Mercenary (Metal Blade)
by Tim Den
It’s been a fuck of a long time since Bolt Thrower‘s last album, ’95’s …For Victory. Between then and the present state of “new metal” domination, one can’t help but wonder if the dormancy these old-timers endured kept the fire burning in their English bellies. What’s more important; do these veterans of metal have what it takes to keep up with the modern music scene and still be relevant? After all, the late ’80s/early ’90s brand of straightforward death metal these guys have been so proud of (and reluctant to give up) has been long forgotten in this era of “hip-hopcore.” Add line-up turmoil (singer and drummer quitting, new singer and new drummer joining, new singer quitting and new drummer getting fired, old singer re-joining, and even newer drummer joining) and record label problems to the already bleak conditions, and we’re left with but one final question: Should you still be listening to Bolt Thrower in the late ’90s?
The answer is both yes, and no. Yes in that Bolt Thrower has perfected their own style of Medieval-ish melodic death metal (through numerous albums and years of touring), and they deserve to be heard because they do it better than anyone else. Take songs like “Powder Burns” and “No Guts, No Glory” for example – stomping, armored car-thick metal at its best. With drummer #3, Alex Thomas, on board, the band has never sounded so tight and vibrant. The addition of Thomas has taken away that dragging sensation original drummer Andy Whales always inflicted on the band (mainly because the man rarely let loose and straight-up grooved), and for once the band actually sounds capable of inducing pit violence.
However, the answer could also be no, based on many other factors. First, the monotonous/uncreative growls of vocalist Karl Willets. Yeah, he’s been the voice that carried Bolt Thrower to popularity, and it’s nice to hear him fronting the band again – but so what? His lack of playfulness, or even the slightest bit of innovation, renders his singing nothing but occasional interruptions amidst the riffing. Personally, I wish Martin van Drunen (Willets’ replacement who quit right before the recording of this album) had stayed on. He would’ve at least introduced some fresh elements into the band (since van Drunen’s acid throated, almost hardcore screams sound nothing like Willet). Plus, van Drunen had stated that he was going to try and steer the band’s lyrics away from their obsession with war (a gag that had long been running on empty), which all together might have resulted in the creation of an entirely new band ready for the millennium. I guess we’ll never know.
Second, the melodic riffing that has come to characterize Bolt Thrower’s songs is getting predictable to the point where every song sounds the same. Sure, it all sounded magnificent on The IV Crusade (their best work to date), but how many times can you rehash the same formula? Yes, they’ve expanded their riffs outside of the low-E realm, but it still sounds pretty much the same. And while they manage to pull it off again on this album (mostly because of Thomas’ meaty footwork), another album without further experimentation is going to send these guys right to the grave.
I guess it depends on the listener to decide the worthiness of Mercenary. For me, it’s nice to have around when I want to feel fifteen again. Until Bolt Thrower’s next release throws us to one side of the argument or the other, we will just have to rest with the dilemma this album provides.
(2828 Cochran St., Suite #302 Simi Valley, CA. 93065-2793)