the charge — and that what either band does could be aptly summed up by a term as blunt as "death metal." The deeper I go into this music, though, the more I savor the depth and distinction of each truly great band's approach, and the more I resist the common practice of lumping them all together. Obituary makes Obituary Music; Bolt Thrower made Bolt Thrower Music. And that's pretty much that.

Heaviness, whatever that term can even signify at this late stage of overuse, is about sound, yes, the sense of a band's combined force weighing on top of you in a near-physical way, but it's also about this intangible quality of authority and commitment and immersion and lifer-ness, a quality analogous to the "folkloric" sensation that Ethan Iverson often invokes when discussing a certain kind of jazz-before-the-jazz-education-complex, the learned-by-doing, or passed-down-by-the-elders kind (see this Buck Hill obit, for example).

Cutting-edge extreme-metal techniques — especially, say, blast-beat drumming or Meshuggah's devilish syncopations — are now becoming catalogued and canonized the same way jazz has been over the past half-century or so. You can watch hours of tutorials on YouTube, read musician magazines, learn how it's done in the letter-of-the-law sense. But, quite simply, you don't get here by studying in the conventional sense:

As with Obituary, the Bolt Thrower experience is about the steady amassing of authority, and the goes-without-saying concepts that Gavin Ward so handily lays out above: You don't "progress," per se, but that doesn't mean you don't improve. Instead what you do is methodically shore up the sound, close off every avenue of distraction from the core mission (note the jettisoning of blast beats from the Bolt Thrower playbook after War Master) and figure out how to drench every moment of Bolt Thrower music in this signature feeling. It's a gradual becoming-of-self, the building over time of a catalog that will stand as a true metal monolith — and to my ears, Bolt Thrower never wavered once.


*Another great Gavin Ward interview, from the Honour – Valour – Pride era, in which he delves further into the band's single-minded ethos:
Maelstrom: Does this approach in terms of not progressing compromise you as an artist, and do you care?
Gavin Ward: Nah, I don't care. I've never considered myself an artist or a musician anyway. We're just a band, playing music we're into.
*And another great Kim Kelly tribute to BT, this one focusing on the way they went out on top with Those Once Loyal. As well as her new interview with Willetts about Memoriam.

*Listening-wise, it's really not about individual tracks here. I'd recommend just starting with Those Once Loyal and working backward. It's all great.

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