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Thirty Years Later: Bolt Thrower – In Battle There Is No Law

The year is 1988. In five years, heavy metal has gone from the sleazy, tongue-in-cheek Satanism of bands like Venom and the simple hard rock-inspired riffs of NWOBHM bands that ruled England in 1983 to a serious contest of speed and all out aggression in the zenith of what many would consider extreme metal’s golden age.

England, forever the birthing ground of heavy metal and its culture, is struggling to keep up with the formidable thrash metal giants of the United States and Germany. At one point the capital of metal music, the United Kingdom seemed to have lost its bragging rights in the span of half a decade. They were being outplayed and outperformed by groups rising out of multiple continents, including South America’s high speed export Sepultura. Only a select few established English acts survived the transition away from NWOBHM (Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Motörhead) at full strength, although some may even consider 1988 to be the turning point for those bands as well.

While thrash metal from all over the world was taking off and running away with the rights to heavy metal’s future and evolving into its first offshoots with crossover and death metal, what may have been overlooked was the strength of U.K’s anarcho-punk and hardcore scene. The extreme aesthetic of D-Beat and English hardcore’s politically charged leftist movement may not have been as popular as the thrash metal scene, but it was laying the stones for what would become one of the United Kingdom’s first death metal bands and arguably the most influential — Bolt Thrower.

Ripe for domination, Bolt Thrower poses in this early photo.

In 1988, a group of kids from the iconoclastic working class hardcore scene of Coventry unleashed a bizarre half hour LP that would bring death metal to England. In Battle There Is No Law is a hybrid of the evolving grindcore scene channeled through the ruthless and raw energy of English hardcore with a mixture of obvious Slayer worship. The name of the album speaks to the philosophy of the band. The result was a style similar to Death’s exploration of brutal complexity on Scream Bloody Gore, but unique enough to stand apart from it.

Riff after riff, this chaos stands the test of time. Thirty years after its release, In Battle There Is No Law is as savage as it is relevant. The barrage of chords and maelstrom of beats level the senses and reveal the relentless spirit of Bolt Thrower. Although the production value may be considered a weak point to listeners with a particular bias for clean tracks, the raw energy of England’s hardcore roots surfaced readily through songs downtuned to the mood of desperation.

Napalm Death released their seminal debut Scum barely a year earlier, and at that point they were the most extreme thing coming out of England. Bolt Thrower took the frantic drumming of grindcore and complemented it with songwriting that was unique to metal. It is difficult to assess the success of Bolt Thrower without going back to Napalm Death, because in a way they were really responsible for changing the trajectory of where metal was going and how death metal would take its next steps.

It’s no secret that the founding members of Bolt Thrower were influenced by the Birmingham scene. Coventry is barely an eighteen-minute train ride outside of heavy metal’s birthplace, where grindcore was sowed as well. The congeniality of the scenes impressed a creative vision upon guitarist Barry Thomson that would be shared with friend and bass player Gavin Ward, and from there Bolt Thrower was born as a wild amalgam of mutual interests. Rallying drummer Andrew Whale and vocalist Alan West, the four young men set off to write frantic, explosive music, which would lead a car wreck of songs to appear on Bolt Thrower’s earliest demos. From these first two demos, the template for their full length debut was born. After recording their second demo, the band was slightly altered and included Jo Bench to consolidate Bolt Thrower’s original line up.

One can easily tell that Andrew Whale’s style was cultivated in England’s growing grindcore scene. It is the combination of Whale’s playing and Barry Thomson’s tornado of thrash-inspired rhythms that exploded, perhaps by accident, into England’s first truly important death metal album. Bolt Thrower promised that the United Kingdom would not be overlooked in any regard in the generation that would follow extreme metal’s first wave. Attacking on two fronts as grindcore and death metal, In Battle There Is No Law engulfed both communities with its unique and intriguing sound.

Bolt Thrower performing in 1988 at a Birmingham club

The opening and eponymous track unloads with a procession that calls for war and drowns the listener in a whirlpool of manic guitar playing.  What the vocals lack in technique they make up for in the consistency of brutality and ferocity. Gavin’s growls are simple and blunt bursts of energy delivered in time with the frantic hardcore energy of the band.

The consecutive track “Challenge For Power” confirms what we know now: that Bolt Thrower could not and would not relent. This vicious declaration sounds as thick as it is fast. Oozing out of the amplifier is a storm of madness all-consuming.

On “Forgotten Existence” the Slayer worship becomes more evident. Don’t be surprised if you make out signs of Hell Awaits and Show No Mercy within the onslaught of shredding.

From the first track to the last, out churns a bloody gourmet of England’s first wave of death metal’s finest dishes to be consumed by ravenous metal battalions. One could picture oneself in the thick of cosmic war in the universe from which the band takes its name, Warhammer 40k, as Chaos Legions and Imperial Marines fight over a doomed world to the flesh-ripping sounds on “Concession of Pain,” and imagine catastrophic death tolls and entire star fleets burning over the horizon while listening to “Attack in the Aftermath.”

The year is 1988. Drunk on zeal and whatever else they could get their hands on, a band from Coventry, England takes destiny into their hands and declares a legacy that will remain with them forever: in battle there is no law.

 

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