Bolt Thrower - The IVth Crusade (1992)
After Warmaster streamlined Bolt Thrower's rampaging sound, The IVth Crusade took it one step further. This album is Bolt Thrower in absolute prime form, with track after track of monstrous, riff-based death metal. While these Brits have never been about shredding wildly or technical brilliance, they still manage to create masses of atmosphere and a level of excitement through crushing force of weight. The band were working completely in union by this stage, like a singular moving wave of death metal.
It's true that Bolt Thrower haven't really branched out at all in their entire 20 years in existence, but then no-one else really sounds like they do. They have a completely unique approach that works wonderfully well. With tracks like The IVth Crusade, Icon, Embers and Spearhead, I'm certainly not complaining. I'm still not sure I can give this release 5 stars as much as I'd like to. The tracks do start to get a bit samey towards the end and the leads are not all that fantastic. But I'm nit-picking what is a monumentally awesome album and essential for anyone into extreme metal.
It's not easy to immediately identify what exactly makes Bolt Thrower such a special band. On paper, they play your standard meat-and-potatoes Death Metal. Mostly mid-paced, not particularly "brutal", not technical at all. Standard growls. Standard song structures. Yet, from very early on in my metal journey, they were a band that managed to capture my attention and imagination without fail. Still today, their music holds up better to continued relistening than 95% of other Death Metal trying to be either more extreme or more intricate.
Like a master carver who can forge the most impressive of compositions with just one rudimentary tool, Bolt Thrower don't need all the bells and whistles for their craft. The magic of Bolt Thrower lies in their ability to take an admittedly orthodox template and turn it into something completely unique. Distilled through their inspiration from the human triumphs and tragedies of warfare, what would've otherwise been Death Metal-by-the-Numbers becomes something unique and alive.
The IVth Crusade, alongside ...For Victory, is perhaps the strongest example of this in Bolt Thrower's distinguished discography. The title track immediately sets the tone, with an ominous ode-like melody infused into the lead guitars at a crushingly deliberate tempo. It's strange to call Death Metal atmospheric, but that's exactly what this is. These relatively simple riffs invoke such a strong feeling in the listener... and such a precise feeling. The feeling a soldier or ancient crusader would feel, just before charging into battle. Standing atop a hill, looking down upon the lines of the enemy, knowing you will soon be locked in deadly, bloody struggle with men much like you. Kill or be killed. Unlike many Death Metal bands who revel in the gore or the combat of battle itself, Bolt Thrower instead focus on musically conveying the sheer gravity of warfare from a human perspective. It's a heavy thing - and this heaviness, and humanity, is matched in the music.
Bolt Thrower accomplish this in different ways. They accomplish it through their lyrics, for one. In addition to being "mortified by the lack of conscience" of those who "vanquish in the name of your God" on the title track, Bolt Thrower also spite mankind's constant thirst for domination throughout the ages in "Where Next To Conquer", bemoan the mutually-assured self-destruction human civilization seems doomed for on "As The World Burns", and explore other effects of warfare -- on the human psyche, technology, and on spirituality/religion. On this album especially, vocalist Karl Willetts has a huge knack for great opening lines, delivered with extremely memorably rhythm and conviction. You are a stronger man/woman than I if you can resist headbanging furiously when Willetts jumps on top off the heaviest riff on the album on "Icon", bellowing NO ESCAPE! THERE IS NO WAY OUT! ... YOU CANNOT FIND THE REAL YOOOOOUUUUU. Other examples are "Where Next To Conquer" (LOST!!! ON A VOYAGE, NO DESTINYYY!) and "Celestial Sanctuary" (As the sky turns BLACK!). These powerful Death Metal hooks, so to speak, are insanely fun and immediately reel the listener in and ensure they can't skip the track or stop the album before the end.
They also accomplish it in different ways musically. Although Bolt Thrower aren't "melodic" in the traditional sense, they do an excellent job of utilizing brooding clean guitar harmonies/disharmonies to create that foreboding pre- or post-battle atmosphere, as touched upon with the title track. This allows the pummeling death metal riffs, representing the destruction of battle itself, to have so much more impact when they do take control. In this way, Bolt Thrower are excellent musical storytellers, weaving together scenes of "action" and scenes of dialogue or reflection. But can we talk a little bit more about those riffs? None of this works if Gavin Ward and Barry Thomson can't write appropriately monstrous and memorable riffs. As with any Death Metal album, the there is some variance there, with some songs offering superior riffs to others, but overall the quality is extremely high. There are 4-5 songs on this album with main riffs that pulverize what most of Bolt Thrower's peers are ever able to write in their whole careers.
When you tie together the excellent construction of theme (outro "Through the Ages" underscoring that this inescapable violent nature of humanity that Bolt Thrower depict exists past, present and future), the memorable lyrics, the tasteful simplicity and effectiveness of song structure, and the massive-sounding guitar, drums AND vocal performances, you have a truly winning experience of pure Death Metal. Although there are no unusual eye-catching ingredients on paper, as usual, Bolt Thrower are a band that comes together to create something much greater than the sum of their parts.
Favorite Tracks: The IVth Crusade, Icon, Embers, Where Next to Conquer, Celestial Sanctuary
Bolt Thrower has been putting out Death Metal since the very early days of the genre, and though the debut was a bit rough, all of their releases have had a very consistent level of quality without doing anything too dangerous. Insanely heavy, crunchy guitars and classic OSDM riffage is the name of their game and they win every time.
The IVth Crusade is to Bolt Thrower as South of Heaven was to Slayer. The band slows down a bit, even including a few tracks that could qualify as Death Doom (except it just sounds like slow Death Metal), and focus a bit more on melody. That’s not to say this album isn’t packed with energy though, as many of the tracks are still loaded with double bass drumming and tremolo riffs.
There’s very martial feel to this album. Bolt Thrower has always written about war and battle, but the mid-tempo pace and march-like rhythm section really seals the atmosphere here. Again, this album isn’t doing anything new, it’s just executing OSDM incredibly well, and makes for an awesome listen front to back. Couldn’t ask for more from this legendary band.
Hard to imagine that this record is nearly 28 years old. Bolt Thrower never really broke any moulds or pushed any boundaries during their time but the level of consistency they exhibited for 30 years is impressive enough an accolade. More than ever on this record, the band find the required gear and cleverly drop up and down through the gear box as necessary. At times this makes for predictable yet never monotonous structures but on other occasions shows subtle variation to the pace of tracks. Embers is a great example of this starting off more upbeat before slowing down just enough to offer a variation in structure before going back the more full on riffage to end the track.
The trademark Bolt Thrower sound is all over tracks such as Where Next To Conquer with its frenzied stabs of melodic edged riffs and relentless drumming courtesy of Andy Whale. The band sound cohesive and complete throughout the whole record though, like a well oil machine with all the component parts working in perfect synergy. The power of the sound is what stays with you though, whether it is those riffs and drums or the rumble of Bench's bass, Willetts has a plethora of support for his throaty and guttural orations.
One of the many things I love about Bolt Thrower is the way the sound always appear charging and driving forwards on more or less all of their tracks and this is again present on The IVth Crusade. Whilst by no means the best record that the band ever produced, their fourth full length release showed a mature band who had thoroughly earned their props by this stage and could effortlessly bash out top notch death metal with a consistency that only started to wane after this release.