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Bolt Thrower’s Those Once Loyal turns 10

onceloyal

Those Once Loyal is my favorite Bolt Thrower album. It might be my favorite death metal album ever. It happens to be the last album they ever made, and it was released a decade ago today.

Most of the band’s fans prefer their earlier output. It’s easy to see why. Bolt Thrower had a style all their own that they executed consistently well, but their first records often couch those songs in the escapism of either pre-industrial history or the Warhammer strategy game. Those records are fun.

Those Once Loyal is different. That’s why it’s my favorite. Its songs center on World War I, but could be applied to any modern industrialized war–artillery and tanks have not gone away. Instead of a colorful painting, it’s cover is a memorial. Those Once Loyal exists in the real world. It is not a fun album, but it is fun to listen to.

Bolt Thrower still deploy all their classic tropes on this album. Opener “At First Light” begins with one of singer Karl Willetts’s monolithic title lines a-la “Cenotaph”. There’s an infinite fade-in to “The Killchain.” Martin “Kiddie” Kearns plays his drums like two people cut in half at the waist and then joined; his legs are constant double bass roll, all the better to evoke treads and heavy machinery while his arms strike slower grooves punctuated with skull-splitting snare hits (a holdover from his history in reggae).

Those Once Loyal is about remembering fallen soldiers, which is heavy psychological shit. That the riffs are memorable, then, backs up the album’s theme.

Memorable riffs come from three things: the sequence of notes played (melody), the space between those notes (rhythm) and character of those notes (tone). All three are in perfect balance on Those Once Loyal, as evidenced by the record’s multiple instant-classic bangers. I would dissect them all, but it’s best to focus on one. The one.

“Anti Tank (Dead Armour),” my favorite Bolt Thrower song–probably my favorite death metal song period–masters all three aspects with minimal effort. It’s two riffs and one solo. The colossal breakdown at the end is just Kearns changing up the drum beat and the strings following rhythmic suit. The chorus riff is just an embellishment of the verse riff and the verse riff is precise and deadly as a bullet fired by Corporal Francis Pegahmagabow. Willett’s lyrics combine great storytelling, a yarn about a lone soldier trapped behind enemy lines and surrounded by tanks and somehow winning, with some of his best lines: “Outgunned, outnumbered, though never outclassed,” “face to face with cold dead eyes” and “The kill ratio rising – one hundred to one.”

The protagonist in “Anti Tank” is exceptional, but other songs focus on the less fortunate soldiers who did fall when outgunned and outnumbered. The title track, “Granite Wall” and especially “When Cannons Fade” pay respect to the estimated nine billion human beings who have fallen in wartime. They’re all restrained and melodic by Bolt Thrower standards and together make up a solid third of the record–everything that isn’t a total banger.

The moral fallout of modern war makes it complex to honor fallen soldiers in retrospect–this is a tragedy. Bolt Thrower neatly sidestep it by removing any sense of nationalism from their lyrics.

“When Cannons Fade” in particular has become something of a memorial song for drummer Martin “Kiddie” Kearns, who passed away in his sleep earlier this year at age 38–too young. This was his last album. Though he was the longest-standing drummer in Bolt Thrower, Kearns only recorded two albums in the band, Honor, Valour, Pride and Those Once Loyal, and since Willetts did not sing on Honor, Valour, Pride, Those Once Loyal is the only album featuring the ‘classic’ Bolt Thrower lineup, the one that most people had the chance to experience live.

The album’s fixation on the injustice of death forced upon young men and women is uncanny in retrospect. That Kearns passed away with this as his final recorded output is the kind of coincidence that inspires some people to believe in synchronicity or premonition.

One addition to the sad poetry: I saw Bolt Thrower live in Vancouver on June 21 of this year. It was Kearns’s last performance, and possibly the last Bolt Thrower show. They played “When Cannons Fade” second-to-last, but could have skipped the encore.

Kearns is the last musician to hit a note on the last Bolt Thrower album. As the guitars fade into feedback, his drums plays on, as relentless as the greed and wrath of nations. “When Cannons Fade” is his. The song was made to finish albums, to finish live sets. It happened to finish the album that finished a career. It was very nearly the last stand for Both Thrower, the moment where they showed the most of their humanity.

—Joseph Schafer

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