Bolt Thrower: In battle there is no law
09/07/10 || Habakuk
Rumor has it that there are actually people who believe Bolt Thrower started to put out quality only with “The IVth Crusade”, their album number four. Actually, one of the most fervent supporters of this opinion runs this very site. Sure, the band’s sound did change considerably after their third album, but still, dismissing “Warmaster” and “Realm of Chaos” is pure madness. I can see why one might not exactly adore the ultra-raw “In battle there is no law” – but I don’t care. Judging from the band’s behavior towards their material (which is to apparently omit it from memory and never to play it) they, too, consider the album at hand a youthful folly more than an actual classic – but I don’t care. What do they know, anyway? I, for one, enjoy this starting point to their career of awesomeness just as much as almost everything else they put out, and I’ll give you the rundown of why exactly as follows:
The band’s early works often receive the label “grindcore” – thing is, while the songs might be “fast” compared to later-day Throwers’ generally mid-paced approach, the song structures are nothing out of the ordinary, so grindcore in the definition of “a collection of twenty 30-second blast fests” this album is not. There is indeed something resembling blast beats (more like really fast 4/4 drumming), as on every pre-“IVth Crusade” Bolt Thrower album, but does that make an album grind? Last time I checked, it didn’t. “In battle there is no law” does have some overlappings with Carcass’ early proto-grind stuff, granted, but I still don’t see how the grind label would fit early Bolt Thrower. Songs roughly clock in between 2 and 3:30 minutes and incorporate everything from slowly advancing doomish chugging to galopping triplet runs and no-holds-barred uptempo parts, as well as riffs chock full of (downtuned) E-string playing. Vaguely crust-rooted death metal: yes, grindcore: no.
3. Flapflapflapflapflapflap – no, this is not only your average metalhead’s reaction to seeing a female bass player, this is the album’s snare drum sound during the “blast” sections. That translates to the drums sounding a bit muffled and “soft”, which works well with isolated sounds like for example the thumping floor tom during some accentuations, or some (rarely happening) single “oomph” bass drum hits, but not so much with flapflapflafast snare patterns.
The guitars on the other hand are somewhat crunchy and definitely influenced in tone by early contemporary semi-metal and crust punk outfits (Hellbastard, Doom), if maybe a bit heavier. Still, they definitely lack edge and are lightyears away from the sonic onslaught of, say, “…For Victory”.
While everything is more or less balanced, the overall sound is very, very thin and quiet by today’s standards, so frankly this really isn’t a good production. The only redeeming factor is that it adds to the album’s raw feel, and if you have nothing against the old school and its implications, don’t let this turn you down. Let it make you turn the volume knob up instead.
7. Chaotic and frantic but definitely structured, and certainly more detailed than your average crust band at the time, these guys’ riffing indeed did create something pretty much unheard of before – we’re talking 1988, after all. And while the whole thing sounds a bit messy, that’s not in the first degree the guitarists’ fault who play relatively tight – at least given the speed and playing intensity and (low-budget) recording circumstances at the time. Oh yeah, the solos are a bit laughable, but at least nothing cringe-worthy like parts of the lead guitar work on the successor, “Realm of Chaos”. Further comparisons for the guitar playing escape me, so let me just say that if you pay attention, there’s some pretty cool riffage to be found on this album. The nature of the album’s sound doesn’t give that away too easily, though.
7. Karl Willetts didn’t have his well-developed death metal voice, but was still finding his strengths, it seems. He however had a nice rasp already, just a little incomprehensible especially during the faster parts that transform his voice into a kind of hissing. Evil shit, y’all. Imagine early Ross Dolan, just a bit weaker.
3. Word has it that Jo Bench hardly knew how to hold her instrument back in the day. Doesn’t matter, as you can’t hear it for shit most of the time. A few rogue rumbles here and there (“Challenge for power”‘s intro comes to mind) don’t really qualify for a thorough assessment.
6. Andrew Whale definitely was a formative element of early Bolt Thrower. A guy that came from playing punk and apparently only started to pick up double kick drumming after his bandmates had told him to do so, he never really became a real monster behind the kit. He sure sounds pretty unique though, and while there is some plain sloppiness involved in that, there’s more to it – sometimes when I’m bored, I find myself fingertapping the drum intro to “Attack in the aftermath”, just because it’s cool. So, hampered a little by the aforementioned “flapping”, Whale still has some catchy stuff on display, and from a more positive viewpoint, the production conceals his sloppy double bass a little. In a word, if you’re a drumming technique fetishist, you won’t like him, but there is some undeniable charm to his playing.
8. I can definitely see why the guys at Games Workshop approached the band after this album and asked them to write some Warhammer 40k inspired stuff for album number two, as the song themes on here are basically nothing else, dark future, nuclear holocaust, eternal war and everything.
Storm calms neon skies
Still chilling winds roam the nuclear wastes
…and so forth. Absolutely fine by me.
8. Black and white and full of hilarious detail. A zombie knight with “Trash to Death” (sic) on his armor plating? A giant-headed midget zombie scraping “War” into his forehead whilst holding a drawing of “a dart throwing ballista (never mess with a bolt thrower)”? A zombie with a clock in his forehead? I mean, why not? It fits the album as it’s basically a giant fucken mess, but awesome in a way.
2. You’ve got to be kidding me.
4. Two pages of lyrics printed ultra-small, one page of thank you’s including a shout-out to John Peel. Oh well, there are definitely worse kinds out there.
Overall and ending rant
If this were a movie, I’d call it a “genre film”. You won’t persuade anyone today that death metal is the dog’s bollocks by playing said person “In battle there is no law”. It’s certainly not a prime slab of death metal, neither does it give justice to the band Bolt Thrower after 1990 (which is like, always). However, it is an awesome glimpse into the evolution of the death metal genre and the early British scene, fueled by dirty punk music and with future greats like Napalm Death, Carcass and this very band in the starting blocks. If you, like I humbly claim for myself, are a fan of raw, unpolished old school death metal, you might even find a very enjoyable listen in this album and should at least check it out for the historic value.
Everyone else: don’t bother. And I’m not saying this out of some elitist “you won’t get it anyway” chuzpe, but simply because there are definitely a lot better albums to be found out there, even if you limit yourself to the old school. Hence, consider the following score rather an indication of personal preference than an objective, hard facts-based assessment true for everyone in the solar system (like all our other scores).
- Released: 1988
- Label: Vynil Solution
- Website: www.boltthrower.com
- Karl Willets: vocals
- Gavin Ward: guitars
- Barry Thompson: guitars
- Jo Bench: bass
- Andy Whale: drums
- 01. In battle there is no law
- 02. Challenge for power
- 03. Forgotten existence
- 04. Denial of destiny
- 05. Blind to defeat
- 06. Concession of pain
- 07. Attack in the aftermath
- 08. Psychological warfare
- 09. Nuclear annihilation