Entering the Underground #4: Herzel’s Debut Full-Length Shatters the Bastions of Heavy Metal
This week we will be talking about one of the most promising newer bands out of France, Herzel. Herzel are an epic heavy metal band that formed nearly a decade ago now, but until this year only had a single powerful demo out, 2015’s Unis dans la gloire. That one demo was strong enough to set the underground ablaze, and years of buzz prior to their new album had reached a boiling point by the time that Le dernier rempart was announced as a Gates of Hell Records release, finally releasing last week.
Six years is a hell of a long time to wait in between releases, and from the sounds of it, Herzel didn’t waste the time. Le dernier rempart is impeccably written and is a lot more personal than most heavy metal. Local folk melodies from Brittany, strong vocal lines sung in their native tongue, and an introspective approach set Herzel aside in a genre full of bands trying to make people bang their heads to death. That’s not to say that Herzel lacks riffs, but their approach is careful and studies hard at the altar of bands like Warlord and Crimson Glory more than towards the more balls-to-the-wall approach of many of their labelmates. This is the album for people who want something deeper from their heavy metal in a scene where this sound is largely dead.
It’s immediately noticeable from the first section on “Maîtres de l'océan” that Herzel’s core sound ignores the aggression that is often desired, and expected, from heavy metal. The trend continues throughout, and the core focus of the material is the interplay between the sensitive rhythm section of the band, absolutely massive guitar melodies, and Thomas Guillesser’s incredible vocals. Modern heavy metal has somewhat of a dearth of incredible vocalists that nail the most charismatic singers from the ‘80s, and it’s hard to find singers that hit a good in-between of trained and overly sanitized. Thomas soars through any such limitations with aplomb, and delightfully enough also avoids metal’s tendency towards higher-pitched vocals in this sort of somewhat-progressive music. He does this by attacking towards the intersection in range where a tenor and baritone meet instead, always with a smooth and confident delivery in his native French.
Despite each song being fairly long, with only five full tracks making up the album, the songwriting approach tends towards long, sometimes cyclical development rather than the riff-salad that’s often preferred by bands trying to make it through longer sections without losing fire. The guitars tend towards precise, bouncy playing that’s immediately uplifting, and it’s a rare section that lasts without one or both guitarists launching into a melody. Certain melodies and motifs repeat tastefully throughout each song, and via the bombarde (a double reeded Breton woodwind instrument) sections throughout the album to tie together ambitiously an album that is already an inherently ambitious take on heavy metal. The Breton folk influence is something that might be concerning to those not particularly interested in folk, but the influence is integrated extremely tastefully into the melodies particularly, and the bombarde sections add charm and dynamics rather than interludes to be merely sat through.
Though the six-strings and vocals certainly take the lion’s share of attention, the other guys in the band aren’t just sitting around. Mordiern Le Dissez plays as thick and dynamic of a bass as anyone in heavy metal, and is not satisfied to follow the guitars throughout the album; though the effect can be subtle without close attention, his playing is both unusually audible and an unusually large part of the sound of the album, which is refreshing in a genre that has so many guitarists-gone-bassist who don’t know how to play a harmony, a fill, or groove with the drums. The drumming itself is also excellent, and without drummer Ion Philippon’s varied and bombastic performance, the longer songs and ambitiously tied-together songs could not have succeeded.
All around, this is so far by a decent margin my favorite album that’s come out so far this year. Between the excellent musicianship that’s displayed all-around (certainly not a given in modern heavy metal in the same way that it was for so much classic material), the band’s ability to manipulate tension and dynamics to create intensely catchy but also classy songs, and just how personal and evocative the material is, it’s difficult for me to put down Le dernier rempart. Though the ‘80s are gone and this entire strain of heavy metal is mostly gone with them, I’m glad that bands like Herzel keep the flame alive, and that they do it so well.
There’s certainly more that could be said about the music here, but I’ll let the band do the talking. Read on for an interview with Herzel’s drummer, Ion Philippon.
Hey Ion! Thanks for doing this interview with Invisible Oranges! To start off, it’s been six years since your excellent Unis dans la gloire demo and your debut album is finally coming out in a few weeks. What made the timing right to unleash Le dernier rempart?
Hello Brandon, thanks for your invitation. Since we released the demo, we started composing new songs and playing gigs at the same time. It really took us 5 years to compose the songs because we are all very busy with our jobs, and a few of us also play in other bands. We also like to take the time to work on each song, and we keep on changing it until everyone is satisfied. When we finished the composition of the last song on the album, "L'Ultime Combat", we knew we had to record it; it was time. Fortunately for us, we were already in touch with Gates of Hell Records, so it all came together pretty fast. Recording and mixing the album took us a long time due to the pandemic and all the restrictions here in France: we recorded the drums in February 2020 and had to wait until July to record all the other stuff.
What was the recording process like?
We started by recording the drums at Novomax Studio in Quimper (our hometown) for three days during February 2020. We knew the studio well because it's the place where we used to rehearse. Then due to the pandemic, we waited until July to record the guitars, bass, vocals and the guest appearances for the album. The two guitarists of the band used to record music for other bands, so we did it ourselves; Gurvan recorded most of it and then mixed the album.
There are two guests on the album. Tony Riou did a little solo on the song "La flamme", he's a special man for us as he was the live guitarist for the band one year. It's our tribute to him as we feel he will always be a member of the band. And the other is Ronan Le Dissez, a professional musician who played bombarde on "Le Dernier Rempart" and "L'Ultime Combat", he's also the bassist's brother. The bombarde is a traditional Breton instrument that is really symbolic of the culture and sound of Celtic music in Bretagne.
Did you end up writing any extra songs that didn’t make it onto the album?
No, we finished composing the last song in December 2019, then we really felt that it was time to record it. We finished the composition process with the last piece of the trilogy, the final song of the album, "L'Ultime Combat". Unfortunately since recording it, the five of us haven't been able to rehearse together due to the restrictions in France. Hopefully we will be able to do it very soon, but for the moment we will wait for the album to be released on 19th March!
Was it difficult to rehearse and record without everyone in the room together?
We always rehearse all together, until the pandemic ... for the recording, as a drummer I would say it was pretty difficult for me as I did that before, I mean for an album. I chose to record the whole album with Gurvan playing the songs with me in the studio, since it was difficult for me to play alone. For the two guitarists, it was easier as they used to record stuff in their houses, they've already done that for the demo and other people or projects. The bass and vocals were recorded very closely after the guitars and then the two guests came in to do their part. As I said before, we're very fortunate to have Gurvan and Kévin in the band, they were all we needed to record and mix the album (except the drums).
What other bands are you guys in?
First of all, before Thomas came back from his studies in South America with the idea of creating Herzel, we have played together (not all of us) in different bands and knew each other for a long time. I've been playing with Kévin in a doom band called Peryton for some years and from time to time Thomas and Gurvan come to jam with us. I and Mordiern have been playing during two in a black punk band called Devilspit, Gurvan are currently playing in a rock band called Amarok, and Kévin has been playing in several bands around the town of Rennes. I also play Scottish drums in a traditional Breton band, we call it "Bagad '' here in Bretagne. It's pretty much the same as the Scottish pipe bands.
When did you initially get in touch with Enrico and Brigida for the release of the album?
It's a pretty cool and relevant story of how a little heavy metal band like us could meet and chat with a new label. I was at the Keep It True Festival with the singer Thomas in 2018; we were drinking beers with our good friend Luis Ruivo and talking about our new songs and he told us that he knew Enrico from Cruz Del Sur, and that he was here at the festival selling merch. He invited us to have a meeting with him—it was the first time I met Enrico, but I knew the label for some years and knew it could perfectly fit with our music. After that, we kept in touch with Enrico and later Brigida, and at the right moment we decided to sign a contract and officialize it.
How long did it take after meeting Enrico for an offer to materialize?
The first time we got a phone call to talk about it was in February 2019, just before we got on stage to play a gig with our friends of Tentation and the Belgium band Ostrogoth. Then, we only talked about the music and the composition for months until we had a recording deadline. We signed the contact for the release of the album on CD and LP in August 2020.
How has your experience working with them been?
Very good! As we are a very young band, we don't have experience in signing or reading contracts, so we asked the label a lot of questions and they were always very cool with us. We are still in close contact since the beginning of the adventure, so it's very easy to fix a bad situation quickly.
Did you have any offers for the full length from other labels?
Yes, since we released the demo in 2015 we received offers and messages asking if we were working on an album. We quickly stated that we needed to be closer to the end of the composition process before signing with any label. The offer from Gates of Hell arrived at the right moment, and for me, it was the best option for Herzel.
Unis dans la gloire was finally released on 7” last year by Messe Noire Productions. Was the intention always for the demo to make it to 7” at some point, or was it a happy coincidence that the length fit on one?
No it was not our intention. To be totally honest, back in 2014 we were composing Unis dans la gloire and Nominoe, the two songs of the demo. At this time, Olivier from Impious Desecration Records heard the song Nominoe from one of our rehearsals and contacted us to record a demo. From his suggestion, we recorded the demo and were very surprised by the feedback and how quickly it sold out. Since then we hadn't talked about a repress and in 2019, Messe Noire Productions and Olivier from Impious Desecration contacted us to repress the demo on 7". As we knew that the album would come quickly, we thought it was the right moment, and we also received a lot of requests from the fans to do a repress. We are really happy about it!
Though Unis dans la gloire was already very powerful and epic, the album takes it further by delving more into melody, expansive song structures, and personal touches. How did you decide on the direction you took the band?
Right after the demo, when we started composing new songs, we felt that we had to find the right process. We had some rehearsals where nothing advanced as it was basically everyone coming with new ideas and we'd try to do a song with all of it. Then, we took the time to talk and decided that it would be easier if the original riffs came from one brain and then we all did our arrangement to find the best sound with our own instrument. Thomas comes to the rehearsal with ideas first and then we start to jam until we find the best way to play each riff. And when we started working like that, we took a lot more pleasure in composing the songs. In a band it's always very difficult to find a perfect alchemy, because everyone has a different way to play or feel music, it's totally normal, but you have to find a way that you can all do, and all be happy to do it that way. Thomas also writes all the lyrics, so when he presents a new song that we will work on, he also presents the atmosphere he wants for it: he tells us the details about the story and why he chose it.
So would you say that your songwriting style and approach was more organic than planned?
We work a lot on each song to have the best result. We are especially focused on the transition between the riffs, and the number of times we play it. It's very important to have this feeling that the song flows naturally, but it needs a lot of trial and error for different versions of the song. And yes, I think our music sounds personal because we really took influences from our culture and the traditional music from Bretagne. It was really important for us to add these melodies in our songs and personally I think it's the essence of our band.
Do you think doing all your lyrics in French has had any impact on your success, for better or worse?
I think yes, it has a positive impact! The French Heavy Metal from the 80's still has a very strong influence on the actual scene. Bands like Sortilège or ADX have a very strong aura all around the world for Heavy Metal maniacs. But regardless, we never want to sing in English and won't ever. When Thomas writes the lyrics and imagines the vocal melodies he always did in French, since the beginning of the band.
What’s next for Herzel?
When the current situation permits it, we will start to compose new songs and prepare ourselves to play some gigs. We really can't wait to play at the warmup of the Keep It True Festival! For now, we don't talk about a future recording, I think we will wait to compose some songs and then think about it, EP or album, it may depend on the inspiration.
Do you have anything else you’d like to talk about or promote?
No, I don't think so, you had very interesting questions.
Le dernier rempart is out now.