INTERVIEW: Dawn Of War: Bolt Thrower and the birth of British death metal

By on 6 May 2010

“We never really wanted to put a label on it, we were called crustcore, we were called quite a quite things really – grindcore – we never really thought about what music we’d do,” says Bolt Thrower vocalist Karl of the proto-extreme metal scene that developed across the mid-to-late ’80s, detailed in eyewatering detail in Terrorizer’s Secret History Of… Death Metal (available here), “Circa ’89, that’s when the death metal genre was applied and it kind of unified what everyone was doing. It wasn’t a British thing, a couple of us realised through the tape-trading scene where everyone sent each other demos, stickers and underground fanzines and things like that, that it was global phenomenom and things were kicking off in America: Master, early Metallica, Exodus, stuff like that, those were bands just doing there own thing as well. Then there was stuff from South America: Sadistic Executioner and Pentagram, things like that, then Eastern Europe and of course Scandinavia, so we were aware that a global phenomenon was developing. And I think death metal was a convenient term to put on that, underneath that umbrella were a lot of different sounds and feels and tones and textures. If we’ve trailblazed the way forward for other bands to explore their own creativity in music, that’s a great thing.

“We actually got to meet Onslaught a few months ago at the Rock Area festival and back in the day they were one of my bands, I had ‘Power From Hell’ on the back of my leather jacket, the big demon rising out of the pentagram, that was my band back when I was about eighteen/nineteen and the chance to finally play a festival with them was brilliant. Great bunch of blokes, they were a big influence.”

Bolt Thrower’s birth as the heavier, groovier offspring of the more metallic end of the anarchopunk underground, the first generation of British death metallers, if not necessarily in style, then certainly in terms of sepulchural atmosphere and apolitical themes, saw them siblings in a sprawling clan, one that included the likes of Carcass, Cancer, Benediction  and Napalm Death.

“We were obviously aware that what they were doing was of a similar sort of ilk, but that’s all down to the influences I supposed, that crossover of the American metal sound, early Slayer, Morbid Angel, that kind of thing, that exciting new feel, along with the British genre of what we were used from the fallout in the punk scene I suppose, so we were around interested in the same king of thing, going to the same gigs and that developed into a really healthy scene where we backed up each other and supported each other and that still goes on today. We do that with certain bands, like Benediction and work together on very good terms, so it’s a sort of self-perpetuating thing. Of course there’re so many bands really that have been influenced by the sound that we created and I only see that as a good thing.”

That Bolt Thrower’s predominant ethics are punk rock in origin is no surprise, ever the fierce lone wolves, Bolt Thrower have long tried to distance themselves with the phrase ‘death metal’, but surprisingly, it’s not for any reason as vacuous as deff metul being an affront to their punk rawk values.

“We’ve never really seen ourselves as part of a genre,” explains Karl, “but it’s a logical framework to work with I suppose because a lot of the lyrics and words of the bands involved are around the topic of death or fear of death, be it through Satan or war or whatever, pestilence or whatever it may be, that seems to be the central topic. I can understand it to an extent but as for labels, we’re just Bolt Thrower really and that’s what we do, we don’t really try and buck any trends or follow any, we just do our own thing and it’s worked for us over the entirety of our career in the music industry and that’s really what has led to the longevity of the band. We haven’t deviated from our course in any way, shape or form, which many have done and fallen by the wayside. There seems to be a healthy interest in what we’re doing these days and long may it continue.”

With Benediction, Cerebral Fix and Napalm Death in Birmingham, and Unseen Terror and Cancer further out in rural Shropshire, the Midlands was a definite focus point for an emerging scene and Karl is happy to muse idly on its roots.

“Birmingham has always had an independent sense of statement, obviously a lot of people gravitate towards London as where the media’s based and where record labels are based and blah blah blah, maybe we’ve developed, and twenty years ago that was definitely true, a fierce sense of independence up here. ‘We’re gonna carry on doing what we do regardless pandering to the needs or wants of the press’, that’s the difference and that’s what inspired the scene to grow quite considerably.”

Similarly, until the great Morrisound misadventures of Napalm Death’s 1990 ‘Harmony Corruption’ and 1992 ‘Utopia Banished’, you could easily pick out a slice of homegrown brutality from a sonic line-up.

“Back then it was very easy to tell the American sound, obviously a lot of stuff was coming out of the Morrisound Studios so American bands did have a certain delivery and style., the accent on the vocals as well was clean, clear. But then the Swedish stuff was completely different, so they had their own separate style and sound. England did have a different sound, a different sense, a different feel, even down to the English language which we’re best at really – we’re English! We’re fairly diverse in what we do here; Carcass, Napalm, clearly we’ve all got different sounding music but there’re underpinnings that we’re fiercely proud of.”

The band are fresh out of  their Terrorizer-sponsored UK tour with Rotting Christ and Benediction, and the opening salvo that was the London show, with 1,000 tickets sold and a rabid crowd baying for blood, proves that Bolt Thrower’s following is perhaps the healthiest it’s ever been.

“Because we’re not a band that goes out and tours all the while, when we do make that appearance it makes it more of an occasion, almost like a party or birthday kind of feeling. Every gig we do has that intensity about it and it’s quite special really. So therefore in marketing terms we’ve made our brand really unique and it holds its identity quite strongly that way.”

The building blocks of identity are often cemented against a band’s will (look at the current wrestling with the ‘deathcore’ tag that young bands seem to have to overcome), so when did the phrase ‘death metal’ first get thrown in the warmasters direction?

“It must have been around 1989 really, when ‘Realm Of Chaos’ came out. I think the sound on ‘Realm Of Chaos’ was considered different to our debut album, ‘In Battle…’, and I think that’s really when the term ‘death metal’ was starting to be applied by the press as it was at that time, and we didn’t really fight against being called grindcore, or crust, or whatever it may be, or even thrash back when we first started out. Labels are just a convenient term for record labels and record stores, and marketing people, and people who were tape-trading back in the day and that’s what drove that scene on. The internet has changed that considerably, it’s made it a lot more accessible so that people can get stuff regardless of the quality, you make up a filter and you have to filter a lot more information. When it was tape-trading it seemed a bit more warm, a bit more genuine because of the personal letter you got as well, twenty years ago and the world seemed a bigger place to a certain extent. Different world, but these labels still apply.”

Karl, like all devourers of extremity in that fertile, dabbled, shooting off letters to all corners of the globe in search of a fix.

“I wouldn’t have called myself active, I just read a lot of the underground magazines and followed what I thought was really good and made contacts with South America and America and explored the scene that way. Finding out what you liked and what was out there, like a little band called Sindrome from America, they had a couple of demos out, I thought they were a fantastic band but never went on to record or achieve tours and stuff. There’s lots of little stories like that out there and lots of great bands that were creating some exciting music. Exciting times.”

About Miranda Yardley

I'm Miranda. Bite me.

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