Bolt Thrower – “Realm of Chaos” (1989)

This is a bit of an unusual post, as I don’t have a physical copy of this album. On the rare occasions I do post about something without having it in hand, it’s usually because it’s something new and only available digitally. Owning a copy isn’t a “rule” for the blog per se, it just so happens that I’m old school and still love the physicality of media, whether that be vinyl, CDs, tapes, books, zines, old photos… you name it. Part of this is certainly due to age, having grown up in the pre-internet times, and I also attribute some of it to being an only child whose family moved a lot when I was young – my stuff became the one constant in the blur of new cities and new schools and trying to fit in. Neurotic? Probably. Though over the years I’ve gotten better about purging things I no longer use. I suppose that will probably happen to part of my vinyl collection at some point, too. Or maybe all of it. After all, I already sold off all my records once, back in the 1990s, so no reason to think I won’t do it again someday.

ANYWAY… what does all this have to do with Bolt Thrower‘s Realm of Chaos? Well, in addition to having an affinity for my stuff, like many introverted nerds in the 1980s I discovered Dungeons & Dragons and it blew my mind. This was something different than movies and novels, which delivered a complete story to you and didn’t leave a lot of room for your own imagination, instead offering a framework you could use to create your own stories and narratives. Plus the rule books were heavily laden with numbers and tables, something that appealed (and continues to appeal – I can lose myself for hours in spreadsheets) to some part of my brain. The story could be creative, but the framework was governed by rules with a dose of randomness thrown in for good measure. Kind of like real life.

That led me down a rabbit hole of collecting role playing games. Top Secret… Traveller… Twilight 2000… Paranoia… Battletech… Champions… even weird stuff like Toons. Games, books, modules, magazines, miniatures… anything I could get my hands on, even those little Steve Jackson pocket games like Car Wars and Illuminati and Battle Suit. I read Dragon every month and sought back issues back when the only way to do that was to reply to an ad and send someone a dollar for their price list, then write them back with the issues you wanted and a check. Oh and don’t forget to list backup choices, because by time your order got there they might not have what you want any more. Because that’s how life worked before eBay and Amazon.

Mind you, I didn’t actually play most of these games. I absorbed them. Consumed them. Created characters and made my own modules and adventures, most of which were never realized. But that was my art, if you will, the way I created. I did occasionally play AD&D when I could find some like-minded souls who took it seriously enough, but not too seriously. In high school we had a nice group of five that would get together on the rare occasions when we could get all of our parents to agree to drive us all to the same place for part of a day. I’m still in touch with two of them on Facebook (hey, Patrick and Tom!), another is MIA (Howard, where are you?), and the last passed away way too soon (RIP, DJ). We had some fun games, though in reality role-playing games were an oddly solitary pursuit for me.

You’re probably still wondering what the hell this trip down memory lane and self-analysis has to do with Realm of Chaos. Well, Realm of Chaos is an entire album about a game, Warhammer 40,000 to be specific, aka Warhammer 40K. And of course I bought one of the first Warhammer 40K rulebooks in the 1980s, along with some of the miniatures which I clumsily painted. And while that one book was the only Warhammer product I bought, the 40K universe stuck in my mind for decades. The psychic emperor rotting away on the mechanical throne that kept him alive; the genetically modified space marines in their armor; the orks; and of course the archenemy of the human race, the forces of Chaos. About five or six years ago I started reading some of the Warhammer 40K novels, and now I’m about as obsessive about that as I was about collecting games (and records). I figure I’ve probably read at least 50 so far.

Is Realm of Chaos the first album ever to be entirely about a game? I don’t know. There were some Dungeons & Dragons spoken word records for kids in the mid 1980s, but those were just audio stories. Buckner & Garcia gave us Pac Man Fever in 1982, but that was about a number of different video games, not a concept album about only Pac Man. In subsequent decades we’ve seen groups like The Baseball Project, but that came later and is about an actual sport, something that happens in the real world. The fact that an album that came out in 1989 about a game I was familiar with blows my mind. Unfortunately copies with the original Warhammer 40K cover are quite expensive, since Games Workshop wouldn’t allow for the band and label to re-license it in later years, and while I’ve been close a few times I’ve never been able to convince myself to pull the trigger, so I’d never heard it before. Yes, I could have bought a later pressing with the different, albeit super-similar (but just dissimilar enough to prevent everyone from getting sued) cover… but I want the original dammit!

And then Spotify finally came into my life. And one of the first things I played when I subscribed was Realm of Chaos. And I’ve been playing it almost daily for weeks.

“Intro” perfectly sets the dark mood, one of dank isolation, before Bolt Thrower absolutely crushes you with “Eternal War”. Blast beats and guitar riffs conjure up alternating images of rapid-fire combat and existential dread, with the growled vocals exactly capturing what I imagined a Chaos space marine sounds like when they talk. Even the lyrics keep with the universe’s backstory: Welcome incursions of chaos / You know you cannot resist /
To serve, worship, obey them / Is the only way to exist
. Song titles include very specific references to Chaos (“Through the Eye of Terror”), gods (“Plague Bearer”), and even the fallen Chaos space marines themselves (“World Eater”). “World Eater” is my absolute favorite because the riffs just kill and drive the song forward, synched perfectly with the drums and bass and combining an epic quality with a relentless assault on your ears. When the structure deteriorates midway through the song we find ourselves in the world of Chaos, unstructured, rending your eardrums like a power claw.

I’m glad to have finally experienced Realm of Chaos. And if I’m being honest, it makes me want to pony up and buy an early pressing of the vinyl. Many hardcore fans have shied away from the re-release as the label (Earache) and band had a very public falling out, with the band insisting the label doesn’t have the rights and that they’re not being paid royalties, with the label of course disputing this. I have no idea who is right or wrong in this dispute, and certainly neither will make a dime if I buy a used older pressing, so I guess I can do so guilt free should the gods of Chaos drive me to do so.

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