Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, class is back in session. For this lesson in Riffology, we will be taking a break from Morbid Angel, but we will be returning once again to the year 1989 and featuring another band from the Earache roster: the gods of war-themed death metal, Bolt Thrower. We will be examining riffs from the track “Through the Eye of Terror” from the group’s second album, Realm of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness.
Realm of Chaos is a unique album in the Bolt Thrower catalog. The album is a bridge of sorts from the raw, punk- and grind-influenced debut In Battle There is No Law to the more polished and predominantly mid-paced style the band would employ from War Master onward. Realm of Chaos features a tighter overall performance, but is still prone to erupt with bursts of grindcore intensity. As well, the album has more robust production than In Battle, but in comparison to later work it still sounds positively filthy, and I mean that as a compliment.
Let’s dig into some riffs starting right at the beginning with the intro. The first thing you’ll likely notice is how thick and massive the chords sound, so heavy that the very playing sounds labored, as if the strings were coated in viscous tar. This is because the guitars and bass on Realm of Chaos are tuned three-and-a-half steps or a perfect fifth down from standard to A. This puts the guitars well into baritone territory, lower even than Bolt Thrower’s contemporaries and countrymen in Carcass. Tuning this low naturally gives the guitars a deep, heavy growl, but there are some disadvantages when it comes to tone and note definition, as the strings are usually severely lacking in tension and most amplifier speakers are voiced for a much higher tuning. In an interview, Jo Bench herself expressed dissatisfaction with this tuning, and it seems likely that Bolt Thrower guitarists Gavin Ward and Baz Thompson agreed, as the guitars on subsequent Bolt Thrower albums are tuned to a Black Sabbath-approved C-sharp, which is significantly higher than A, but still one-and-a-half steps below standard.
Compositionally and technically, the intro riff is elemental heavy metal: four bars of palm-muted chugging and power-chords. A couple things that give the riff some character are the stray G-note at the end of first bar which injects a little melodic texture into the power-chord party and our old pal the diminished fifth, which rears its head in the form of a D# power chord that punctuates the riff on the exact right wrong note.
Another notable detail about the intro riff is the band’s choice to use some quarter notes where they might usually use eighth notes. This riff, like so many extreme metal riffs, uses a pedal tone, which is a note that is that is either sustained or repeatedly sounded over or between shifting chords or notes. In this case the pedal tone is the open A note on the sixth string. Often, in metal, the pedal tone is pounded out in a steady pulse of eighth or sixteenth notes between stabs at other power chords, but in this riff Bolt Thrower sometimes opts for a quarter-note A-5 power chord where one might expect two eighth notes. This causes the riff to feel like it is dragging a bit, and makes it feel slower than it actually is, adding to its overall sludgy feeling.
The next riff, at 00:49, which for our purposes we’ll call the main theme, is a quintessential Bolt Thrower riff. Like the intro riff above, this two-bar riff is based around an open sixth string pedal tone, but in the place of shifting power chords, the main theme features a couple brief, melodic, un-harmonized phrases played on the fourth and fifth strings at the end of each measure. The melodies are centered around the key of A, but are otherwise tonally ambiguous, using notes from both A-major and A-minor scales and an A-sharp note which is featured in neither scale, but a little a-tonal evil never hurt. These types of chugging riffs with short melodic phrases are everywhere throughout the Bolt Thrower discography, including songs such as “World Eater,” “Embers,” and “In Battle There is No Law.” You might not, and perhaps you should not, think of Bolt Thrower as a melodic death metal band, but the group really was masterful at infusing its riffs with memorable melodic phrases while maintaining a massively heavy sound. If you’re a fan of the band, you probably have dozens of these melodies bouncing around in your subconscious, and when you hear them, they probably make you clench your fist with just as much glorious metal fury as all those crunching power chords and artillery-shell beats.
Being a bass player in a metal band, particularly an extreme metal band, can be a thankless job. Often you are stuck doubling the guitars, lest everything devolve into chaos, and there is usually enough frequency overlap with the guitars’ low-end that your tone becomes indistinguishable, and chances are you’re going to be buried in the mix anyway. On the riff that begins at 2:36, however, Jo Bench makes her presence known in the most magnificently brutish way possible. While the rest of the band plows through a riff that resembles a livelier version of the main theme, Jo just whacks away at the open sixth string, alternating a whole note, and a quarter note every other bar. BONGGGGG-THUD, BONGGGGG-THUD. It’s so simple. It’s so nasty. It’s so beautiful.
We could examine Bolt Thrower riffs until we’re all old and grey (some of us have a head start), and we’d still never run out of good ones, so chances are there is more Bolt Thrower to be had in future Riffologies, but for now, class is dismissed.
Homework: In the comments, tell us your favorite Bolt Thrower riff.
Extra Credit: Learn to play “Through the Eye of Terror”. The tab is a little dodgy in spots, to my ears, but you’ll get the gist.