Switzerland’s Bölzer created sizable tremors in the underground in 2013 upon the release of their stunning Aura EP. I got caught up in the swell, impressed by their atmospheric and innovative blackened death formula, laced with memorable hooks and otherworldly vibes. They backed up Aura with the solid though somewhat disappointing Soma EP, featuring less gripping songwriting and a flat production job. Aside from my mixed feelings about Soma, Bölzer still struck me as a band with the potential to produce something special and go some way towards living up to the unreasonable hype and expectations placed upon them. Since the release of Soma Bölzer has kept a relatively low profile, choosing to hunker down and focus on writing a full-length platter. Well here we are, amid a sea of inflated expectations and an ample serving of skepticism, the Swiss lads return with Hero, an LP sure to create plenty of debate and divide opinions.
Hero tweaks without drastically messing with Bölzer’s established sound, with the band still reliant on strange and expansive guitar melodies swirling through a cavernous swarm of blackened death, sprinkled with sludgy post-metal atmospherics. Opening intro “Urdr” certainly doesn’t kick things off with a bang, one of three questionable interludes eating a fortunately short amount of the album’s run time. Luckily the first interlude features minimalist sound effects rather than the ill-conceived and frankly comical chanting of “Decima” or the terrible vocal atrocities closing the final 42 seconds of closer “Atropos.” Bölzer cut loose properly on “The Archer,” striding into a confident blackened gallop that never really takes off. The song has its solid moments but drags on repetitiously, making its six-minute length sound flabbier than the time capsule suggests. When Bölzer hit the accelerator there are some ripping moments pleasing to the ear, especially when coupled with unhinged vocals, dynamic twists and warped harmonies. It just doesn’t occur often enough.
Perhaps the most controversial move from the band comes in the shift in vocal tact and increased addition of a cleaner vocal style. Vocalist/guitarist KzR previously dabbled with a distant, eerie clean howl, including on their most lauded song, “Entranced by the Wolfshook.” Here his vocal dynamics are all askew. While his dominant mid-range raspy growls are solid, there’s less of the deeper lows present and the very debatable clean styles leave a lot to be desired. At their best, they retain the charm of Mastodon’s unrefined cleaner bellows, while at their least appealing KzR sounds like a creatively confused and not particularly talented ’80s goth singer. I’ll admit the morose vocal melody on “Hero” has grown on me, helped by the song’s other surrounding strengths, elsewhere, on ‘The Archer,” “Spiritual Athleticism” and “Chlorophyllia” they sit far more awkwardly. Though my own tolerance for this jarring style has improved, I can see these vocal choices proving a deal breaker for some listeners. Beyond the vocal issues, Hero generally lacks the dynamics and inventively catchy songwriting defining their earlier work, coming across as blander and less exciting, smacking of a band struggling to recapture the lightning in a bottle impact of Aura.
Well structured, powerful and intense, “Phosphor” is probably Hero’s strongest cut. Mostly instrumental, aside from some sparse and effective tortured growls, the song cuts an impressive swathe of shimmery discord, eerie melody, and sustained metallic intensity, expertly built and paced throughout, before inexplicably trailing off into an overly long period of whispery ambiance. “I am III” is the only other track to reach its full potential as the album’s sprawling centerpiece, displaying far more firepower and inspirational writing than much of the remaining material is able to consistently muster. Overall, each song features noteworthy moments, only to be dulled by negative elements, serving to compound the frustrations of the album. Hero falls victim to bouts of repetition, clunky structuring and a concerning shortage of genuine riffs or hooks to claw you in. Bereft of decent dynamics, the sterile production falls flat as well, proving a little too shiny and unremarkable, sitting at odds with the band’s raw delivery.
Although it’s been a case of diminishing returns since Aura, I’m not ready to give up on Bölzer long-term. They have a unique sound and the chops and ambition to create something special again, assuming they can realign the trajectory and get back to the tighter writing and innovative sound of their earlier releases. Until then, Hero falls short of the mark and despite some strong points is unable to overcome its significant deficiencies and land a knockout blow.