Friday 18 January 2013

Slaves to Darkness 25th Anniversary: The Other Realm of Chaos: Bolt Thrower's Album and its Legacy

The classic original cover of Realm of Chaos by Bolt Thrower
The two famous gaming supplements that bear the name, 'Realm of Chaos', are not the only release of the late '88 to do so. Strange as it may seem, a Grindcore/Death Metal Album also shares the name, and much of the imagery. In truth, the album borrowed heavily from both Slaves to Darkness and Rogue Trader, its famous first pressing cover being an extract from John Sibbick's famous cover painting. 

I've mentioned the group and the album before, even going so far as to write an article detailing the rise and fall of the 'Warhammer Records' music label, but I have yet to explore this famous album in any real depth. 

After committing myself to a year long celebration of Slaves to Darkness; its history, miniatures and gaming potential, I was keen to download a digital version of the album to listen to when painting. However, when I shopped on iTunes and bought a new copy, I was puzzled to find that the iconic cover painting had changed but the music was as I remembered. 

Why was this, I thought?

So I found out.

The group took their name from the siege device from Warhammer (as members of the group were keen 2nd Edition players) and Bolt Thrower formed in Birmingham in 1986. The original line-up was a collaboration of Alan West on vocals, guitarist Barry Thomson, bassist Gavin Ward and drummer Andy Whale, who had the intent of making aggressive rock music inspired by bands such as Sacrilege, Discharge and Slayer.

In 1987, Bolt Thrower recorded a demo session, which saw the band reshuffle positions as Ward became a guitarist and Alex Tweedy was brought in as a temporary bassist before Jo-Anne Bench was recruited for their second demo ‘Concession of Pain.’ This caught the ears of Radio 1 DJ John Peel in January 1988 who gave them the opportunity to record a session, which led to the band scoring an album deal with Vinyl Solution Records.

With an album deal under their belt, Bolt Thrower brought in the destructive vocals of Karl Willets for their debut album on Vinyl Solution entitled ‘In The Battle There Is No Law’ before switching to Earache for their second record. 1989’s ‘Realm of Chaos: Slave to Darkness’ was a worldwide success for Bolt Thrower, selling more than 50,000 copies around the world. The band continued their warmongering theme and used expansive artwork from Games Workshop to coincide with their unsympathetic music, with titles such as ‘World Eater’ and ‘Eternal War’.

This worldwide success and critical acclaim propelled Bolt Thrower towards an international audience on the Grindcrusher tour in 1989 with Morbid Angel, Carcass and Napalm Death, before heading out to Holland in 1990 for the Bloodbrothers Tour.

I like music, and my tastes are varied. I enjoy listening to everything from classical, to kitch to contemporary pop and I wondered how the album was viewed by serious metalheads. So I dug around a little and found a review. 

Dan Marsicano: If this was tighter, with cleaner production, and flashy solos, it would be just a generic, soulless what passes for metal today. Bolt Thrower would have none of that, and they didn’t let their new record deal with Earache Records stifle their artillery barrage of sonic annihilation. This is rough, unpolished death metal that relies on the imagery of world destruction, instead of religious bashing or mutilated corpses. Whether it’s a two-minute assault like “Eternal War” or a sneaky backlash of noise like “World Eater,” Bolt Thrower is always in anger mode. Variety is non-existent, with each song sounding like an extension of the previous one. Using a range of tempos does help Realm Of Chaos (Slaves To Darkness) to avoid falling into the trap of not holding a listener’s interest for 12 songs. Realm Of Chaos (Slaves To Darkness) got caught up in the emerging death metal scene during the late ‘80s. Fellow label mates Napalm Death, Carcass, and Morbid Angel were just a couple of the major players that had a part in the genre getting off the ground. What made this album break from the pack was its gritty harshness that didn’t rely on cliches; though the cover art is cartoony, their subject matter was grim and stone-faced. They meant business, and didn’t need gore-drenched imagery to be a fearful sight.

A 'cartoony' piece of cover art eh? Perhaps that was the reason for the change in artwork? Even the grim darkness of the far future wasn't hardcore enough for death metal fans, perhaps? Sadly, this was not the case and a sad (and all too familar) tale unfolded. I'll let Earache, the record label who originally put out the album to explain more.

EarAche: The original sleeve art was the property of Games Workshop, not Earache or Bolt Thrower and when the lease on its use ran out in around 2002 or so, we approached the famous Fantasy wargaming company for a renewal which was flatly refused to us.

This refusal knocked us for six.

So we faced a harsh decision to either discontinue the album, or commission new art by the same artist in a similar style and theme, but being careful to not fall foul of copyright laws. Bolt Thrower themselves were pretty unhelpful by insisting that the original be used in further pressings, but this was impossible as it wasn't ours or their art to use, it was Games Workshops artwork and copyrights. Luckily, we had separately commissioned the actual Bolt Thrower logo, drawn by Mark Craven, so could still use that at least!

John Sibbick drew the original artwork under commission by Games Workshop. Back in the '80s the original edition of the company's biggest fantasy wargame, 'Warhammer 40,000', had this artwork adorning the box cover. Everything about it is copyrighted to the hilt, right up to the design of the weapons, and even the logos on the clothing of the Space Marines fighting in the picture. We obtained the rights to use it after an exceedingly friendly meeting with the managing Director, Bryan Ansell, of Games Workshop, and Andy Jones the general manager. The company was small but growing fast at the time, and being based in Nottingham's Lace Market area, it was a short walk from our office.The guys saw the sense in reaching out to the rock/metal market which Earache and Bolt Thrower offered by using their art on an actual release- and a deal was struck. It was a one page contract/bit of paper saying we had rights to use it lasting 13 years.

An advert for Death Metal and and associated tour in White Dwarf Magazine?  No way you say!
Back in the 80s it did happen though!
By the time of 2002 or so the Games workshop company had become a global billion dollar corporate behemoth. When we asked for a renewal of the artwork rights, it suddenly dawned on us that this wasn't the same local company I met with 13 years beforehand.We were hit with a barrage of legal letters, cease and desist and copyright infringement claims. It was as if the company in its new corporate form had never heard of us, accusing us of theft of their highly prized copyrighted art in the first place. We avoided all contact with GW after that.

So the only solution was to try to track down the artist John Sibbick who had long since left the wargaming art scene, his new career was as a highly respected artist drawing dinosaurs for scientific papers and research. Luckily, when he heard of our dilemma he agreed to kindly redraw similar themed artwork but without any GW copyrighted elements. This is the art used on the new edition from 2004 onwards.

So there it is. The tale of the album and its band. All there is now to do is listen. Who would have thought it, eh? A RPG wargaming supplement with its own (kind of) soundtrack release... It makes me wonder if anything have ever happened like this since!?




  1. So this is what Chaos sounds like. Under 78 rpm, it sounds just like Slayer. Thanks for the history lesson orlygg, much appreciated...

  2. Another great story. You are just churning them out...

    I would love for something like this to happen again. I am currently working on the concept for a warband of militant dwarf musicians based on stoner metal tropes, and I was idly thinking of composing a track or two to go with them.

    'their hammers fell like ringing bells...' indeed.

  3. The connection between metal fans and musicians and wargaming/rpgs is undeniable. Bolt Thrower are a very explicit example of this, as are the other bands that featured in WD through the eighties and very early nineties.

    The Swedish Epic Doom act Candlemass blatantly namedrop Dungeons and Dragons in the title track of their '88 album 'Ancient Dreams'(arguably their last great work), which bassist/founding member Lief Edling confirms is a tribute to the game. The fantasy/medieval imagery that infuses Epic Doom and Power Metal especially (two genres that often intertwine) is undeniable. When US Power Metal outfit Twisted Tower Dire re-released their debut album in 2009 they chose artist Martin Hanford, who has previously done work for GW, to do the improved cover art.

    Sadly, if GW allied themselves to a band these days it'd probably be something utterly soulless like One Direction.

  4. Ah I have the original gatefold sleeve vinyl with illustrated lyric book. Great stuff. IBTINL is a far superior album tho.

    It might be worth mentioning that there were some official Bolt Thrower t-shirts with the Ian Miller Khorne Icon as a large back print. They are completely awesome, rare as hell and probably cost you your arm, leg and eternal devotion to the Blood God to get ahold of.

    Bolt Thrower also use lettering very reminicent of the 1st Edition Realms of Chaos logo on their Bolt Fest merch. Might be worth looking out for.

  5. I was surprised to find that several of my Realm of Chaos illos had appeared in the album's lyric book, including one of my best battle scenes....because nobody told me at the studio until it came out! Especially since I'd already heard of Bolt-Thrower before I was even published by GW. I'd actually written to them via a punk fanzine to offer them my art services some time before.
    I was quite happy to be included, and at least I was eventually sent a contributors copy (still in my loft somewhere)
    I'm not surprised by the stories of later GW's corporate intransigence as for a while this attitude of almost panicky defensiveness about it's IP seemed to hang over the company, however damaging this may have actually been to GW's public image. (I'm given to understand a more balanced and mature attitude has reasserted itself in more recent times)

  6. Great post, Orlygg - and you're bringing back some terrific memories for me from the 1980s!

  7. You guys might be interested to know that I talked to Karl Willetts on the Grindcrusher tour back then and he and another band member (forgot which one) were keen Warhammer 3rd edition players. I believe Karl told me he played a Dark Elf army.


  8. You guys might be interested to know that I talked to Karl Willetts on the Grindcrusher tour back then and he and another band member (forgot which one) were keen Warhammer 3rd edition players. I believe Karl told me he played a Dark Elf army.