Bolt Thrower, Live in the '90s

The Golden Years of British Extreme Metal: The Other Guys

Bolt Thrower, Live in the '90s
Bolt Thrower, live in the ’90s. Courtesy of

Much ink has been spilled about the blossoming of extreme metal around the world. The United States – particularly the Florida scene which spawned so many great bands – has been well represented. Sweden/Norway gets plenty of love, from the chainsaw guitar tone to the unchained hedonism. That’s all fine and good as those were the blood-stained birthing grounds of our beloved genre.

What about England, then? In those glorious pre-Internet days of tape-trading and DIY promotion, metal wasn’t bound by geography: it spread like a sickness over the entire world. Let’s consider that in the last fifty years, those fog-bound island dwellers have had a serious impact on music, especially music that has a bite to it, a little edge, or my favorite: a fucking massive overload of steam-powered jackhammers pounding the earth. Black Sabbath. Black Sabbath! Just, you know, four guys from Birmingham who altered the very foundations of rock and helped create a genre. Led Zeppelin. Deep Purple. Motörhead. Judas Priest. Iron Maiden. Venom. Carcass. Anaal Nathrak. It’s a progression forward from one extreme to the next, the next band in line doubling down on what had come before them.

When extreme metal began to violate the ears of the world, the Brits were ready to step up and prove they could do guttural vox, grinding guitars and blast beats as well as anyone. This was a wonderful time for extreme music, as musicians were constrained only by their imaginations, genres were still being defined, and labels weren’t afraid to take chances on bands that had cobbled together a demo. Venom, Carcass and Napalm Death have earned a spot in the top tier of the golden era, when extreme metal was poised to move from the grave to the living room.

But what about the others guys? The names you might have heard bandied around in conversation standing around the beer keg, and you nodded your head and said, “Oh yeah, they’re awesome,” without having a clue what they sounded like? Then let us pry open the Sickening Vaults and get elbow deep in the guts of British metal.

bolt thrower
War Master – the mighty third Bolt Thrower album.

Let’s start off with two of better known bands. First into the breach is the venerable dreadnought BOLT THROWER. Now it may seem like taking the piss to not include Bolt Thrower in the first tier: they are, but they don’t get the kind of recognition they deserve. Always churning out quality music, Bolt Thrower have been spitting out hot shards of death and crushing the skulls of the vanquished since Gavin and Barry met up in a pub thirty years ago. They have been stalwart standard bearers for death metal and while their album output may have slacked off, they always put on a killer live show. Sadly, their long-time drummer Martin Kearns passed away last year and the band is currently on hiatus. From the first full length In Battle There is No Law (1988) to the latest Those Once Loyal (2005), Bolt Thrower have weathered a steady flow of line-up changes while pulverizing the world with a unique aural assault. My personal favorite is War Master (1991), a raw and uncompromising explosion of blast beats and attitude that still kills today.

Transcend the Rubicon - Benediction's 1993 masterpiece
Transcend the Rubicon – Benediction’s 1993 masterpiece

One thing to keep in mind is that there was a lot of personnel sharing between these bands. Not surprising, as they played lots of shows together. For instance, BENEDICTION had past or future members of Napalm Death, Bolt Thrower, Cerebral Fix, Anaal Nathrak, and Cradle of Filth. Benediction was yet another one of those Birmingham bands; I don’t know what it is about the West Midlands but an incredible number of gritty and quality musicians have come out there. In the years between 1990 and 1995, Benediction dropped one memorable death metal killing stroke after another. Arguably peaking with 1993’s Transcend the Rubicon (with stunning album art courtesy of Dan Seagrave), they toured with the top metal bands from America and Sweden. They haven’t released anything since 2008’s Killing Music but it seems that there is something new in the works, at least from what I can decipher from their social media output.

Death Shall Rise - Cancer's brutal second album
Death Shall Rise – Cancer’s brutal second album

Up next is Shropshire’s own CANCER. To The Gory End came out after a couple of well-received demos in 1990 and was an immediate “must have” for those with their ears to the grave. For their second album Death  Rise (1991), they pulled in James Murphy (Disincarnate, Death, Obituary, Testament, Konkhra… is there anyone he didn’t play with?) to play lead guitar and the result was pure British death metal goodness. It’s no exaggeration to say that I wore this tape out. The songs are tight, the riffs are huge, the recording and mix are… well, Morrisound/Scott Burns, but not one of those Scott Burns jobs that pisses me off. Then in 1993 they dropped The Sins of Mankind which is, in my opinion, not just the zenith of their output but a highpoint of death metal from that era in general, a pure piece of brutal art. After that came the major-label release Black Faith, which was a step up in production and a personal favorite of mine, but it was the last official album as they broke up after the tour. They reformed once in the early 2000’s and released Spirt in Flames (2005), which thrilled me to no end but once again, they broke up. But they are back together now and touring again! If you get the chance, go see them live, which is the best way to experience the fantastic glory of Cancer.

The industrial - grind - death of Meathook Seed's Embedded
The industrial – grind – death of Meathook Seed’s Embedded

Now let’s dive right off into the deep end. MEATHOOK SEED was a side project of Mitch Harris (who has been covered with love here in the Vaults) and while it may be a stretch to call this a “British” album, Mitch has been in Napalm Death since 1992 and lives in Birmingham, England: I think we can stretch the lines here a bit. Embedded (1993) isn’t exactly death metal as it has plenty of grind/industrial influences that might turn off the purists, even if Don Tardy and Trevor Peres (Obituary) were involved. But damn if it isn’t a seriously brutal album. And 1999’s follow up B.I.B.L.E (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth) is 66.6% more British with Ian Treacy (Benediction) on drums and the living gargoyle himself, Shane Embury (Napalm Death) on bass. Again, perhaps not pure death metal, but intense music.

The amazing - and only - Dark Heresy album, Abstract Principles Taken to Their Logical Extreme
The amazing – and only – Dark Heresy album, Abstract Principles Taken to Their Logical Extreme

DARK HERESY was a London based death metal band that released one full length, Abstract Principles Taken to Their Logical Extremes in 1995. But oh, what an album! When I first heard this, my first thought was that someone had finally listened to what Skyclad was doing and taken it up a notch. The roaring guitars and exploding drums are all there, but there are also moments of piano, acoustic guitars, and lyrics which are definitely a step above the usual corpse and grave motifs. This is without a doubt a challenging and interesting album. It’s a musician’s album, I suppose, a bit more complex than three chords and a back-beat (nothing wrong with that, of course). Somehow it comes across as very British.  It certainly grows on the ear with each successive listen.

Tower of Spite - the thrash/death attack of Cerebral Fix
Tower of Spite – the thrash/death attack of Cerebral Fix

Let’s wrap this up with CEREBRAL FIX. Now, Cerebral Fix were more of a thrash/crossover outfit that morphed into a thrash/death metal band as the Eighties came to a close. The second album Tower of Spite (1990) was a sharp divergence from their first, but it maintained a heavy thrash influence, especially in the vocals and lyrics (for the most part). This is a good one for anyone on the fence between thrash and death, as Cerebral Fix delivers something a Kreator fan would recognize but an Entombed devotee wouldn’t exactly scoff at either. They’ve reformed since breaking up in the 90’s and are currently active; in fact, they have a new album coming out in the fall of 2016.

Now I charge you to go out and immerse yourself in the goodness of British extreme metal! There is plenty to explore, so set your sails to the land of the Angles: delve into the depths of a region that sometimes only gets a cursory glance in favor of the other breeding pits of the music that never fails to get the blood boiling.

One thought on “The Golden Years of British Extreme Metal: The Other Guys”

  1. It’s interesting that only Cancer is “traditional” death metal. All the others are Death / something… Death with a hint of grind, death with a hint of thrash, death with a hint of industrial. But I can’t think of ANY really pure death metal bands from the UK that made a splash back in the day. There was the death/doom scene, the grind scene, the industrial stuff… All I can come up with is Cancer. Am I forgetting someone obvious or was the UK just it’s own special snowflake at the time?

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