Though it's debatable whether they actually fit into the genre, Bolt Thrower is probably the best death metal band I have ever heard. Conceptually speaking, they have really found their niche in this whole "war metal" thing. Pound for pound For Victory was the best album I have heard in this genre in a while, absolutely brilliant in every aspect. So why isn't Mercenary as good as it should have been? I really don't know. Maybe the sheer crushing power of the Fourth Crusade and For Victory albums set the bar impossibly high for this band. That's not too say that Mercenary is a bad album, itís just not on the level of those previous two landmark records.
A lot of the songs here sound the same. This is a common criticism of the genre and of this band in particular, but one which is painfully evidenced on the latter half of Mercenary . To Bolt Thrower's credit, they have developed a sound which is tight and consistent. It would be a lot worse if the songs were horrible and they all sounded the same. Bolt Thrower rather offers up consistency and predictability with incredible amounts of talent. This aspect makes their lack of variety forgivable for the most part.
Zeroed, the leading track, witnesses the manifestation of Bolt Thrower's obvious talent in full. The intro carpetbombs the collective audience with heavy bass and drum rhythm and grinding guitar locking together in heavy death grindcore fashion. The audience is pummeled with this initial onslaught for almost two minutes before Karl Willets' vocals enter into the mix. And itís here that Mercenary 's shortcomings start to come into focus. Karl Willets is the group's best asset. His vocals resemble those of a pissed off Viking god. On the 4th Crusades , Willets was used as an instrument of destruction, giving a voice to the horror of war. On Mercenary, the vocals are drowned in the mix, barely comprehensible and striking fear into the heart of no one. There are a few instances, such as an unbridled demon god scream on Laid To Waste which recall the pure fury of 4th Crusades and For Victory . However for the most part, Willets' powerful voice is silenced in the mix. I don't know who mixed this album, but they must have been smoking crack. The drums, Bolt Thrower's second best aspect are properly amped though. The band itself is flawless in its execution of groove. They have perfected their style over the last decade to one of the tightest and most brutal bands in death metal. When Bolt Thrower locks into a groove, itís obvious that they know what the fuck they're doing. The combination of frantic war drum beats and bass, monolithic power based guitar, and guttural pissed off vocals are beaten into the audience like the repeated blows of a sledgehammer. If only the god damn treble wasn't amped up too much and the vocals were louder, this album would have rated a lot higher.
Conceptually, Mercenary finds Bolt Thrower working in familiar territory in this genre that they call "war metal". 4th Crusades dealt with the hypocrisy of government and church establishment along the backdrop of relentless destruction and centuries of warfare. Mercenary and For Victory took this concept further, looking at this from the individualís perspective. The human aspect of inhuman warfare, the struggle for individuality in a world of chaos and death. Watch All Quiet On The Western Front to gain an idea of the concept they are reaching for. The life of an individual on either side of the lines, slogging through the mud, shit, brains, and blood, dodging death at every step, fighting for confused ideology, an invisible god, and a hypocritical government. This is the true face of warfare. Bolt Thrower hits that nail on the head with deadly accuracy. Given the flawlessness of its concept and the raw talent involved here, Mercenary could have been a lot better. I still think this is one of the best bands I have ever heard, and hopefully they will get their production straightened out and continue to make great music, but this is definitely one of their weaker efforts.* * * Reviewed: March, 1999