Bolt Thrower's Classic Swan Song, 'Those Once Loyal' The metal band called Those Once Loyal "the ultimate Bolt Thrower album" — and the basslines of Jo Bench created the foundation upon which the band's thunderous, crusted-over sound was built.
NPR logo Shocking Omissions: Bolt Thrower's Classic Swan Song, 'Those Once Loyal'

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Shocking Omissions: Bolt Thrower's Classic Swan Song, 'Those Once Loyal'

Bolt Thrower's Those Once Loyal relies heavily on the bass prowess of Jo Bench. Sarah Sharps/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Sarah Sharps/Courtesy of the artist

Bolt Thrower's Those Once Loyal relies heavily on the bass prowess of Jo Bench.

Sarah Sharps/Courtesy of the artist

This essay is one in a series celebrating deserving artists or albums not included on NPR Music's list of 150 Greatest Albums By Women.

The first moments of Bolt Thrower's classic swan song, 2005's Those Once Loyal, surface almost silently. The notes slip into earshot as if through a fog, their orchestral tension an ominous harbinger of the battle ahead. As the opening track, "At First Light," catches fire, its epochal main riff explodes with a mortar's fury, and the listener is launched headfirst into the final album from one of the greatest death metal bands of all time. At the center of the storm stood a slim figure in black jeans and combat boots, her eyes ringed with kohl and dark hair chopped short, looking every inch the punk she was. In her hands was a BC Rich Ironbird bass (and a pick), from whence came the unshakeable foundation upon which Bolt Thrower's thunderous, crusted-over sound was built. Her name was Jo Bench, and when she initially accepted the gig playing bass in a band with her then-boyfriend, Bolt Thrower guitarist Gavin Ward, the self-taught bassist hadn't the faintest idea that she would become such a renowned, respected extreme metal figure — let alone a role model for generations of young metalhead girls to come.

Bench joined Bolt Thrower in 1987, following the departure of original bassist Alex Tweedy (who played on the band's early demos). She made her first appearance on Forgotten Existence, a single-track cassette demo released in 1988. Unlike the more progressive hardcore and punk scenes in which she had cut her teeth and honed her musical skills, women were scarce in the nascent world of death metal; as such, Bench became part of an exclusive club with miniscule membership that also included members of female-led metal entities Mythic, Acrostichon and 13. As Ward told Headbanger's Ball in 1993, Bolt Thrower's decision to offer Bench the gig came without any caveats, or really any thought at all about her gender; the band's collective crust-punk roots had imbued them with a sense of inclusivity that apparently hadn't quite occurred to the metal world yet. To them, it was just a practical solution to an immediate problem.

"She was into the band, she could already play some of the material and she learned the set in seven days. That's what it was about," Ward explained. "She could do the job we needed."

Bench went on the play bass on every one of the band's eight studio albums, gaining fans for her no-nonsense, laid-back stage presence as well as her cataclysmically heavy bass lines on crowd-pleasers like "The Killchain," "World Eater" and "When Cannons Fade," the latter of which was a special standout on Those Once Loyal. Throughout the decades, Bolt Thrower has stayed true to its punk ethos and uncompromising vision — so much so that, after working fitfully on a follow-up to Those Once Loyal, the members decided to end the band's recording career rather than release anything deemed lackluster. By torpedoing its own future discography, the band ensured that it'd go out on a high note — and when Bolt Thrower formally disbanded in 200 following the death of drummer Martin "Kiddie" Kearns, it sealed the tomb for good, leaving Those Once Loyal –which the band itself had called "the ultimate Bolt Thrower album" — as the band's final testament.

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The band never intended for this album to be its last, and that distinction is audible. There's no air of finality to be found; not a single note feels forced or dutiful. The album bursts with vitality and purpose as it advances over the now-familiar ground that won the band so many accolades. Bench's crunchy, distorted tone is everywhere, dug into the trenches between the hard-charging riffs and barbed wire melodies of "At First Light," dodging the artillery-blasted drums on "Granite Wall" and rumbling beneath vocalist Karl Willetts' hoarse battle cries on fan favorite "The Killchain." Despite her obvious technical prowess and importance to the Bolt Thrower sound, Bench never styled herself as a bass virtuoso; rather, in the few interviews she's granted over the years, she's been quite forthright about her D.I.Y. background and how she views her playing as ultimately utilitarian.

"My bass playing is as basic as it comes. I am not a technical bass player, I mainly just follow the guitar, 'heavy-ing' it up, so to speak," she told Eternal Terror Webzine in a rare interview back in 2009. "I'm good enough for Bolt Thrower, and that's about it."

This kind of candor was refreshing enough in a genre often dominated by flashy feats of guitar wizardry, but felt doubly so coming from her. Many girls and young women read a subtext into what she was saying. They heard, "Look, I did this, and so can you," and followed her lead.

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Bench's presence is very much felt on every track of Those Once Loyal, given the album's bass-heavy mix, which is arguably the best, clearest production they'd ever had (courtesy of Andy Faulkner). "Entrenched" deserves extra recognition, though — firstly because the song itself is an anomaly; instead of following the guitars to "heavy-ing" them up, Bench takes some extra space to stretch her legs, adding depth and dynamism while showboating just the tiniest bit. Then, that the song ends in the immortal lines, "In a world of compromise / Some don't" is the sort of poetic justice that death metal often lacks.

If there's a better epitaph for the band and for Bench's tenure therein, only the gods of war themselves could chisel it.