It dawns on you at some point during Warlords that Bulletbelt's name is not a joke. This isn't to say, of course, that the proceedings are devoid of sophistication. Take, for example, the delicately and lightly progressive instrumental intro track, a composed and deftly arranged acoustic number meant to recall those initial progressive thrusts of a young Metallica. Or look again later in the record to "Herodian Kingdom," the song that makes the intro less stereotypical and more of a prelude to later developments, here stretched over the length of an entire song.

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The arrangements on Warlords compensate for any lack of odd time signatures or wild technical flourishes that we typically associate with sophistication in heavy metal, making sure to make keen-eared little tweaks across the full span of songs as opposed to meaninglessly bashing out the same chords in constant repetition. But these elements of sophistication dotting the record and informing its finer details are also clearly meant as invigorating spices rather than the full dish itself, means of refreshing interest rather than a desired point of fixation. The main element of Bulletbelt instead is, just as it says on the tin, a broad-chested and hungry hybrid of heavy metal and thrash.

Some might note a tendency toward black metal and even the occasional power metal across the record as well, and they wouldn't be wrong; but in context, these elements feel less like a group trying their best to stand next to the blackened thrash greats and more an effort to put some excitement back into thrash metal. Stylistically, Bulletbelt lives somewhere in the previously unseen gap between a group like Kvelertak and a group like Skeletonwitch -- they certainly share the tendency toward broad gestures and beer-swilling heavy metal abandon, unafraid to drop into a simpler and more hook-oriented groove more reminiscent of punched-up hard rock than of the blistering thrash attack of someone like Havok or the like.

But Bulletbelt never veer as deep into classic rock moves, instead keeping things within the heavy metal/thrash idiom with a constant light dosage of black metal theatrics to keep things spicy.

Interestingly, the band seems to be leaning more and more direct over time in a reversal from what we typically seem to expect from modern thrash-oriented bands. The band's early records featured production that pushed the bass further up in the mix with a round, springy tone, balancing against riffs and drumming that often leaned more to the acrobatic than what is found on Warlords. The shift over time isn't a bad thing, though: it feels more like their ear has moved over time to wanting the tricks they learned in those tricksier phases of their career to be pointed to tighter and more fist-raising oriented arrangements. This by and large works, as the boys certainly can play, and there is an undeniable power when they snap out of a lick-driven guitar solo back into pounding a four-on-the-floor steady driving and anthemic beat.

Their time on the road feels like a major factor in the slow but continuous shift in direction. If you close your eyes during these songs, it feels like you are staring at the cosmic seascapes and transdimensional Satanic hellish rifts of other bands and more like you are watching showmen commanding from the stage. You can smell the bodies and the beer as the crowd slowly gets worked into a steady lather. It's an injection of the motivating rock-'n'-roll spirit, one that overrides overly conceptual concerns.

Bulletbelt has come a long way since their early days, ditching questionable and troubling Demoniac covers for more thoughtfully-written material and sharpening their live-oriented approach to heavy metal. This kind of thing is refreshing for me: so much of my personal time spent with music is rather stereotypical, alone with headphones and my thoughts. Warlords functions like a reminder of that other function of heavy metal music, not just post-Romantic elaborations of bygone orchestral ideas in a heavy rock context but also, well, rock music, something that lives and breathes and dies in a club surrounded by the fellow faithful. It is clear on close listen that Bulletbelt keep their wits about them, that their decisions to deploy flash or simplicity are deliberate choices and not forced by lack of imagination or ability.

Warlords is a machine, the result of a decade not just recording but, more importantly, playing those songs in front of people, paying attention to their reactions, nudging things year by year into a set of songs designed to rile up the pit. It's unfortunate that, due to COVID, they won't get to test these songs out in that capacity for some time. But in terms of tapping into that necessary space within the world of heavy metal, and in terms of making a love letter to the genre, Bulletbelt did well.

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Warlords released July 1st via Impaler Records.


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