Last summer the 13-year old (known as The Candyman for you Metal Dad Radio Show listeners) sat down with the entire Iron Maiden discography and ranked the albums from our least favorite to most cherished. We had a blast and ever since have been kicking around the idea of doing it with other bands. After laying down some parameters (i.e. a band must have released a minimum of five full-length albums, no comp records, no live records, etc.) we are finally embarking on our new monthly series. First up, and randomly selected, England’s masters of battle-tested, epic brutality – Bolt Thrower.
There are two things I’m going to love most about this series. First is getting to revisit the entire discography of some of my all-time favorite bands. We have a list of about 25 acts we’d like to get to at some point and will probably add on to it as we go. Second is having my metal-loving son go back and visit albums he’s never heard front-to-back before. Doing this with Iron Maiden was fairly easy because he had listened to enough tracks/albums to already have a decent idea of where he was going to rank them all. Most of the bands on the list though are going to have at least a few records that are new to him and that excites the music nerd in me to no end.
Let me preface this ranking by saying (and I’ll be hammering this home every post) that this is not a “best of” list. This is simply a listing of which albums we rank as our personal favorites.
Let me also preface this particular post by saying I don’t think Bolt Thrower has ever put out a bad record. This is a band that I’ve held in extremely high regard for a long, long time and I’d take their discography over that of almost all of their peers.
Please remember what I just wrote about Bolt Thrower not having any disappointing albums in their catalogue. With that said, 2002’s Honour-Valour-Pride is by far the weakest link. This is the only album that Karl Willetts didn’t handle vocal duties, and while Dave Ingram is a solid death metal vocalist who recorded some excellent albums with Benediction, having him front Bolt Thrower just sounds off. I liken him to Ian Gillan – loved his work with Deep Purple, hated when he fronted Black Sabbath. They are both examples of a heavy metal Venn diagram that didn’t work exactly as planned. The music on this album is still entirely Bolt Thrower though – heavy, dark, lyrically well-crafted, and filled with killer riffs. Would this album rank hire if Willetts was manning the mic? Possibly.
Candyman Ranking: Honour-Valour-Pride – I completely agree with The Metal Dad. This is still a great album. It’s just different. The vocals work fine but when you think classic Bolt Thrower, this isn’t it.
I purchased this album upon its release in 1998 and remember thinking then that it would take a few listens for these songs to have as much staying power as the material that came before it. That’s more a nod to how excellent the previous albums were as opposed to a knock on this record. In hindsight, realizing now how much inner turmoil this band was going through at the time – replacing their drummer, their vocalist coming and going, etc. – my appreciation for this record has only grown over the years. This is a record that sounds tight and technically proficient in the way that only a band who has been killing it for well over a decade could produce. When you look out at the death metal landscape in ’98 this album looks even more impressive. More than a few of their contemporaries were falling flat on their gore-soaked faces at that point while Bolt Thrower just kept producing meaningful material.
Candyman Ranking: Mercenary – Now this is more like it. This album is pretty great. The only reason it ranks lower is because of how amazing the rest of the albums on this list are.
6. Those Once Loyal
Confession time: I think I had simply forgotten just how good this record was upon its release in 2005. I can remember reading somewhere between their hiatus and eventual break up that the band hadn’t rushed to release anymore albums because they felt that with Those Once Loyal they had finally delivered the “perfect” Bolt Thrower record. I don’t know about it being perfect, but whatever flaws you wanted to try and point out would be nitpicking at best. With Karl Willetts returning to vocal duties this band emerged from the studio with an album that sounded faster, heavier, and more pissed off than any other in recent memory. Grind and thrash elements returned to the fold, the rhythm section was possibly at its fiercest, the riffs were as meaty as ever, and the production was some of the best they ever achieved. I almost…almost…ranked this album higher than where it currently sits.
Candyman Ranking: …For Victory – A possibly controversial choice ranking …For Victory this low on my list. This album is pretty close to perfection but I just can’t place it any higher because of how amazing the rest of these albums are.
5. …For Victory
I’ve read more than one publication’s notion that this is the best Bolt Thrower album of the 1990s. While I will respectfully disagree, there is no denying the power and devastating nature of this record. Expanding on the sludgier elements of previous releases, this is an album that often alternates between bludgeoning the listener and swarming them with these churning riffs. Either way the heaviness of this record can be downright suffocating. This is another Bolt Thrower record that I ran out to purchase the day it was released in 1994, and it instantaneously became a death metal classic in my mind. Over 25 years later my opinion on this record has not changed. Essential listening.
Candyman Ranking: Those Once Loyal – I simply feel bad placing it this low. This was an incredibly triumphant return for Bolt Thrower. It stands up to any other album on this list. You can’t not love it.
4. War Master
This is where I break from most rankings of this ilk as almost everyone I’ve seen firmly places 1991’s War Master in the top two or three. This was the album where almost all of their grind elements were filtered out for a sound more closely resembling pure death metal. The album sees them experimenting with slower tempos and more melodic elements in ways I think a lot of fans thought impossible after their first two albums. The end result was grim and an album that you could argue was their absolute heaviest sounding up to that point. When they hit those slowed sections and some of their most memorable riffs kick in you can literally feel the heaviness come barreling through the speakers like a battalion of tanks taking the field. So why don’t I have this album ranked higher? Let’s just say that my not ranking this album any higher is certainly not an indictment of how good this record can sound on any given day.
Candyman Ranking: In Battle There Is No Law – An album that started one of the greatest careers in all of extreme metal. While it’s more crust punk than death metal, this album never disappoints. Full to the brim with classic Bolt Thrower material. It’s fast and it’s heavy.
3. In Battle There Is No Law
Influenced as much, if not more so, by crust and punk bands like Discharge and Crass than they were thrash, Bolt Thrower’s crushing 1988 debut is a raw, unrelenting affair. There’s more grindcore on this record than death metal and the end result is an album that almost sounds out of place when held up against the rest of their catalogue. However, it would be a fool’s errand to try and diminish the impact and/or influence of this record simply because their sound moved away from what was held within. If you’re a fan of grind, crust, and thrash acts that could be considered proto-death metal then this album should stand as one of your ultimate favorites. The muddy production only aids in giving this record a subterranean feel and when you compare it to the rest of their discography it has an almost demo quality to it. But that’s just one of the many things that make it utterly endearing in my book. It’s raw, it’s pissed, and it’s an album I can go back to over and over again without tiring.
Candyman Ranking: War Master – I just can’t see why The Metal Dad wouldn’t rank this album higher. I think this album is actually incredibly underrated probably because it’s sandwiched between two o the greatest death metal albums of all-time. But in my opinion this holds up just as well as the two albums I have ranked higher.
2. IVth Crusade
I definitely have this album ranked higher than most Bolt Thrower fans, but there’s solid logic behind it. Released in early 1993 in the U.S., IVth Crusade was the first Bolt Thrower record that I bought and listened to front-to-back upon its release, as opposed to relying on other people to burn/trade me copies. For that reason alone I have a soft spot for this album and kind of consider it “my” Bolt Thrower record. Besides the sentimental reasons though I also consider this one of their heaviest offerings. This was the album where they really slowed things up and created what I think is the quintessential ‘Bolt Thrower sound’. There are sections of this record that lumber into death-doom territory and I absolutely applaud their efforts to take their sound into even heavier terrain without sacrificing the songwriting itself. You often hear people talk about albums being “untouchable” and for me this one would certainly qualify. How much do I love this record? There was a brief moment when making this list that I had it penciled into the top spot.
Candyman Ranking: IVth Crusade – I can’t argue with The Metal Dad for almost putting this album first on his list. This album is bone crushing and anyone who considers themselves a fan of death metal needs to listen to this album front to back right now and take a moment to appreciate it.
1. Realm of Chaos – Slaves to Darkness
Eventually, when it came time to lock in my picks for this list I flip-flopped my top two choices, not because I consider one ‘better ‘ than the other, but because of what this album meant for me as a metalhead and the death metal universe in general. This was the first Bolt Thrower record I ever heard, shortly after its release in 1989. I was still somewhat of an extreme metal newbie, and I could not fathom how a band could be so crushingly heavy. It’s safe to say that this record, along with a handful of others, changed my world view on heavy metal and music in general. For that reason alone it holds a special place in my blackened heart. Beyond my personal links to this album it also holds an obvious importance to the greater metal world at large. Combining the grind and crust elements from their debut with the near death metal perfection of the two follow-up albums, Realm of Chaos is the perfect bridge between the two Bolt Thrower eras and easily stands as one of the best death metal record the ’80s ever produced. (How powerful is this record over thirty years later? This was the album that upon first listen made The Candyman an instant fan and he still sings its praises weeks after first listen.)
Candyman Ranking: Realm of Chaos – Slaves to Darkness – This is it right here. If you ask me this is one of the top three death metal albums of all-time. I completely agree with The Metal Dad that this is where they perfected their sound.