October 28th, 2019 marks the thirtieth anniversary of one of the most celebrated albums in death metal’s canon: Bolt Thrower’s Realm of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness. There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to this album since it was not only a rich and influential musical work, but it also drew from a rich fictional mythology for the lyrical content and imagery. The band also inspired some unlikely artists, which I’ll detail later. It is also an album that had to be reissued with a completely different album cover for legal and monetary reasons. I’ll get into all that and more, in this lovingly crafted article that celebrates one of my favorite death metal releases.
To fully get your metal nerd on for this album, we must first understand another area of nerddom: miniature gaming. In 1975, a company by the name of Games Workshop was founded, which specialized in creating customizable tabletop miniature games with a rich mythology and a progressing storyline. They had two main branches of this game: Warhammer (Age of Sigmar) and Warhammer 40,000. Warhammer was their fantasy brand, featuring orcs, lizardmen, knights, elves, and more. Warhammer was basically an alternative for Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons people, but no less mythologically rich, since fictional novels put out by the company fleshed out the story of all of the miniatures. Warhammer 40,000 was their sci-fi version, which took place in the far future in outer space, and included cyborgs and aliens alongside space marines (replacing knights) and future versions of orcs (redubbed “orks”). In both versions of Warhammer, one of the greatest evil enemies are the forces of chaos. An overseeing God guided each race, and in the case of Chaos, there were four chaos gods with four respective aims: Khorne (war), Slaanesh (lust), Tzeentch (magic), and Nurgle (plague/disease). In Warhammer, the forces of chaos dominated the northern part of the globe. In Warhammer 40,000, where the world was expanded to outer space, the forces of chaos occupied their own realm, which was an area on the outskirts of our galaxy that had been warped by insanity and corrupted by the forces of chaos.
Now, this brings us to Bolt Thrower. Bolt Thrower, who were residents of England, where Games Workshop was founded, were also huge Warhammer nerds. In particular, Karl, Whale, and Gavin were all avid players of Warhammer 40,000. The original cover of Realm of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness was created by Games Workshop, and it depicts Space Marines (specifically of the Imperial Fists regime, if you want to get excessively nerdy), fighting off an unseen enemy attacking them from all directions. The title of the album, Realm of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness, was taken from the name of a book released by Games Workshop in 1988. Bolt Thrower’s second album was released in 1989 and used imagery and lyrical themes associated with Games Workshop’s products with their permission. The album’s release was a joint collaboration between Games Workshop, Earache Records, and the band. This collaboration actually began as a result of Games Workshop approaching Bolt Thrower, because the original owner of Games Workshop was a fan of the group. They originally proposed using Bolt Thrower’s music alongside Warhammer animations, and they wanted to sign Bolt Thrower to a Games Workshop-owned record label, and even offered them Warhammer-themed stage sets, but this was before the company was sold off to new owners. Bolt Thrower decided to collaborate with Games Workshop instead of signing with their record label because they had doubts about a gaming company having the necessary understanding of the music business, so the band wound up with Earache Records. The leaving of the original owner from the company (that was a fan of Bolt Thrower) was the event that severed the connection between Bolt Thrower and Games Workshop. This was all before Games Workshop was the powerhouse of a company that it is today, which currently also produces video games, movies, and a much more expansive selection of miniature games and novels than their early days. It is because of this that future represses of Bolt Thrower’s album had to feature a different album artwork. Games Workshop turned Warhammer 40,000 into a powerful brand, and so they no longer licensed the album artwork to Bolt Thrower because the fees to do so were exorbitant. So, this is why the cover of the reissue features vaguely space-marine-esque figures that are different enough not to be mistaken for Games Workshop-owned characters (even as artist John Sibbick commissioned both covers). Similarly, for their next album, War Master, it was too expensive to continue to use Games Workshop images and artists; however, they hired a former artist from the company to create the artwork of that album. Also of note is that the reissue of Realm of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness was put out by Earache Records without Bolt Thrower’s consent, and without any of the profits going to Bolt Thrower, so the band has continually condemned the reissue. As an additional artwork fact, Bolt Thrower’s iconic stained glass logo used on the album was also developed by the artists at Games Workshop.
I always do a deep dive into the lyrical content for my album articles, but since we’re also diving into incredibly nerdy territory, I’ll only talk about a few tracks. For example, Eye of Terror is about the effects of a cosmic warp storm (a storm that hideously mutates any in its proximity through chaos powers) that shares its moniker with the song title, which in Warhammer 40,000 lore exists towards the edge of the Milky Way Galaxy, and is nearly 20,000 light-years across. It is where the largest concentration of the forces of chaos exist in the Warhammer 40K mythos. Similarly, the song Plague Bearer is about immortal demonic entities that follow the chaos of disease and plague (Nurgle, not to be confused with the Behemoth frontman), which are appropriately called plague bearers. Plague bearers are swollen creatures covered in pustules and filth, and the song describes a mortal person turning into a plague bearer through a horrendous process of disease contamination and rot. Lastly, I’ll only describe one other song, merely because it’s my favorite Bolt Thrower song: World Eater.
World Eater is basically about the Judas of the Warhammer 40,000 world. Early in Warhammer 40,000 mythology, there were legions of Space Marines that betrayed the Emperor of the human race, and among these Space Marines was a group called the World Eaters. They live within the Eye of Terror and have been manipulated by chaos into warped, fearsome abominations known as Chaos Space Marines that had long since lost any semblance of their human forms. They worship the chaos god of war (Khorne), and so their sole purpose is war and bloodshed. Bolt Thrower’s song, I believe, is about a Space Marine and his retinue being slaughtered by the World Eaters.
Now, this might have been an excessive amount of nerdy information for people that are more interested in the music than the lyrics, but it is still a part of the album that is widely celebrated. But now I’ll get to the real reason why Bolt Thrower persists as being one of the most celebrated death metal bands: the music. Bolt Thrower are well known for creating a style of their own, which emphasizes mid-paced grooves and catchy hooks. Realm of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness is a great album largely because it represents the band in a state of transition. It was before they switched from lyrics about fictional wars to non-fictional wars, and it was before they shed the remains of their early grindier, blastier, more punk/crust-influenced sound to fully embrace grooves. In other words, this album features a mix of Bolt Thrower’s later grooves alongside more feral drum patterns, and chaotic thrash-influenced guitar solos. It uses blastbeats and fast sections in a way that the band later intentionally abandoned, which is also why they didn’t play the faster songs off of the album on later tours. The rest of your death metal staples are present on the album: guttural vocals, down-tuned guitars, and intense musicianship.
Those responsible for these sounds:
Karl Willetts – Vocals
Gavin Ward – Guitars
Barry Thomson – Guitars
Jo Bench – Bass guitar
Andrew Whale – Drums
The sound of the album has that raw early death metal sound, compliments of a quality mix by Colin Richardson, who you might recognize as he was also involved with records by Behemoth, Cannibal Corpse, Carcass, Cradle of Filth, Gorguts, Massacre, Napalm Death, Sepultura, and Sinister, among many others. All of the songs were written in advance of entering the studio with the exception of one song, All That Remains, which was written in the studio. This was typical of how Bolt Thrower recorded each album, as the process of recording and syncing up with the other members of the band generally inspired them to write an additional song in the studio.
Realm of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness persists as being a fan favorite for fans, although not everyone from the band shared that sentiment. The album featured lower tuning than their other works, and it incorporated faster elements to their sound that the group would later intentionally abandon. Bassist Jo Bench vocalized frustration with her bass on the recording, due to the band tuning down to A natural for the album, resulting in what she likened to playing on spaghetti noodles. She also mentioned her desire to someday re-record her bass lines in C#. The problems that came with tuning lower were quickly rectified by changing their tuning after finishing the album, starting at the beginning of the infamous 1989 Grindcrusher tour, as the lower tuning was causing problems with clarity in a live setting.
Bolt Thrower have influenced many bands and artists who have incorporated heavy grooves and lyrical themes about war. Still, there’s one artist that I want to especially highlight: the late, great, Chicago native Wesley Willis. Wesley Willis (May 31, 1963 – August 21, 2003) was a singer/songwriter that was well known for composing solely with an electronic keyboard, writing songs with almost identical musical structure, and for being an instantly identifiable character because he was an obese black man that struggled with schizophrenia. Besides all of this, Wesley was an artist, and he had a distinctive mark on his forehead because he greeted friends with a head-butt. In addition to Wesley identifying himself as a rock and roll artist, he regularly attended concerts in Chicago, including those by the likes of Morbid Angel and Bolt Thrower. Wesley Willis was so moved by Bolt Thrower’s performance that he wrote a song called Bolt Thrower about seeing them live, which was included on his 1996 album, Rock ‘N’ Roll Will Never Die. Here is a sample of the lyrics:
“This band played at the City Centre Theater
About one thousand people watched the show
The concert was a jam session
It was a kick ass rock show”
From here, Wesley went into one of his infamous choruses, where he repeated their name, “Bolt Thrower,” four times. Now, I’ll tell you why I decided to include this snippet of information. In 2013, I attended one of Bolt Thrower’s last live performances in Chicago at Reggies Rock Club. Reggies is a venue that has a massive portrait of Wesley Willis hanging from the ceiling because he was a beloved Chicago native who dearly loved the city that he called home. Bolt Thrower were clearly familiar with the man, as frontman Karl Willetts looked up at the portrait of Wesley, who was then deceased, and he dedicated their performance of When Glory Beckons (off of their 1994 album …For Victory) to Wesley. For me, this helped certify that Bolt Thrower are a class act. This, combined with their dirt-cheap merchandise prices (which were only sold at their shows as a way to avoid bootleggers), the incredible intensity of their live performance, and that the members were always good to fans and were happy to sign merchandise, all reinforce how deserving this album and the band are of celebration. They were always appreciative of their fans and humble, even when it came to praises from obscure characters like Wesley Willis. Not only this, but they once threw a fest that brought in tens of thousands of dollars for a cancer charity. Bolt Thrower are a band worthy of celebration not only because of their music and legacy, but also because of how they conducted themselves as people. The only thing that bums me out, since Bolt Thrower is no longer an active entity, is that I’ll never again get to experience the full fury of a crowd launching into a massive pit within the opening seconds of World Eater being performed live.
Although Bolt Thrower have sadly been discontinued following the tragic death of drummer Martin Kearns in 2015, you can still catch two former members of the Realm of Chaos lineup, frontman Karl Willetts and drummer Andy Whale, in their new band Memoriam, which continues the groove-laden sound of later Bolt Thrower across each Memoriam release, which also feature former members of Benediction Frank Healy and Scott Fairfax.