Hetman – Black Heart Review

The bucket of solo black metal(-adjacent) projects is seemingly bottomless. Hetman were an unknown quantity to me until now. The solo project from Cerberus of equally underground black/death project Demonium, with ex-Demonium member Storm providing session drums, Hetman’s black metal de choix is noteworthy in at least one respect. Rather than opting for an atmospheric, raw, or electronica-fused approach, they favor the folky variety. Vocals range from jagged howls to soft cleans, and most styles in between. Variously electronic and acoustic guitars croon, riff, and pluck their way through mellow, mournful, and musing melodies. And drums beat doomy, jaunty, and blistering rhythms. I can’t speak Ukrainian, but the blurb and cover indicate that this is a cry in protest of nature’s destruction at human hands, and call for its protection—something I greatly sympathize with. But how well does it fare musically, language barrier aside?

Black Heart is, in many ways, a simple record, which brings benefits as well as pitfalls. Songs mostly follow a straightforward structure, defined by choruses and unadorned melodies. Sometimes, simplicity comes in an effective form, making these melodies catchy (“Black Heart”) or emotionally-charged (“Wings,” “Empty Abyss”). Sometimes, however, it is cashed out in a way that makes even relatively short songs, or passages within songs, drag longer than their runtimes would suggest. But Hetman also comes across as totally unpretentious in this surface-level simplicity and the stripped-back leaning that characterizes the second half of the record in particular. This, and the audible passion in the vocals, make Black Heart quite unavoidably endearing, however far your mileage varies with the music itself.

At its best moments, Black Heart is either evocative or enjoyably lively. Hetman’s use of plaintive, clean plucking and soft, rasping cleans at times effectively conveys melancholic moods. Sometimes because it escalates to tremolo-led varieties of the refrain, accompanied by pounding, rolling percussion (“Empty Abyss,” “Dawn Eyes of Spring Night”). Others because they dominate the track with forlorn gravitas (“Value,” “White Threads, Black Needles.”) When the folk-influence comes in the form of spirited rhythms and trilling guitars (“Rusty Nail,” “Thirteen,” “Empty Abyss”) the music takes on an authentic animation that can be quite infectious. The insertion of bird, rain, and tree-cutting samples are sparse enough not to feel overdone, whilst also adding a touch of theme-heavy atmosphere. One does get the impression that Black Heart is music written from the heart (black or otherwise). And these emotionally-driven melodies and energies bear that out.

However, music needs more than heart, and there are some issues with Black Heart that one can’t ignore. Outside of the noted high points, the material does feel stale, and dull. This might be remedial with a little trimming, condensing the delicate strums and surging refrains. And speaking of editing, something very strange happens at the end of “Breathe.” In the middle of the chorus, on an unfinished note, the song ends; so abruptly that it must have been an accident. If it was intentional, then it’s one of the most perplexing musical decisions ever conceived. Because the split-second switch from energetic gallop to the stripped-back strumming of “Out of Shame, Out of Anger” is aggressively jarring. The quality of singing also varies substantially, Cerberus pulling off harsh growls and gentle singing pretty well, but the sing-shout wailing that characterizes many choruses not so much.

I’ve intimated that Hetman is clearly passionate about their craft, and its themes. Black Heart is evidence of this, and is most certainly not a bad album. When purpose and composition really resonate in beautiful or entertaining ways, this album shines. There just isn’t quite enough memorability or immediacy for the force of their intentions to be realized.

Rating: Mixed
DR: 6 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Self-Released
Websites: hetman.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/hetmanonemanband
Releases Worldwide: December 9th, 2022

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