Bölzer’s debut full-length album ‘Hero’ is finally here. It’s a testament to the quality of their music that they have succeeded in setting the metal underground on fire with less than an hour’s musical material to their name. Because Bölzer has set such a high standard with their music so far, and the media buzz around the band, there’s an enormous amount of pressure on the band for Hero to live up to everyone’s expectations. And in most respects, Hero delivers the goods.
It’s pretty difficult to describe Bölzer’s unique sound, particularly given its evolution on Hero. But they’re broadly a death metal band with some black metal leanings and sludge metal weight, with a big emphasis on heavy riffs and suffocating, esoteric atmospheres and themes. One of the most significant changes to the Bölzer formula is the inclusion of clean vocals, which now play a central role. This change is certain to be very divisive, but for the most part they work well without feeling tacked on. Jones’ voice has a Mastodon-ish quality to it, and ‘The Archer’ and the title track benefit from his deep, mournful tones. In fact the most disappointing change in the vocal department is the total lack of the guttural growls that dominated their previous releases. Jones instead opts for a hoarse howl, and while it works perfectly well, the heavier sections on Hero really are missing that extra grit that his growls could have provided.
The other major change to their sound is a move away from their very heavy, riff-centric approach to songwriting. The songs here are more melodic, but also generally longer and less immediately gratifying. Everyone remembers the moment when they heard the opening riff on ‘Entranced by the Wolfshook’ for the first time, and unfortunately there aren’t any songs with such strong openings here. But such a criticism might miss the point of what Bölzer are aiming for here, which is a bit of a slow-burner. There really is a great amount of depth to this album, details and melodies easily missed on a cursory listen. Songs like ‘Phosphor’ and ‘I Am III’, despite containing all the ferocity and groove you’d expect from a Bölzer song, take their time to reach their destination.
Their sound sounds more colossal than ever thanks to a sterling production job, despite remaining a mere duo. The melancholy guitar chords of ‘The Archer’s chorus combined with the sombre vocals and relentless drum-march packs a surprisingly emotional punch. The title track crushes with a foot-stomping chorus and bruising Leviathan-era Mastodon grooves, as well as a ferocious black metal edge. Later, ‘Spiritual Athleticism’ takes this even further. its thunderous, sinister riffs referencing their 2013 EP ‘Aura’, while dissonant chords ring out behind tormented howls.
Unfortunately, the album ends with probably the weakest track on here, ‘Chlorophillia’. While it starts off confidently, with some creative drum-work acting as the necessary counter-weight to the shimmering, melodic guitar chords. Unfortunately, Okoi’s vocals on the chorus just don’t convince like they do elsewhere. They’re not exactly off-key, but there isn’t enough power behind them to make the operatic style work. Which is a shame, because the rest of the song is full of great ideas.
Hero is not the album many Bölzer fans were expecting, or even hoping for. It’s an altogether different beast to Aura or Soma. The inclusion and prevalence of clean vocals, as well as the less riff-centric approach are certainly likely to alienate many. But despite its flaws (and it does have them), Hero is a tremendously ambitious and creative album, and nothing else out there sounds like it. While it’s not as immediately gratifying, Hero works best considered holistically, and from that perspective it’s a great album. While not everything works on Hero, it’s certainly one of my favourite albums of the year.