Sunday, February 3, 2013

Bolt Thrower - The IVth Crusade (1992)

The IVth Crusade proved a welcome turnaround from the diminishing returns of its predecessor War Master, and brought back a fraction of that oppressive, Realms of Chaos heaviness, but this praise comes with a price, for his album was also pretty much the peak of Bolt Thrower's cycle of artistic development as a band. That is to say, all four of the albums since this one have not really shown any meaningful progression beyond this, apart from minor production details, marginally divergent instrument tones, levels of melody, and precise lyrical subjects. Not that this implies they're all worthless in of themselves; hell, I enjoy Those Once Loyal just as much as The IVth Crusade. But I've never been able to shake the feeling that they've been riding their own, viscera splattered coattails for many years now, reaching that creative summit early on and providing nothing since but a rehash of musical ideas. From a band which recorded one of my favorite works in its genre, I simply expect more, but at least when I first acquired The IVth Crusade, I had high hopes that the band could continue to develop.

Whereas War Master was a fraction too clean, and void of the many impressive tracks required to capitalize on the crushing atmospheres of Realms of Chaos, The IVth Crusade seeks to accumulate some of that filth again, caking its tank treads with a grimier, slightly fuzzier guitar tone that burns an impression into the audience more successfully. They'd once more gone with Colin Richardson as producer, but he's able to extract a bleaker, moodier Bolt Thrower here, and the result is something I was rather expecting from its predecessor. Granted, this album isn't exactly in tip top shape as far as the riffing quality, but its gray faced grooves and economic implementation of melody help to compensate for any dearth of searing progressions. I've long felt that there was more of an old school 'Florida' aesthetic at work here. The stark simplicity of the songwriting was nothing new, but the slower paced chugging patterns would occasionally remind me of Obituary (1988-1992 era) in both tone and structure. The IVth Crusade also paces itself very well, from the sobering and glorious title track opener through a number of relatively distinct classics in the band's discography, like "Spearhead" or the lumbering "As the World Burns". There are definitely a few lulls in the excitement through the 53 minutes, and it might have benefited from about 10 minutes of trim, but little of the material is banal enough that you'll want to turn it right off.

Really dug the balance of guitars and drums here. The latter were probably Andy Whale's most taut and professional performance to their day, with a lot of double kicks that coursed along to those saturated, processed rhythm guitar grooves. It's clear they were aiming at a lot of low end resonance, so the snares and cymbals aren't set as centerpieces to the mix, but despite that the drumming is clear and functional. The bass guitar stands out slightly more for me than on the prior two albums, itself cast in a bit of fuzz, but the guitars distract the ears away from those frequencies with few exceptions, and it still seems a tad too complacent. As for Karl Willetts, he's hardly dispensing syllabic lines that feel innovative or fresh after War Master and Realms of Chaos. I think the issue is that he, too, is really no match for this guitar tone, and since he's no longer using the most ominously morbid of inflections, he's perhaps the least potent force on the album. The use of faint, atmospheric synths is not unwelcome, but they're perhaps too buried in the background, at least the bridge of "Ritual". The idea of using narrative, cleaner vocals in the bonus track "Through the Ages" is an interesting one for Bolt Thrower, but simply reading a chronological tour of historical battles felt cheesy...

I mean: yeah, we get it. War is a paramount, tragic admission of mankind's failures. You'd have be living on another planet with no line of communication to NOT realize this; but it still seems a little hammy for Bolt Thrower, a band whose militaristic themes, both fictional and historical, are a big part of their popularity. But at least the slow, doom-like riff behind it was pretty sweet, and I don't wanna digress too far: despite its few flaws, The IVth Crusade is still far and away one of the Brits' best albums. At worst its just treading the band's familiar conquests with due consistency, but at best its an evocative, grim, hypnotic experience, with a more philosophical and historical lyrical theme that examines more than just the battlefield, but far reaching societal implications of idol worship ("Icon"), dreams of the afterlife ("Celestial Sanctuary"), and the nuclear irresponsibility of progress ("As the World Burns"). All told, a damn solid, quality listen which has held up for two decades. It only rarely engrosses me to the extent that Realms of Chaos did, but its better than just about anything else they've released since, with the one exception I noted above.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (repentance is denied)

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