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Bolt Thrower have been turning out quality war and -only- war themed death metal albums for many years now, and although their material has been of a consistantly high quality, it would be fair to say that it has tended not to vary much from one release to another. Their 2005 release 'To Those Once Loyal' is a stunning step forward however, managing to retain the essence of their older work whilst imbuing it with a tremendous newfound energy.
As the cover would suggest, the album is based around the First World War- perhaps the perfect theme for Bolt Thrower's grimly relentless brand of grinding death metal- and opens with an ominous fugue reminiscient of Gustav Holst's piece 'Mars', from his series 'The Planets', which was itself composed at the time of and in response to The Great War. The album then immediately punges into some seriously heavy, groove-ridden, punk-infused death metal, which is instantly, recognisably 'Bolt Thrower', but at the same time more dynamic and varied, full of catchy, chugging riffs, rousing guitar leads and fantastic technical, melodic solos, bolstered all the while by a relentless barrage of machine-gun drumming and emotionless, gutteral (yet still intelligable) vocals.
Every song on the album is excellent, with not single weak link, and whilst they all follow a similar pattern of doomy chugging and all-out blasting, every song remains memorable in its own right. The production is excellent too, and there is a mixture of stoicism, aggression, sorrow and pride running though the album; one of epic struggle and deep loss, which succeeds in paying tribute to its historical subject matter respectfully rather than just employing it as a gimmick.
The songs are brilliantly constructed, never giving the listener's attention a chance to waver, and the vocals fit in well with numerous choruses that simply beg to be sung along to. The lyrics add a further dimension to the music, conveying a certain power through their overt simplicity, for example "Orders- Unquestionable, all rank and file expendable." and "At first light, fires of the enemy dead will burn bright".
It's worth getting hold of the limited digipack version if possible, first because it comes with an excellent bonus track, and second because the inside of the digipack folds out to reveal a beautiful Great-War themed art piece, reminiscient of the massive historical murals that adorn the walls of the grand government buildings and galleries in Mexico City. Painted in rusty browns and oranges, this piece has at its centre a metallic version of the 'Eye' logo that the band have employed for many years, and springing out from this at various angles are mechanical cogs, wheels, artillery guns, vickers guns, first war rifles and bayonets. Its a fantastic piece of art and gives an idea of just how much love and attention has been poured into the album.
Clocking in at 40-45 minutes, depending on the version, 'To Those Once Loyal' is a timeless death metal classic, the sort of album that leaves you wanting to listen to the whole thing again the moment it ends. Brilliant.
'Those Once Loyal' is a peculiar title for Bolt Thrower's comeback album of sorts, seeing the return of (apparently disloyal) vocalist Karl Willetts and a marked improvement in the band's sound that hasn't sounded this good for a decade. The same ingredients are all there: guttural roared vocals, medium-speed guitars and lyrics devoted entirely to war (interestingly in this case, the First World War), but it's executed with greater style and energy than anything since the band's early days, even if it still falls short of their finest releases.
Bolt Thrower have earned themselves a reputation for consistency to the point of endless repetition, but this album breaks away somewhat by featuring different styles, at least thanks to the efforts of guitarists Barry Thompson and Gavin Ward. 'At First Light' opens with a surprising melodic death metal style, 'Entrenched' takes a more thrash metal approach, 'The Killchain' is more concerned with groove, and the title song is even reminiscent of the epic down-tuned riffs of Amon Amarth.
Bolt Thrower demonstrate once again that they don't know the meaning of the word compromise (I'm guessing, very literally) as the clear production once again brings out the full extent of some of the heaviest guitars in death metal, leaving fans hopeful that subsequent albums will be consistently interesting, rather than consistently the same.
1. At First Light
3. The Killchain
4. Granite Wall
5. Those Once Loyal
6. Anti-Tank (Dead Armour)
7. Last Stand of Humanity
9. When Cannons Fade
1. At First Light / 2. Entrenched / 3. The Killchain / 4. Granite Wall / 5. Those Once Loyal / 6. Anti-Tank (Dead Armour) / 7. Last Stand Of Humanity / 8. Salvo / 9. When Cannons Fade