The Power and the Glory: Bolt Thrower and Demigod

Finland boasts the highest proportion of metal artists to population size in the world, seen by many as one of the spiritual homes of this global phenomena, it touches on all colours and stripes of the subculture. In terms of death metal however, there is not a uniquely ‘Finnish’ sound in the same way as Gothenburg and New York developed an unmistakable style. Despite this, many artists to emerge from the frozen north produced death metal every bit as innovative and interesting as their fellow Europeans. Equally, in the UK, despite being the birthplace of the whole mess, when metal grew more extreme in the mid-1980s, many UK artists were playing second fiddle to their European and American counterparts. With a few notable exceptions of course; Bolt Thrower being one of the most notable and unsung heroes of British metal.

Hailing from Coventry, Bolt Thrower initially took queues from Discharge and Slayer to create a form of mid-paced grind that gradually coalesced into compositions sophisticated enough to be called death metal.  Their second offering, 1989’s ‘Realm of Chaos’ was something of a transitional release. Caught between passages of uncontrollable blast beats a-la Napalm Death and mid-paced thundering death metal that was to be their hall mark in the years to come. Bolt Thrower write music about war. And on this album more than any other does the music replicate the chaos of gunfire and artillery over and above the lyrics.

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The riffs are nothing new, varying from the standard death/thrash of the time, formed of simple power-chord structures, with the occasional chaotic solo thrown in for good measure. But the guitar tone is distorted in such a way as to sound almost industrial in the vain of Godflesh, which, when played at this speed, lends itself to the invocation of modern warfare. Drums also, are nothing new, a blast beat here, more mid-tempo fair there, not particularly technical. But again one must point to the production on this album as the key to its success. As the drums perfectly complement the riffs, rarely deviating from their rhythm, they create a cohesive whole of bludgeoning noise. Vocals yet again follow the same pattern. A mid-range death growl, lent some additional power by an industrial distortion effect in production, devoid of all emotional range save aggression, devoid of all creative space save the one true master of this album, unified rhythm.

Unlike fully formed death metal, industrial, or even grindcore (if one could call grindcore ‘formed’), the simplest elements of all three collide on this visceral masterpiece to make for an album that easily stands up to the best of all three styles.

Unlike Bolt Thrower, who approached death metal via grindcore and hardcore punk, Demigod emerged from the frozen north fully formed with their debut ‘Slumber of Sullen Eyes’ some three years later in 1992. What we have here is a relatively sluggish and brooding affair. Demigod relied on minor keys, tritones, haunting leads and guttural vocals to impose on the listener, as opposed to speed thrills or the overpowering buzzsaw guitar tones of their Swedish counterparts. There are passages where the speed occasionally picks up, with very slow tremolo strumming akin to what Bolt Thrower would adopt on later releases, but the latter’s aim was to call to mind the urgency of war, the impression left by Demigod is one of constant foreboding. Indeed, one could argue that ‘Slumber of Sullen Eyes’ is as much a sped up doom metal album as it is death metal.

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Haunting seems to be the overriding theme here. The production is meaty and full-bodied but somehow each element comes through clearly and crisply. The snare drum is prominent in the mix and adds much needed power and drive to the basey guitars, which, when not tremolo strummed, are engaged in droning, haunting, minor chord progressions accented by simple yet imaginative leads. Vocals are clear and crisp. They are of the mid-range death metal growl, but the lyrics are spoken clearly enough that they are easily audible in the mix. This jack-of-all-trades approach to production means there is little to distract the listener from the composition itself, a fact which leads one to truly admire the glum take on death metal that is ‘Slumber of Sullen Eyes’. Not the fastest, heaviest, darkest, or slowest of them all, but certainly one of the most imaginative takes on relatively straight forward death metal. An oft overlooked triumph of the form.

Three years is a long time in music. In 1989, when ‘Realm of Chaos’ was released, the landscape was dominated by Morbid Angel’s ‘Altars of Madness’ as the most fully formed example of death metal at the time, and in the UK scene transitional releases from grind masters Napalm Death and Carcass overshadowed all else. Bolt Thrower were leant a hand by their contract with Games Workshop, who commissioned the artwork and the concept for ‘Realm of Chaos’. This opened their music up to a new market, and one wonders if this album may have been overlooked at the time if this were not the case. Not being a Warhammer fan myself such things do not mean all that much to me, I look at ‘Realm of Chaos’ as a straight up in your face riot of grind, death, punk, industrial and thrash that can simultaneously explode into absolute chaos yet remain rhythmically unified. At times it almost manages to be catchy (see opener ‘Eternal War’ or the classic ‘World Eater’).

But if we are looking for the superior album then look no further than ‘Slumber of Sullen Eyes’. No doubt the work of artists like Bolt Thrower paved the way for this release, so a direct comparison is unfair. But SOSE remains criminally overlooked in the old school death metal catalogue, maybe because it did not fit within a recognisable scene or signature style. Maybe because it was too sophisticated for death metal at the time. It was not imaginative in such an obvious way as Atheist, Demilich or Gorguts, but it certainly took death metal in a more brooding direction. It showed that death metal could be at once haunting, dark, powerful, and patient, without relying on the speed thrills of technical death metal nor the bludgeoning slog of death/doom.  Well worth your time.

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