Formula music, to be sure, but it’s a good formula well-executed.
Karl Willetts – vocals
Gavin Ward – rhythm guitars
Barry Thompson – lead and rhythm guitars
Jo Bench – bass
Martin Kearns – drums
Nothing about Those Once Loyal or any other Bolt Thrower record is innovative, surprising, “progressive” (whatever that means in a post-Asia world), or challenging in any way. Indeed the entire ethos of the band is quite firmly against such ideas, with the members in interviews talking about how much they resented their ‘80s metal heroes for changing their styles and vowed to stick with their signature sound forever, no matter what happened. This is indeed a fulfillment of that promise—it’s an exercise in previously established forms, as well-worn and comfortable as a pair of old shoes. But for what it lacks in new ideas, it makes up for by executing its old ideas with utter confidence and tremendous skill.
Bolt Thrower play a very distinct (some might say limited) style of mid-paced death metal that de-emphasizes the blast beats (except on their first two albums from the late ‘80s, which have a pronounced grindcore influence) and dissonant harmonies of many other extreme metal bands in the genre and is informed by the melodic, heavily riff-based songwriting of the heavy metal and early power metal of the ‘80s. Bolt Thrower are above all a riff-based band—their music uses a set of common templates, and they write riffs to fit onto these archetypal structures to create songs. Since in structure and general style Bolt Thrower songs are all of a type, they live or die by their riffs.
And what riffs! The band’s previous two albums, Mercenary (1998) and Honour, Valour, Pride (2001), were plagued by unmemorable riffwork and indifferent performances, and seemed to signal a period of terminal decline. Here, they sound completely refreshed, with extremely distinctive riffs that manage to be both percussive and melodic. Every song has not one but several memorable guitar riffs waiting to jackhammer into the listener’s brain from the very first listen, which is doubly impressive considering how restrictive these templates are, alternating between churning, pulsating grooves and faster palm-muted or tremolo riffs over double bass drums, with hardly any deviations. This could have easily been an extremely boring sequence of ‘90s mosh grooves, but guitarists Gavin Ward and Barry Thompson are inventive enough here to keep things fresh throughout. Barry Thompson also does some competent, if not virtuosic leads, employing some interesting modal scales that add additional tension to the music.
Jo Bench’s bass is brought to the forefront, by far the loudest she has ever been on a Bolt Thrower album. The mixing engineers did something clever here, rolling off the deep bass frequencies of the guitars to give the bass room. Usually the bass in a metal band of this sort plays a very minimal role, fleshing out the guitar tone a bit and otherwise staying out of everyone else’s way, or else dances all over the fretboard, overplaying like mad to try to be heard over the din of the guitars. Here, the bass is allowed to fulfill its intended role as a rhythm instrument, providing much of the attack and impulse of the riffs while the guitars add harmony and sustain. The result is a much more flowing and musical take on groove riffs than normal, avoiding the herky-jerky stiffness of say, Six Feet Under.
Less impressive is drummer Martin Kearns, who, while beloved by the band’s fanbase, especially after his recent death, mostly gives a stock modern metal performance on this album—lots of clinical, clicky double bass and a lot of drum strokes, but without the slightest iota of swing. His predecessor Andy Whale, even though he could be quite sloppy at times, had much more energy and could make the fast sections sound faster than they really were by adjusting his timing. Kearns, on the other hand, is rigidly metronomic, landing exactly on top of every beat, every time. He doesn’t really detract from the album, but neither does he do anything to take it over the top. He’s just there, doing his job, like vocalist Karl Willetts, whose pitch-shifted (listen to their live album; he sounds like a complete dork in his natural voice) growls hint at menace without really delivering.
The hideous translucent orange reissue vinyl’s sound quality is adequate, but only just. Distortion builds quite rapidly towards the end of each side, becoming outright annoying on the tracks “Those Once Loyal” and “A Symbol of Eight”. While the way the album gives a sense of space between the guitars and bass is clever, no such affordances are made to the drums, which have a very thin, brittle “plastic bin” quality typical of post-2000 metal albums. The cymbals are a barely audible jingling over the rest of the mix, lost in a haze of guitar distortion. It’s not like it isn’t possible to mix cymbals well with heavy guitar distortion—Bolt Thrower did it themselves on War Master in 1991 and …For Victory in 1994 (hmm, both of those also featured the talents of Andy Whale—coincidence?).
As usual for Bolt Thrower, the lyrics and mood of this album are war, war, war. Here, though, their take on war seems more subdued than the cartoonish fantasy war they were previously known for (or the dry post-Maiden “book report” sort of war themes favored by their rivals/copycats Hail of Bullets and many others). There is a sense of bleakness, dread, and weariness to this music, and the fantasy settings have been almost entirely sidelined in favor of World War I, a conflict whose relentless, arbitrary cruelty introduced the world to the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder. The war here is not fun, it is not glorious, and it leaves no room for heroism. Karl Willetts’ growl of “There is no shelter from the steel rain” on “Salvo” seems less reveling in the power of an artillery barrage than resigned to it and the ignominious, inescapable death that follows. The recognition, both through words and music, of how miserable it is to actually experience war gives this record an extra degree of emotional resonance.
Those Once Loyal also benefits from relative brevity–”A Symbol of Eight” is a bonus track, and the original version of the album clocked in at under 45 minutes. Many metal albums of the CD era can get boring with their insistence on dumping 55, 60, or 70 minutes of music onto a listener just because the disc will hold it, leaving in material that would have been better left on the demo tapes. Not here—all of the songs here (even the bonus track) last just long enough to introduce and develop their themes and then move on before any of the music gets stale, with nary an eight-minute epic or undercooked filler track in sight. “A Symbol of Eight” does feel a bit redundant though—its musical ideas are solid, but they feel like variations of ideas expressed earlier in the album. It could have made a great addition if another track (I would nominate “Last Stand of Humanity”, because it is the most similar) were removed to make room, but tacked on at the end, it seems like an afterthought.
All of the tracks are good, but a few merit special attention. “The Killchain” is probably the most groove-focused track they’ve ever done, an onslaught of down-tempo sledge given additional drive by Jo Bench’s clanking, pounding bass. Aside from the opening riff that links it into the song cycle started with “World Eater” in 1989, there are no fast sections at all, and yet it doesn’t get turgid and plodding like so many songs of this style. The final riff is especially crushing, a deceptively simple recapitulation of the first riff, trading the double-bass chug for bouncing syncopation, and the fadeout seems less like a songwriting cop-out and more like the sound of the war machines described in the lyrics rumbling off into the distance, their target destroyed.
“Anti-Tank (Dead Armour)” probably has the overall strongest riffs on the entire album, and an especially arresting introduction where the bass plays completely unsupported for a few bars, filling the soundstage with roiling low frequencies. It also features Those Once Loyal’s best solo, a tricky, winding, looping thing punctuated with brief bursts of manic tapping. Jo Bench gives the performance of her career here—the violent, thunderous energy of this song is hers, not the guitarists’, and their chords reinforce her bass lines, rather than the other way around. “Salvo”, on the other hand, is less a mosh-inducer than a mood piece, overflowing with melancholy and impending doom. The riffs lean very heavily on melody instead of brutality, giving the track a touch of subtlety (subtlety! In a Bolt Thrower album!), and Martin Kearns deviates from his usual straight metal beats to do some quite complicated fills and flourishes.
If there is a weak point on the album, it’s “Last Stand of Humanity”, which brings the riffs but can’t seem to make them gel together into a complete, coherent statement. Many of these transitions feel awkward and abrupt, and the song struggles to build and maintain momentum as the various riffs don’t naturally flow together. Karl Willetts’ vocal cadences (one could not really call any of this singing) are awkward and indecisive, reminding me of some of his work on Mercenary. The thrash section in the middle is a real cooker though, taking a page out of the Slayer playbook with its manic skank beat and shrieking, almost atonal solo recapturing a bit of the frenetic, frenzied speed of Realms of Chaos and War Master from the early days. The energy it builds up is then promptly wasted with the confused, sudden ending where the song repeats an earlier riff a couple of times and just stops with no sense of resolution. It is also the shortest, clocking in barely over three minutes, and makes me wonder if they never quite finished it before recording.
Those Once Loyal was Bolt Thrower’s final studio album. They planned a ninth album a couple of years afterward, but trashed it because they didn’t believe it could surpass this one—probably a wise choice, since they ended their recording career on an unimpeachable high note to cement their legacy whereas so many other bands continue to serve up shallow imitations of their earlier work long after their prime. It also speaks to the sincerity of their proclamations of musical integrity and “no compromise”, choosing to stop recording for artistic reasons when they could have easily half-assed a new album and sold it on the goodwill of their highly devoted fan base.
This album is highly recommended to all fans of heavy metal, even those that would not normally go for “extreme” bands. It is consonant and highly memorable without watering its style down or presenting itself as something it isn’t, and it manages to be utterly compelling despite its obvious simplicity. It breaks no new musical ground and the musicianship never rises above “professional”, but it is suffused with passion, thoughtfully put together, and stuffed with timeless riffs that would be just as effective in 1985, 2005, or 2025. It is Heavy Fucking Metal the way it is meant to be done, and at its recording date, in the 21st century dark ages, that in itself is an accomplishment.