Sunday, May 16, 2010

What Bolt Thrower Means For Black Metal

If Euronymous, whenever he was formulating what he considered to be the essential stylistics of the black metal genre he was supporting with his label, Deathlike Silence, if not the fundamental agenda of own band, didn't have the work of Bolt Thrower in the back of his mind I would be very surprised. What other band represents the 'life metal' thrust of the abhorred then-growing underground scene better than the British war metal crew? I would argue that Bolt Thrower more than any of the other bands on Earache during that fateful season (this is '90-'92 we are talking about now) directly symbolized everything that the Norwegians later came to hate with a heathen vengeance. In this respect, Bolt Thrower and the death metal scene they directly represented had a very importance existence as a 'negative inspiration', as something to always fight against with one's music, and ultimately to conquer with a new sound.

I say Bolt Thrower because sitting here listening to their albums, one after another, I can not think of many sounds in modern metal that would be farther than the raw cold sound that Mayhem prospered with and that Burzum concentrated on exploring. Bolt Thrower's guitar sound is warm and rich and focuses mainly on the bass end of the spectrum, cycling through riffs that are constructed from notes primarily on the bottom two or three strings on the guitar, reaching from the first to the fifth frets. In fact, I think it was Bolt Thrower, if memory serves, that sought to concentrate primarily on this part of the guitar above all others, constructing micro-riffs that oscillated between notes that at high volume are barely distinguishable because they are so low in frequency. The drumming is equally distinguishable from black metal, as Whale uses the bass drums to provide backup thunder for the guitars, and only rarely hits the snare or a tom unless he is doing a quick fill. Will Whale only be remembered as a fill footnote in the history of metal? This style of drumming comes into its own in the band mainly after 'Warmaster' but it is already there in embryo form on their first two albums. I remember a time when Bolt Thrower were known for their drumming because of Whale's constant fills and drum rolls, but this was at a time when the 'time-keeper' style of death metal drumming prevailed (before the release of Deicide's 'Legion' album - which changed everything) and to be original in the scene all you had to do was hit the snare in a random manner every couple of bars. The best example of very poor and uninspiring drum work at this time would be Andrews on Death's 'Leprosy' album - you can hear how bass drums became the standard of death metal, mirroring the low frequencies of the guitar. In black metal, the emphasis on bass drums was replaced by Darkthrone and Mayhem's constant snare/cymbal blur - or an even better example would be Immortal. As for guitars, contrast the high-end chord strumming of bands like Mayhem or Immortal who seem (at least on their records) to have no bass frequencies at all in their music - but instead concentrate on a chainsaw treble whine that sparks and pops under high levels of reverb - the basis for the 'cold' sound that I think Darkthrone took the farthest on 'Transilvanian Hunger'. To me, listening now to all these albums, the low guitar-low bass drum combination is like the musical demonstration of sterility and the dearth of creativity that infected the scene in late '92 and early '93. Black metal's high-end blitzkrieg after this was like a breath of fresh air.

Bolt Thrower never had much of an image to work with, in fact as a band in photo shoots or playing live they were as close to pedestrian normality as you could get - the Metallica school of lounge wear. If you can remember, Morbid Angel at that time had one of the darkest and most malevolent images of any bands in the scene (something they have completely lost) coupled with a esotericism that was frightening because it was so suggestive in its obscurity. This is something that the black metal bands of that time picked up on very quickly - defining the aesthetics of 'suggestive obscurity' to mark all of their work with an aura of mysticism and otherworldliness. Indeed one is tempted to wonder whether or not the entire modern black metal movement sprang from Euronymous's obsession with fashion and image. Was Vikernes correct about the Prince of Death's sexual orientation? Did he miss his true calling as an interior decorator? Besides the fact that all the players were masked and made bestial by their donning of corpse paint and costumes, their albums were veiled in monochrome colors and often obscured by dark or poorly-tinted images, and the production sound on the albums was deliberately made as raw as possible in some cases (Darkthrone, of course, were the masters as far as the last is concerned). All of this created (at least in the beginning) a powerful image of nonconformity to the production standards of death metal bands that were always going in 1989-1991 for clearer sounds and images to express their constantly-evolving musical aesthetics. Does anyone remember at that time how each death metal release in the scene seemed to build on the one before it? Black metal, in contrast, was a deliberate return to the prototypical sound of bands of the '80s like Hellhammer, Celtic Frost, and Bathory. But where does Bolt Thrower fit into all of this?

Enter the 'Realm of Chaos' album in '89 and its distribution across the world the following year. Can any more garish example of death metal over-production stylistics be found? Do you remember the gatefold LP that Earache released upon the world, the Games Workshop/White Dwarf artwork, the lyric folder with art on every page? In fact the only thing that relates that album to later black metal works is the muted production - but one questions whether or not Bolt Thrower could be blamed (or praised) for that. Their next album was engineered by someone other than Colin Richardson, althrough he does get production credits. If you ask me, however, 'Realm of Chaos' is the finest thing that the British band ever released, and except for certain moments of 'The IVth Crusade' and '...For Victory' contains all of their most poignant moments. With that in mind, I will use it as their main stylistic statement and thus as the most salient thing for other bands to react to.

If death metal started out as a purely exploratory art, as a 'witness' to the horrors of modern existence, or the very real (if through somewhat cartoonish exaggerations) stigmas of violent death and the stress the Body goes through in the process of life then where exactly did the socio-political stance enter into the lyrical thrust of death metal - where did all the 'life-affirming' (what Euronymous claimed to hate so much) moralism come into death metal - when, to state it simply, did death metal become moralistic and concentrate on a 'message' in the music? Answer: Bolt Thrower. Where 'In Battle There is No Law' (their first album and a minor classic that is usually ignored) glorified death, dismemberment, war, chaos, darkness, etc. it is in 'Realm of Chaos' that the band transcended their function as 'witnesses' to the chaotic nature of modern life and became moralizers - the message of 'peace above all' is a constant subtext in almost every song on their second album. Read the lyrics carefully - where is the narrator? Who is the narrator of the stories related? It is the 'omnipotent invisible' deprecated as early as 19th-century Victorian literature (read your latter-day Dickens), the all-knowing Moralizer who Presents these stories as Lessons for you, the reader.

Your world now in ruins...what a price to pay...

Where death metal began in protypical form as either pseudo-ritualistic pop satanism (Possessed and Slayer) or the 'eye-witness' (as relating small narrations of noir-story crime) gore metal of Death (read the lyrics to 'Scream Bloody Gore' again - are the gore/grind bands of today doing anything different?) it is only later that moralistic messages entered the arena. Bolt Thrower's form of moralism is an obsession with the themes of loss and remembrance, and their main focus is on lyrically describing (but never too graphically, notice) the 'horrors' of war in the verses of their songs to set up a responding chorus that always attacks violence because of its impact upon the integrity of the human race. Even the guitar music reflects this - notice how in the verse sections of their songs the music is often wild and chaotic while the lyrics are describing (the 'eye-witness' again) war, and then slow down to the mild repetition of relatively sedate and memorable melodies in order to gird the moral choruses so that you can hear the message easily, and are forced to remember it. I recall reading at the time of the release of 'Warmaster' how the lyrics of Bolt Thrower were often written while the band was watching television, either CNN or various other news programs, and were influenced heavily by the viewing of such programs. The 'outside witness', or neutral observer of the camera's eye becomes the narrator of their lyrics, but the moral message is the hidden agenda of the band and their own true addition to the world of death metal. This started on 'Realm of Chaos' and was later expanded upon in their later albums until it became the true focus and main intent of their music. They even bring out the old 'nuclear war' theme from the '80s thrash bands on and after 'Realm of Chaos'. Metallica, anyone? This moralizing is displayed beautifully in the outro track on 'The IVth Crusade', where Karl ends the album by listing major battles in the history of the world and the British Isles and then finishes with the trite 'man's inhumanity to man' cliche. The once-strident heralds of war had become shrill prophets of doom. Was anyone listening?

How is black metal different? Black metal also started by glorifying satanism, war, bloodlust and bloodletting, darkness, etc. but I think it very quickly progressed beyond the 'eye-witness' stage (or an escape from reality into, ironically, the basis of all reality - death, but that's another article) into a gestalt of audience participation and a concentration on bringing the lyrical ideality of its message into reality. Need examples? The criminal mischief of the members of Mayhem, Emperor, Immortal, and Burzum and their counterparts in other black metal scenes across the world. Black metal was even more desperate for change than death metal - and this a change in the world at large, not just a revision in metal aesthetics. But this has become a cliche now and is really an over-simplification. In terms of music, the focus of this article, black metal was the negative image of death metal reversed in rebellion through the camera's eye. Where death metal went low, black metal went high. Where death metal went clear and obvious, black metal went for a hidden agenda, a deliberate obscurity and secrecy. It is of course ironic on one level that the members of black metal's most influential bands started out as death metal musicians - but I think it's more important where artists end, not where they begin. Creation always begins with the destruction of a former stability. Who said 'rebellion is just the creation of a new order'? Black metal negates, first off, the moral position of Bolt Thrower by deliberately throwing itself into actual war and blurs the lines between the fantasy of the lyrics and the reality of actual rebellion.

I think, however, that the main contribution of black metal to modern music is in the very sound of the guitars and other instruments. For the lack of a better description, I will call it 'postmodern' because I believe it is a important evolution the classicaly 'modern' ideas surrounding musical aesthetics - one that directly reflects the world we are living in now. In fact I think that out of all the artistic disciplines, modern black metal is the most relevant for our age. Where the death metal guitar sound sought clarity in order to effectively communicate its message, the black metal sound takes upon itself the effect of deliberate obscurity in order to directly mirror reality. This is where black metal is related to industrial noise. Sound like a paradox? Is there anything more confusing and out-of-focus than the modern world? Has there ever existed, in our history, as much chaos and random violence at a time when the perpetrators of chaos considered themselves on a path towards order? To get philosophical for a moment: the spirit of this age truly is Paradox in itself, and the overwhelming emotion of the postmodern age is the realization of Irony in all its myriad forms - a breakdown of classic methods of reason, a return to irrationality and most important of all, a recognition of the validity of irrationality. The zeitgeist of OUR time is not the recognition of some sort of chain of 'progress' or 'advancement' that the western world is following, but rather the poignant realization of the work of Irony throughout our most minute actions. Black metal rebels by acknowledging this realization at the very beginning, not even attempting to project a concrete image but instead revelling in an 'anti-image' that can only confuse a witness. And of course, as the obscurity and 'anti-image' are completely relevant and indicative of our age, black metal is very frightening for people. Why? Because reality is terrifying, reality is confusing. The most frightening thing for a human being is not knowing what to think...

U. Amtey
August 1999