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The Honor and Pride of ‘Those Once Loyal,’ Bolt Thrower’s Unexpected 2005 Swansong

The iconic British death metal band hasn't released a note of new music since 2005 because of this album—and their fans absolutely adore them for it.

This article is part of 2005 Week on Noisey, where we revisit all the best and worst pop culture relics from a decade ago.

Ten years ago, a British death metal band called Bolt Thrower released an album called Those Once Loyal. In the grand universal scheme of things, it wasn't that big of a deal. That same year, Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans; over eight hundred US troops were killed in Iraq; over eighty thousand people died after an earthquake in Kashmir; North Korea let it slip that the Hermit Kingdom possessed nuclear weaponry; the Provisional IRA finally laid down its arms, and the indomitable Rosa Parks left this mortal coil. Those were big deals; a death metal album (even a really good death metal album) was no more than a flyspeck in comparison.

But once we alight from that global stage, and circle back down towards smaller, more manageable milestones, Those Once Loyal becomes a Big Deal once again. The ten-song work was the inadvertent swansong of a band at the top of their game. It was never meant to be the final Bolt Thrower album at all, merely the eighth link in a killchain that began with 1988's In Battle There Is No Law (yes, there were a handful of demo recordings that surfaced prior to that, but we're talking full-on albums here). Bolt Thrower is an institution now, but at the time of the album's release, they were merely a whole lot of people's favorite band.

The band had already begun recording their next foray into battle-hardened death metal supremacy when suddenly, there came word of an unforeseen turn of events. In 2008, Bolt Thrower announced that they'd binned the recordings for their then-upcoming new album, for the very frank and simple reason that they just weren't good enough. They didn't feel that they could top Those Once Loyal, and so they didn't waste anyone's time by trying. As the band said in a collective statement, "From day one we made it clear that we'd stop recording when we felt we'd written the ultimate Bolt Thrower album, we just never knew when that would be, we kind of took for granted that each release would get better and better. But we have realised now that our last release, Those Once Loyal turned out to be that album, and basically the new stuff we have written just doesn't match up to it. We have a lot of pride in our back catalogue, and we refuse to turn into one of the many bands (like the ones we grew up listening to) who end up releasing crap, and we're also not prepared to compromise by instead releasing an album of cover versions or a 'best of' album."

It's hard to blame them for thinking it'd be impossible to top Those Once Loyal, because it's about as perfect a death metal album as any fan of the genre could wish to hear. The guitar tone alone has launched a thousand imitators, and the band's deep roots in thrash and punk inform even the most bludgeoning of riffs with an upbeat looseness primed for maximum headbangability. Longtime vocalist Karl Willetts returned to the fold following the departure of Dave Ingram, layering full-throated roars and haunting WWI imagery atop Baz Thomson's and Gavin Ward's trademark merciless mid-tempo chug and customarily devastating mid-song breakdowns, Martin Kearns's commanding drums, and Jo Bench's powerful basslines. It's formulaic in the most satisfying way possible—Bolt Thrower's sound is utterly unmistakable, and the ace production job on this album makes that more apparent then ever. There aren't any bad Bolt Thrower albums, but it's easy to see why the band considers this one their best.

My soft spot for Bolt Thrower goes beyond the music itself, as I'd suspect the case may be for quite a few other people, too. It's more personal than just owning a few records or ticket stubs. To start, I was born in 1988, the same year their iconic debut album dropped. As a young metalhead growing up in the middle of nowhere, discovering Jo Bench's existence hit me like a bolt of lightning; Bolt Thrower was the first truly extreme band I came across that featured a woman in a role other than that of a singer. I worshipped Angela Gossow, too, but was especially drawn to Bench's no frills, get-shit-done demeanor and shitkicker boots. She didn't dress up, which resonated with me as a tomboyish teenager—she was there to fucking play, and was completely uninterested in being anyone's pinup girl as she laid down the thunder with her BC Rich Ironbird.

Now there are tons of women in the spotlight (and there were of course others back then, too; I just wasn't lucky enough to have discovered them yet) but Bench will always hold a hallowed place for me. Bolt Thrower were there for me once I entered adulthood, too. In a stroke of profound luck a decade or so later, after a legendary 2012 London gig with Autopsy and Discharge that offered tickets for a mere 6 quid—less than ten dollars American—I ended up having a drink with the man who'd end up capturing my heart and moving across an ocean to put up with my shit forevermore. In battle there may be no law, but occasionally, there is romance.


Bolt Thrower in 1992.

At the heart of it all, the widespread reverence so many people feel for this scrappy band from Coventry. If there's ever been a band that's stayed loyal to their ideals through thick and thin, it's Bolt Thrower. Cheap t-shirts, cheap concert tickets, label battles, punk ethics stretched down to the marrow—they're almost as beloved for their ethos as for their churning, world-eating riffs, and Those Once Loyal's unexpected coronation as the last of the line is a sterling example thereof. Bolt Thrower's self-imposed triage system saved their fans from struggling with the bloody reality of desperation, of that harsh moment when you come to realize that band you really love and believe in is just in it for a paycheck. The band has soldiered on as an occasional live entity (even embarking on a few far-flung tours). Rumors of that mythical ninth album surface upon occasion, but as of the time of this writing, there's little hope that new material will be written.

And that's okay. Bolt Thrower bowed out with grace, sending their dead home in a closed coffin instead of propping it up listlessly on life support like so many others of their generation have seen fit to do. In refusing to betray their fans or their own principles, their discography was granted a warrior's death. They went out like Bubba, instead of clinging feebly to a facsimile of existence like Lieutenant Dan. There is honor in that kind of exit—honor, valor, and pride.

Update: According to various news reports, longtime Bolt Thrower drummer Martin Kearns has passed away at the age of 38. May he rest in peace and in power.


Kim Kelly is making a last stand for humanity on Twitter.