Artist: Bolt Thrower
Album Title: Those Once Loyal
Label: Metal Blade
This is the eighth album from Bolt Thrower, a British band playing war-themed death metal.
The sound on this album is the best Bolt Thrower have ever had. The lead guitar is crystal clear, backed by heavy rhythm guitar. Both lack the muddy sound of the early Bolt Thrower albums, and they've got more life than on later albums. The drums have a nice, crisp sound, showcasing their precision. The bass sound is especially excellent -- rumbling, rattling, crushing everything under endless waves of low-end, yet the individual notes are quite audible. It's the perfect testament to Jo Bench's bass work. Karl Willets is back on vocals for this album, and his growls sound great... as always, the lyrics and vocal performance are highlights of this band, and the sound here gives them plenty of power.
There's obviously been a change in tactics in the Bolt Thrower war-room these last few years, because the songs they've written for "Those Once Loyal" are the best they've penned in more than a decade. The last two albums sounded lackluster compared to their early work, but this one is chock-full of dynamic riffs and punishing slow sections. "Those Once Loyal" is nearly on par with "The IVth Crusade", better than "...For Victory", and completely destroys everything recorded since. I'll give it a track-by-track review.
"At First Light" comes in with an atmospheric intro that instills a feeling of impatience in the listener. This breaks into a powerful main riff, which leads almost immediately into a solo. Then the vocals come in, and... ARGH IT'S BOLT THROWER! This song should put to rest any worries the listener might have, with its headbangable riffing, infectious chorus, and precise breaks. "Orders... unquestionable! All rank and file... expendable!"
An air-raid siren introduces "Entrenched", a straightforward attack enhanced by pounding drums. I love the bass work on this one -- during most of the song, it's not right up in front, but it really makes this one work, as much of the dynamism of this song is in the low-end.
"The Killchain" starts out with the well-known intro from "Cenotaph", a Bolt Thrower tradition. Unfortunately, this song is the weakest on the album. The main riff is much too modern-sounding for my ears, and the song sounds out of place as a result. There's no solo to speak of on this one, either. That said, it's a decent song, as the interesting vocal performance goes a long way to save it.
"Granite Wall" belies its serious subject with some speedy, aggressive guitar work. There's a lot of variation in the riffing on this song, which allows the band to show off some smooth transitions. The last minute or so is just amazing, with a ripping solo immediately followed by a CRUSHING mid-paced section. The purity of feeling here is overwhelming.
"Those Once Loyal" is a stately tune, squarely in the vein of Bolt Thrower crushers like "Unleashed (Upon Mankind)" and "Silent Demise". This song's chorus summons up tremendous emotion with its powerful vocals and triumphant guitar. Things speed up near the halfway mark, only to be brought back to respectful attention for one last tribute to the fallen. This one is bound to become a Bolt Thrower classic.
"Anti-Tank (Dead Armour)" starts off with a great bass solo, its rumbling, jangling rhythm setting the tone for another Bolt Thrower song about TANKS. And for good reason -- if there's a better metaphor for this band, I haven't found it yet! The riffing and bass work on this one is quick and nimble, yet it sets up a continuous shaking that's entirely appropriate to the subject. The lyrics on "Anti-Tank" are also excellent, standouts on an album already bursting with great lines. Karl even sounds like he's pushing his vocals to the limit on this song... quality stuff!
"Last Stand Of Humanity" grinds away until it reaches the swaggering middle section. The riff here is heavy enough to carry the song all on its own, but this song also boasts the best solos on the album, with some guitar craziness that harks back to early Bolt Thrower.
"Salvo" is another slow song, and a fine example of Bolt Thrower's more atmospheric side. They take a handful of mid-paced riffs, some oppressive bass and vocals, and a simple main theme, and turn the whole thing into a stirring meditation on the hopelessness of war. Repetition is used to perfection here, as the chorus shifts slightly each time, never offering so much as a shred of hope. The interplay between the lead and rhythm guitars after "white-hot shrapnel fills the sky" is shiver-inducing!
"When Cannons Fade" starts out fast, referencing the album itself with its opening lines. The vocal work here is exceptional, just packed with feeling and energy. The whole song is equally dynamic, with speed and riff changes galore. The last few minutes bring things down to a reverent pace, letting the drums and backing guitar set the tone as the album comes to a close.
"Symbol of Eight" is the bonus track on the digipak version. There's a Warhammer 40000 reference here -- nice to see this band haven't forgotten their roots! I especially like the rhythm on this one. The vocals during the section that ends with "new strength to grow" are equally cool. Between this and the fancy packaging, the digipak version is definitely worth tracking down.
"Entrenched" ends with a Bolt Thrower aphorism: "In a world of compromise, some don't!" Nothing describes this album better. It is 100% Bolt Thrower, and so the style is just as you'd expect, but the songs are worlds better than anything they've done in ages. I haven't been able to stop listening to this one since I got it, and it hasn't lost a bit of lustre. I'd say this album is Bolt Thrower's fourth best ever, after "Realm of Chaos", "Warmaster", and "The IVth Crusade". It's one of the top albums of the year, if not number one, and is a must-hear for both old Bolt Thrower fans and those new to the band. Highest recommendations.
Standout Tracks: "Those Once Loyal", "Salvo", "When Cannons Fade"