“The Sound of Warhammer 40.000” Series

It is the 41st Millennium. For more than a hundred centuries the Emperor of Mankind has sat immobile on the Golden Throne of Earth. He is the master of mankind by the will of the gods and master of a million worlds by the might of His inexhaustible armies. He is a rotting carcass writhing invisibly with power from the Dark Age of Technology. He is the Carrion Lord of the vast Imperium of Man for whom a thousand souls are sacrificed every day so that He may never truly die.

I first encountered Warhammer 40K in the late 1980s when I bought a copy of the game rulebook, Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader. At that time I was reaching the very tail end of my role playing game phase, when I rarely played but still acquired and devoured every gaming system I could get my hands on. I had at least two dozen different titles, each with a bunch of supplementary books and modules, plus probably another dozen wargames. My shelves were filled with box sets, books, magazines, and even random home-brew publications I’d order from classified ads in Dragon Magazine (as well as rare back-issues of Dragon that I also collected). I was, perhaps, a bit obsessed.

There were two things that intrigued me about Warhammer 40K. First, it was miniatures-based. While my friends and I occasionally used miniatures when we played Dungeons & Dragons, the little lead figures were never an integral part of the experience. Warhammer 40K seemed to combine the best aspects of role playing and board gaming, and I even bought and painted a small set of miniatures. The second source of fascination was the nature of this strange universe depicted through some trippy and brutal artwork. But alas, I never got the chance to play, and sometime in the early 1990s I sold off my entire collection of games.

That was the last I thought about Warhammer 40K for probably another 20 years or so, until I discovered the universe’s fiction. I’ve read at least 50 titles over the years, covering almost the entire gamut of topics – Inquisition, Space Marines, Chaos Space Marines, Dark Eldar, T’au, Genestealers, Adepta Sororitas, Adeptus Mechanicus, and even the crime and horror stuff. The only thing I haven’t touched on is the Horus Heresy series, mostly due to the massive size – over 50 core books, plus dozens of related titles. It’s a bit overwhelming to even think about starting something like that, though chances are at some point I will.

Today there are many different ways to interact with the Warhammer 40K universe. Gaming, novels, graphic novels, animated films, video games, cosplay… you can go as deep as you want down the rabbit hole. And yes, there’s even music.

The first musical tie to Warhammer 40K I came across was the saga of Bolt Thrower’s 1989 album Realm of Chaos. Not only is the death metal masterpiece a Warhammer 40K concept album, it also used officially licensed artwork on the cover. Unfortunately when it came time to do a re-release of the album Games Workshop wasn’t interest in renewing the deal. In response the label hired the same artist who created the original work and had him come up with something… similar… This also caused a falling out between the label and Bolt Thrower, as the band members didn’t want the album re-released with new art. You can read a bit about the story HERE. I’m a big fan of Realm of Chaos, even going as far as spending a pretty penny on an original cover pressing a while back.

That got me wondering about other music related to Warhammer 40K. Certainly a number of artists have taken inspiration from the universe spawned by the game and books, and the video games have spawned some albums as well. After a little digging I also learned that in the early 1990s Games Workshop actually had its own label called Warhammer Records. They worked with a trio of rock bands – D-Rok, Wraith, and Rich Rags, and also partnered with Saxon on a Warhammer 40K-themed cover for a repress of their album Forever Free. The Warhammer label only hung on for a few years, and by 1994 it was gone. There’s a well-researched post about the label and Games Workshop’s dabbling in rock HERE.

In my poking around online I also stumbled upon another Warhammer 40K music project, one that partnered directly with Games Workshop. And instead of the rock/metal sound of Bolt Thrower and Games Workshop’s early efforts, this one was entirely techno. And it wasn’t just a few disparate albums. There was an actual vision here, right from the start. A dozen records, each dedicated to a specific race in the Warhammer 40K universe. This, my friends, is how I became obsessed with the Art of Perception label and The Sound of Warhammer 40.000 series.

I knew I had to buy these twelve records as well as the three compilation CDs. The good news is that I’m alive today and have access to the internet and PayPal, so tracking down copies was not terribly difficult (1). But… it seemed that almost every seller was in Europe. This was going to get expensive given how astronomical international shipping has become in the last few years. And it did. I found one seller in Germany who had five of the titles, so I got to combine on some shipping with him, but there were a few cases where the shipping actually cost more than the record. But I’m an obsessive, so that wasn’t a significant mental hurdle to overcome. There were a few speed bumps along the way, with a few sellers canceling my orders and one record being left out in the rain on the front porch despite there being a covered area, but after about six weeks I had all 15 releases.

I couldn’t find much about this series online. The Art of Perception label appears to have put out its last releases in 2006 and the website is no longer active. Because the original site used Adobe Flash most of the captures retained by the Wayback Machine were inaccessible. But due to the power of the internet and, yes, social media, I was able to contact the woman behind the label, Berlin-Based DJ and producer Maral Salmassi (her latest single as Arya Zappa can be heard HERE), and she was kind enough to share some of the backstory behind Art of Perception and The Sound of Warhammer 40.000. (2)

“As an art student, gamer, and sci-fi/fantasy nerd, I created Art Of Perception to bring together two planes: the visual, the imagination, and the sonic,” Salmassi told me. “Most importantly, I experienced techno and electronic music as a futuristic and spiritual experiment, not dance music consumed in clubs. That’s what I intended to express with this project.”

I can definitely relate to feeling a connection between sci-fi and electronic music. But why Warhammer 40K? “Initially, I wanted to do a series with H. R. Giger,” she said. “I went to [Switzerland] to meet him in his house, which was full of his paintings and sculptures. Unfortunately, the project didn’t happen, but I still wanted to produce a soundtrack series that would bridge art with electronic music. As a teen, I spent a significant part of my time playing computer and tabletop games. Warhammer 40k was one of my favorites and offered enough sci-fi vibe for an electronic music interpretation. I was obsessed with this idea, determined to manifest this series. When it was clear that the Giger collaboration wouldn’t happen, I got in touch with Games Workshop, offered them a deal, went to Nottingham to sign the contract, and the rest is history.”

First of all, let me express some jealousy here about getting to visit with H. R. Giger and see his art with him! And I can absolutely see similarities between what that collaboration might have been, with what the project with Games Workshop ultimately became. But while Salmassi was familiar with Warhammer 40K, chances are most of the artists were not. What were they told about the project?

“I sent [the artists] an introduction to the game and their species’ lore they were producing a piece of music for. Additionally, the received artworks and a few pages of the Game Codex.” This is also the recollection of some of the artists I was able to reach, and at least a few of them did some of their own research to gain an even deeper understanding of the Warhammer 40K universe.

Salmassi was already well-established in the electronic music world, so finding artists to participate in the project wasn’t too difficult. “At the time, I was already co-founder of the record distribution company and record store Formic in Cologne. Distributing many small underground labels, we had, of course, direct access to many artists and other underground distributors all over the world. I made a list with all the artists I wanted to invite to participate and got in touch with great success.”

The label put out a one-page press release announcing the project in either late 2000 or early 2001:

The idea is to create a limited twelve-part vinyl series in cooperation with internationally established electronic musicians such as Jimi Tenor, Two Lone Swordsmen, Mike Ink…

Each artist conducts a unique theme for a different type of species – a musical interpretation of a fantastic world from the “Warhammer 40.000” universe.

The press release goes on to explain that the complete series will include a dozen 12″ records as well as two compilation CDs. It also mentions that “a special collector box for all twelve 12″ will be available at the end of the project,” though I haven’t come across anything that leads me to believe the box ever happened. The artists for the first seven releases, along with the Warhammer 40K races they would be representing, were listed as well. A few of these were changed up, however, and at least one of the mentioned musicians, Anthony Rother, does not appear to have participated. (3)

The entire project took place from 2001 to 2003 and included 15 releases, a dozen 12″ records and three CDs. Twenty-four artists contributed two songs each to the records, for a total of 48 tracks on vinyl. The three CDs include 38 tracks, all but two of which also appear on vinyl. The two CD-only numbers are both on The Sound of Warhammer 40.000 Chapter II – Solar’s “You Are Me” and Sikora’s “Beautiful Sisters”. This brings the total number of tracks in the series to 50.

Each record is thematically tied to one of six races/factions within the Warhammer 40K universe (Eldar, Dark Eldar, Orks, Tyranids, Space Marines, and Chaos Space Marines) with a representative monochromatic image on the cover. Mike Vamp, who contributed a pair of tracks to one of the Tyranid records, told me that he was provided with the cover image and instructed “that [the songs] had to fit with the darkness of the drawings.” Benway & Ripley from Kitbuilders had similar recollections when I reached out to them about their two Space Marines inspired songs. “The Warhammer world was new to us,” they told me, “but we got some info from the shop and the net and we liked the whole thing.” Interestingly the liner notes of the Chapter I compilation mention three other thematic groups as well – Imperial Guard, Tau, and Sisters of Battle. While none of those groups had their own record, I do wonder if Sikora’s “Beautiful Sisters” on Chapter II was created with the Sisters of Battle in mind.

Vamp and Kitbuilders both confirmed they produced new tracks for The Sound of Warhammer 40.000, though a deep dive into all the artists exposes a few songs that appear to be recycled. The Modernist originally released “Eurojah” in 1998 and the “Immigrant Dub” version of it in 2000, before his Eldar-based 12″ came out, and both of Mike Ink’s contributions had been released under some different projects he was involved in – “Soul Desert” put out as Vinyl Republic in 1993 and “Indulto” as Crocker in 1994.

I only found eight of the 50 tracks on Spotify. I created a playlist called The Sound of Warhammer 40.000 that is public on the platform where you can check them out. Fortunately some of the series’ best songs are available, including my absolutely favorite, Codec & Flexor’s “Time Has Changed”.

My original plan was to simply write about each release in order, but I thought it might be more interesting to group them instead by race/faction since the artists used them as inspiration. Since some releases share the same title I’ll be referring to them by their catalog numbers, which run sequentially and chronologically from AP-01 to AP-012 (AP-012 is the only catalog number using three digits instead of two). So, without further ado…

ELDAR
AOP-02 – The Modernist / Bochum Welt
AOP-08 – Codec & Flexor / Michael Mayer

Prior to the rise of mankind as the dominant force in the galaxy the Eldar reigned supreme. However, it was their own hubris and excess that brought the once mighty race low, the psychic energy of dead Eldar souls causing the creation of the Chaos god Slaanesh, known to the Eldar as “She Who Thirsts”. Despite their decline, the Eldar remain technologically advanced and graceful warriors who often find themselves at odds with the Imperium of Man, holding mankind in contempt as savages but realizing that their own time in the universe is coming to a close.

From the back jacket of AOP-02:

We are the Eldar, amongst the oldest of the races and perhaps once counted amongst the wisest. But we are ever reminded of our great Folly and even greater Fall. Now we are but few in number and our time left in this galaxy is short.

The Modernist opens the Eldar series with “Alphatier Brain (live update)”, the initial low beats adding layers of higher pitch elements to create a quick tempo banger. It’s a structured piece of music, the subtle shifts and changes coming in predictable patterns and giving the whole track a technological feel. He follows up with “Eurojah (immigrant dub)”, a more subtle composition with less emphasis on bass and more on flourishes, keyboards playing a more prominent role. Whereas “Alphatier Brain” reaches down into the more animalistic part of the mind and activates pure survival instincts, “Eurojah” touches the higher functions as it skitters across the surface in a way that’s just beyond your grasp, a gentle caress that soothes the more primal “Alphatier”.

Bochum Welt takes a lighter touch with “Entering the Warp”, the beat soothing and the keyboards playful. It flows like a children’s book with perhaps a hint of sadness on the low end, but nothing the dreaminess of the upper ranges can’t overcome. “Eldar Soul” introduces a metallic percussion to create an edgy undercurrent, a chittering sound that clenches the jaw despite the bubbling nature of what lives above the beat. The disparate nature of the sonic elements captures both the grace and the technology of the Eldar.

From the back of AOP-08:

The mind of this Farseer is utterly inhuman in its depth and complexity. Without mercy or moral feeling his consciousness stands upon the edge of spiritual destruction. That he does not fall must be a result of constraints and balances which only an Eldar could understand. To a mere human it is yet another reminder that we are but children in comparison to that ancient and powerful race.

Codec & Flexor open AOP-08 with “Alert”, and this feels like storytelling. Warning sirens make the hair on your neck stand up, as does the alien voice in the opening with its inherent malevolence. While most of the tracks in this series are techno, Codec & Flexor hit us with pure industrial rock, introducing vocals, changing beat structures, and guitar-like riffs. They then take a 180 on “Time Has Changed”, a chiller number with the absolute grooviest beats to be found anywhere. A vocal sample plays throughout the song, almost like a beat of its own, and the singing… the wistfulness and time has changed lyrical theme capture the sense of longing for past greatness while being resigned to your current state… and fate.

Michael Mayer hits us with the beat out of the gate on the B side with “Get the War Walker Groove”, layering in Pong-like beeps, then electrical snaps, then hollow radar-ping signals to create the sense of actually being housed inside some kind of large machine. Or maybe we’ve been completely absorbed, becoming one with it, exchanging electrons via neural jacks as we stomp across the battlefield rubble in search of new prey. “Craftword” eases the mechanical nature of “War Walker”, a deep, slow sub-surface wave with the slightest droid-like consciousness interjecting almost questioningly.

DARK ELDAR
AOP-01 – Johannes Heil / Kim Cascone
AOP-04 – Rude Solo / Christian Morgenstern

The remaining Eldar split apart into sub-factions, the most notorious of which are the Dark Eldar. The Dark Eldar derive pleasure and energy from the suffering and death of others and will go to horrifying lengths to wring ever last moment of agony and pain from those they destroy. Their extreme depravity and lack of even the smallest redeeming qualities make them the enemies of any who cross their path.

From the back of AOP-01:

You have a simple choice human – die now on the blades of my Incubi cadre or be carried into the night where you will die a thousand deaths at the hands of my Haemonculi.

There is an insistence about Johannes Heil‘s “The Attack”, the pressure building until the attack itself launches unexpectedly, the beats punching and the alarm-like top end in your mind like an itch you can’t scratch. Once the attack is underway it is pure inevitability. You can’t negotiate your way out of it. It will sweep over and consume you. A mid-track respite gives the false hope that the attack is over and you have survived, but then it comes back full force and you know this is the end. “Introduction” opens with a Stephen-Hawking-like modulated voice explaining the dangers posed by the Dark Eldar and their armies, the kind of pre-combat warning that might have been delivered to an unlucky Imperial Guard unit about to be deployed against their xenos foes. It continues with an incessant alarm over some gloomy keyboards, the alarm itself providing the tempo and setting the mood.

I reached out to Kim Cascone about his participation in The Sound of Warhammer 40.000, but he didn’t recall any specifics about the project. Which is too bad, because “Polygon Witch” is a hell of a song and I’d love to know more about his inspiration for it. Subtle and house-like, the flow puts me in a trance, like laying back in a warm bath. Even when the tempo increases it isn’t jarring, it’s just letting you know that the dream is coming to a close. “Tangent Clusters” has a cinematic sci-fi feel, like library music from the 1960s. It’s deep space, the cold void held at bay outside the flickering lights of the cockpit controls.

From the back of AOP-04:

We dance a bloody path on the precipice of annihilation.

Rude Solo come right at you, full speed, with “Dark Eldar”, one of the faster BPM tracks in the series. Backing screeches give the impression of winged death, a combination of ancient, Cthulhu-like horror merged with fantastic technology, a discomfiting merger of the past and future. “Mysterious World” creates a more sinister mood, strange sounds in the darkest, stillest night. Is something out there? Is it dangerous? Should I run or hide? Whatever it is, it sounds like it’s getting closer, the chittering in the blackness making your teeth ache as you clench your jaw, straining to catch even a glimpse of something… anything…

Christian Morgenstern envisions a less subtle Dark Eldar on “The Gathering (and the Departure)”. The beat is direct and forward – this is a composition about power. Your fate is inescapable, as you too will fall to my blade. “Tactics” is more subtle, fairly stripped down with a snare-like beat that could well be the sound of an Eldar shard gun firing, which certainly fits the terror of being quietly stalked by the impossible-to-escape Dark Eldar.

Orks
AOP-03 – Jay Denham / Silicon Scally
AOP-06 – Jimi Tenor / Ural 13 Diktators

Orks are pure brutes, green-skinned monsters who exist for the sole purpose of fighting and killing. While generally viewed as unintelligent, they still manage to create and adapt technology in their own way, their crude vehicles and starships looking like piles of junk but proving quite effective and durable. Wherever Orks appear, slaughter will follow.

From the back of AOP-03:

The green tide of Orkdom is upon us and we are alone. There can be no mercy. No surrender. If we survive this day it will be a miracle.

Jay Denham shows the Orks at opposite ends of the spectrum. First a piston-pumping beat launches from the grooves, conjuring up an image of a slapped-together war buggy comprised of bulky metal plates, shitty welds, and fat tires, spewing black smoke behind as it hurtles across the ground toward the enemy. You can picture two bulky green Orks bouncing up and down in the seats excitedly anticipating the battle to come as they shout the song’s title, “Waagh” at the top of their lungs. That is followed by “Sleeping Nobz,” a quieter and more restrained piece, the timing a resting heartbeat overlaid with hints of electric dreams, capturing the beasts in their only restrained moments as they slumber.

On the flip side Silicon Scally‘s “Orks of War” builds upon itself, the tempo increasing as the battle approaches, the timing sometimes slipping for a moment because, well, these are Orks, and not exactly prone to being organized. There is a rising urgency here, the tension of restrained violence straining for release before ending with a the deep space pulse coming from a dead planet. “Ork Manoeuvres” is a bit more subtle, though continues to occasionally break the tempo with snare double-taps, bringing to mind the movement of the Ork fleet when it arrives into the system, the silence of the void lit up by blinking lights and flashes from plasma engines. The quiet before the storm.

From the back of AOP-06:

“Kill them – kill them all!”
Warlord Ghazghkull Thraka

Man, Jimi Tenor leans into the Ork theme hard. “Blood on Borstch” has some guttural sounds that give it a bit of an alien vibe, but the key is the blending of military-like martial music and, well, a sort of Conan the Barbarian feel. It’s bold. It’s bombastic. It’s coming for you, and your family, and everything you hold dear. It soars, it dips, it is unstoppable. It brings with it nothing but conquest and death. “Ambient Intelligence”, however, is the opposite, taking us off the planet’s surface and out into the cold, dark void of deep space, the vast nothingness of interstellar travel. There is no beat here, it’s truly an ambient track with small moments of sound bubbling (sometimes literally) to the surface. If Brian Eno had made something like this in the late 70s/early 80s he would have called it “Music For Space Travel”.

Like others who contributed to the series, the guys from Ural 13 Diktators had some experience in the world of fantasy games. “We did have a background of role playing and some experience of playing miniature games in the 1990s,” they told me. “Warhammer 40K was familiar for us to some extent but we weren’t that deep into it.” The pair released their debut album Total Destruction on the Forte Records label operated by Maral’s partner Christian Morgenstern. “Maral was already experienced in the music business having founded Formic Distribution and the techno label Konsequent. When she founded the concept label Art of Perception it was natural that she contacted us amongst other electronic music producers to provide tracks for the first series, The Sound of Warhammer 40.000.”

They broke down the two tracks. “The first track “Warlords of Destruction” was a rich mix of basically all the various influences and practices we had with Ural 13 Diktators. 1980s hi-nrg disco and synth pop, traditional Soviet/Russian melodies, contemporary electronic dance music production and DJ oriented functionality, Amiga chiptune/game music sound and styles, and tongue and cheek vocals and lyrics tied to the theme and name of the song.” The lyrics are particularly notable. “Baha Men “Who Let the Dogs Out” was released the previous year and was a huge hit in Finland. We always wanted to tease the very purist and conservative techno scene and have an anything goes attitude where all the craziest ideas were materialized. There for “who let the orks out” lyrics.”

“We had a different title originally for the second track “Boarboyz Attack” which I don’t recall, so possibly we created the title with Maral. We wanted to have a more straightforward techno track still suitable for the orks theme but pleasing the DJs who would seek a no thrills four on the floor banger. We sampled and filtered a hi-nrg track, made a pounding kick drum and an apocalyptic melody with some traditional Soviet Russian feel in it.”

Tyranids
AOP-10 – Thomas Brinkmann / Heiko Laux
AOP-11 – Northern Lite / Clé & Mike Vamp

Tyranids exist for one sole purpose – to consume life. They travel the stars in “ships” that are both transportation and living entities. They make planetfall with a wide range of biologic forms, all of which have evolved to maximize killing ability. The Tyranids use all the living organisms of a planet as energy to create more of their kind, scouring it and leaving nothing alive. They represent an existential threat to every intelligent race in the galaxy as they spread and look for new ways to slake their insatiable appetite.

From the back of AOP-10:

“The more I learn about these aliens, the more I come to understand what drives them, the more I hate them. I hate them for what they are and for what they may one day become. I hate them not because they hate us, but because they are incapable of good, honest human hatred.”
Inquisitor Angmar

Thomas Brinkmann takes an interesting approach by providing us with a two-parter for his side of AP-10, “Tyranids vs. Space Wolves Part One” and “Tyranids vs. Space Wolves Part Two”. The Space Wolves, or as they prefer to be called the Wolves of Femris, are a Space Marines chapter from the First Founding. It’s interesting that Brinkmann chose to involve them thematically and shows he reached beyond the cover art for inspiration. Certainly the Space Wolves have battled the Tyranids, including more specifically the Genestealers shown on AP-10. Brinkmann brings significant velocity to the beats and includes both wolves howling and the insectoid chittering of the Genestealers to “Part One”, while “Part Two” veers in a more experimental direction, one lacking a traditional song structure and instead creating a horror soundtrack. At times repetitive sonic elements give it some shape, but this is more about generating the feelings of unease that would accompany hunting these creatures through the city underground. Sure, Space Marines are immune to fear. But we mere humans are not…

“Invasion” sees Heiko Laux taking a more nuanced approach, capturing the darkness of subterranean caverns but without the sheer horror of facing these clawed creatures with their razor-sharp teeth. Your rising pulse is reflected by the beats as you wait for the inevitable. Is “Hive Mind” a take on the unity, the sense of collective purpose, of these xenos? While every other race in the universe sees the Tyranids as a purely destructive force, one that will never deviate from its basic purpose of consuming and reproducing with zero regard, they do operate as if they were one giant organism, guided by the psychic hive mind. I suspect that within that mind there is a sense of control, of organization, of intent, and this track brings that structure and sense of forward direction.

From the back of AOP-11:

There is nothing to fear except fear itself.

The thumping bass of Northern Lite‘s “Insect Stride” carries the weight of a half dozen or more stomping feet, the pounding march of something massive that cannot be stopped, or even slowed. There aren’t many flourishes and it’s not subtle, instead it powers through any and all obstacles in its path. “Blood Smells Loud” takes a different approach, a blend of new wave and industrial metal, the guitar riffs creating layers of tension absent from “Insect Stride”. It captures the energetic chaos you’d expect from an insectiod race only concerned with consuming everything in its path. To my ears it’s one of tracks that best captures its subject.

“It was clear this collection was made to be something to be remembered,” Mike Vamp told me via email. “The 90s rave in Germany was over and the electronic music needed some new input. We mixed guitars and vocals and drums.” The result was a song called “Eat”, which veers wildly from the general aesthetic of the series – it’s a Britpop-ish indie rocker with lyrics and even a guitar solo. I’m gonna rip you up / I’m gonna smash you down / I didn’t come to play / I’m gonna eat you up. “We played ‘Eat’ constantly out our live shows for a couple of years,” Vamp told me. “The other track from us has a weird vibe with no guitars but also based on electronic instruments, not meant to be dance music.” That song, “Tyranid Moonstomp,” relies heavily on the structural elements of “Eat”, including sampling a guitar riff, turning it into a more electro-psychadelic spacey mind trip. It might be a bit more danceable that Vamp lets on, but it’s definitely a headphones kind of jam.

Space Marines
AOP-07 – Mike Ink / Alter Ego
AOP-09 – John Starlight / Kitbuilders

The Emperor of Man created the genetic engineering that allows for a once-normal man to be transformed into a transhuman super-warrior. These Space Marines were created to be the vanguard of the God-Emperor’s armies as they spread forth to conquer the galaxy. Larger, stronger, faster, and more intelligent than normal men, Space Marines are psycho-conditioned to feel no fear and to live for battle. Encased in massive suits of power armor and wielding weapons a normal man could not even carry, let alone use, they travel the galaxy bringing death to xenos and the enemies of the Emperor.

From the back of AOP-07:

We are the Space Marines. The Champions of humanity. The Emperor’s chosen warriors. For every one of us that falls in battle one hundred enemies will die.

Both of the tracks contributed by Mike Ink appear to have been put out by the artist a decade or so earlier under different projects – “Soul Desert” as Vinyl Republic, and “Indulto” as Crocker. Mind you, I haven’t been able to track those songs down in their original forms, so I don’t know if any changes were made for this series. “Soul Desert” has a deep space feel to it, the bass and some pings pulsing through the void, while “Indulto” with its brisker pace and fuller sonic palette provides a sense of purposeful movement.

On the flip side Alter Ego provides a two-song suite with “Phoenix 1.1” and “Phoenix 1.2”. Both have a restrained urgency, particularly the elements introduced in the second half of “1.2”. It’s easy to envision Space Marines briskly moving about their business as they prepare for a fight, the almost joyous anticipation of battle psycho-conditioned into the transhuman warriors lying just beneath the surface.

From the back of AOP-09:

The Space Marines fear no evil for we are Fear Incarnate.

John Starlight gets after it right at the start of “Blood Angels” (the Blood Angels are a First Founding Space Marines chapter, for those of you not up on your Warhammer 40K lore). Menacing vocals run through some kind of distortion filter before we are hit with dark beats. It’s easy to image the voice coming from the vox grill inset into a Space Marine’s helmet, the metallic clangs and sine wave tweaks coming from their equipment and armor. “The Ultimate Human Fighting Machine” brings an 80s style synth to the forefront, a very soundtrack-like composition that would be right at home on one of the Warhammer 40K animated films. It’s retrofuturism captures that aspect of the 40K universe, one that is both technologically advanced and also often incredibly backwards and even superstitious.

Kitbuilders‘ “Dark Angels” emerges with a modulated female voice, one that flows in and out of the song, including a sensual refrain, dark angels… dark angels… It captures the duality of the Emperor’s sons, who serve mankind as both angels of salvation and angels of death, often performing both roles at the same time. Their second track, “Stellar”, is more conceptual, at times wistful and at others bubbly. These songs got me on a bit of a Kitbuilders kick, and I definitely recommend checking out some of their other work.

Chaos Space Marines
AOP-05 – Bandulu / DisX3
AOP-012 – Dr. Shingo / Ascii Disko

Ten thousand years ago half the grea Space Marines legions rebelled, aligning themselves with the Chaos gods and launching a galaxy-spanning civil war against the Emperor. These Chaos Space Marines fought their way to holy Terra itself where they battled the Emperor and their still-loyal brothers. Chaos was only defeated when the Emperor slew his own “son”, the Warmaster Horus. But in that battle the Emperor suffered a mortal wound of his own, forcing him to be permanently interred on His Golden Throne, a device that requires the sacrifice of thousands of psykers every day to keep the Emperor alive. The rebel forces that survived escaped into the Warp, from where they continue to foray into realspace to sow death and destruction, still seeking to overthrow the Emperor.

From the back of AOP-05:

Our thirst for vengeance is a raging inferno. It is a pyre that burns so strongly it burns even in the darkest depths of the cold vacuum of the void.

The galloping beat of Bandulu‘s “Deadly Ride” is like a callback to when these Chaos warriors would have ridden horses into battle instead of promethium-fueled warbikes. Bongos follow their own pattern above the canter, infusing the song with a tribalism that fits the brotherhood felt by these Chaos Space Marines, warriors who have served together for millennia. “Dance Nurgling Dance” harkens to the Chaos god Nurgle, the Plague Lord, and the smallest of the demons who serve him, the nurglings. The introduction of dub elements generates an otherworldly sensation, and one can almost envision the little damned beasts moving in a Bacchanalian dance around a massive cauldron while Nurgle himself brews up a new plague to unleash on mankind.

“Unholy Pray” by DisX3 is a sleek number, crisp and polished. Like “Deadly Ride”, it also conveys as sense of movement, a sample that runs over the top like the breathing of the rider as he closes on his enemy. “Slaanesh” takes its name from another of the Chaos gods, the god of pleasure known by the Eldar as She Who Thirsts. A house track laid over a techno beat, it creates a veneer of opulence that covers an interior rotted to its very core.

From the back of AOP-012:

That which we cannot destroy, we will define. Those who we do not defeat, will know only despair.

Dr. Shingo (aka Shingo Shibamoto) didn’t know anything about Warhammer 40K at the outset of the project. “No, I didn’t and still don’t know very much,” Shingo told me via email. But he specifically chose a story he wanted to tell. “It was a story of [a] marching army… Warriors marching… like walk[ing] toward death… this is the image of the track.” That track is appropriately titled “March of Death,” Shingo’s elastic synth providing the prequel and leading into the kick drum beats. Laser-like elements conjure images of human defenders firing their weapons at the Chaos Space Marines as they advance, the beams failing to penetrate the Marines’ armor. They are death personified. “The White Road” is more restrained with less synth, the emphasis remaining on the deep low end with a few simple flourishes.

Unlike most of the other participants in this series, Ascii Disko (aka Daniel Gerhard Holc) had some familiarity with the Warhammer 40K universe. “My older brother was into roleplaying and fantasy games and he had the Warhammer books,” he told me. “I never played the game as I was more into the illustrations in the book and the violent world behind it. Naturally I had Bolt Thrower’s Realm of Chaos in my record collection too.” He specifically chose Chas Space Marines. “I contributed on Chaos Space Marines with the tracks ‘CHAOS’ and ‘THE SPELL’. ‘CHAOS’ is a dark swirling techno track and ‘THE SPELL’ is [a] more experimental stoner electro pop kinda thing.” Shingo and Holc were (and are) friends and the pair toured together to support the release of AP-012, but unfortunately a stolen passport forced Holc to miss out on the Tokyo date, much to his dismay.

The CDs
Chapter I
Chapter II
Chapter III

As mentioned earlier, there were three compilation CDs associated with The Sound of Warhammer 40.000. The only artist to appear on vinyl who does not have any tracks on the CDs is Jay Denham. Of the 38 tracks, 36 appear on one of the vinyl releases while two are unique to the CDs, both of which appear on Chapter II as bonus tracks – Solar’s “You Are Me” and Sikora’s “Beautiful Sisters”.

“You Are Me” has a glitchy, experimental feel. If I was asked which race or faction it should correspond to, I’d probably say the Eldar due to its fragility, lack of consistent structure, and the high pitch vocal samples, though a case could definitely be made for the Sisters of Battle, aka the Adepta Sororitas, as the samples do sound like female voices. I presume “Beautiful Sisters” is also about the Sororitas, the Emperor-worshipping female warriors, simply due to the title. Sonically it’s a chill track that while not capturing the fervent devotion of the Sisters is still a beautiful piece of music.

Chapter I has the most robust booklet, providing art and background on each of the races/factions in the series. The other two CDs have shorter booklets, though both do include some additional art as well.

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And that’s a wrap, my friends. Little did I know when I first started down this rabbit hole that I’d do a half dozen email interviews and write over 6,000 words, but it’s been a lot of fun to dig deep into this project. If I’m picking a few favorites from the series, I’d have to go with Codec & Flexor’s “Time Has Changed,” Jimi Tenor’s “Blood On Borscht,” Kitbuilders’ “Dark Angels,” and Cle & Mike Vamp’s “Eat”. If you end up checking any of these titles out, drop me a note in the comments and let me know what you think!

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(1) A few weeks ago I read Chuck Klosterman’s latest book, The Nineties, and it made me think about how impossible this task would have been not all that long ago. First off, I probably would have never even heard of this series, as the chances of finding it randomly in a shop where I live would be close to zero. Even if by some chance I had learned of it, obtaining all 12 titles would have been a task that probably would have required years and years instead of the roughly six weeks it took for all of these to arrive on my front doorstep.

(2) Salmassi is also the force behind the label Konsequent, and there are a few historical tidbits about this series on that label’s site HERE.

(3) Two Lone Swordsmen were also mentioned in the press release, and while there are no tracks credited to that group, its members Andrew Weatherall and Keith Tenniswood did participate under another of their nom-de-guerre Rude Solo.

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.

Bolt Thrower – “Spearhead / Cenotaph” (2014)

I’ve had this weird fascination with the English death metal band Bolt Thrower for some time, and it’s not for the normal reasons – it has nothing to do with their sound or look or philosophy, or because some other band I’m way into cites them as an influence.  No.  I’m fascinated by them because of the cover of their 1989 LP Realm of Chaos.  You see, I’ve always been a geek in various ways.  When I was a teen I was way into role playing games, and in recent years I’ve gotten way into sic-fi fiction, and those two interests have recently overlapped in a way that touches Realm of Chaos.

I speak, of course, of Warhammer 40K.

If you’re not familiar with Warhammer 40K, in a nutshell it’s a fictional universe that takes place in the 41st millennium as mankind tries to maintain a hold on its part of the universe, fighting against alien species and the demon infested realm of Chaos.  There’s more to it than that, but you get the general gist – it’s a dystopian future that is both super technologically advanced but that also has it’s own weird mythology, sort of like a future version of the Spanish Inquisition in space (No one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition!).  Space marines, both good and evil, play a central role in both the game and the fiction, and it’s the space marine battle scene on the cover of Realm of Chaos that I think is great.  Unfortunately Bolt Thrower was unable to secure the rights to the image past a certain date, so subsequent printings of the album have a different, non-Warhammer 40K cover.  I’ve been on the lookout for a nice copy, but have hesitated to just drop $75-100 and get one through the mail.  So far.

boltthrowerspearhead

So imagine my surprise when I spied this record over at Extreme Noise in Minneapolis the other day.  That’s a chaos (i.e. evil) space marine on the cover… and it’s a Bolt Thrower record?  What the hell is this?  Well my friends, this is what is sometimes referred to as an “unofficial” release.  I’ll leave it to others to pontificate on who put this out, did they have the rights to do so, and other such legal niceties.  But what I can tell you is this record is comprised of two early Bolt Thrower EPs – 1990s Cenotaph and 1992s Spearhead.  And since I haven’t been able to find a Warhammer 40K cover copy of Realm of Chaos, this seemed like a bargain for about a quarter the price.

Turns out early Bolt Thrower is pretty killer, all double bass drums, lightning fast riffs and growled vocals.  Sonically the quality is very good for an unofficial vinyl release – my copy is visually clean, and while it has a couple of audible pops it’s generally noise free.  Bolt Thrower’s pure raging density means I’ll probably need a few more listens in order to better separate the songs and become more in tune with how they differ, outside of the obvious fast-and-heavy versus slow-and-heavy camps.  The one live track, “Realm of Chaos (Live)”, is unfortunately a bit lackluster – it’s the studio material that carries the day. What I like the most is that even with the growled vocals you can still follow Karl Willetts’ lyrics if you pay a little attention – it’s not some unintelligible primal noise barf like that which accompanies some extreme metal.

You like it heavy?  Bolt Thrower brings the heavy, son.  So come get some, if you think you can handle it.