Making the transition from demo or introductory EP to a full fledged debut album isn’t easy. We see it time and time again – bands put out a rough around the edges release with promise and then for one reason or another don’t quite live up to that promise. Luckily for us, that isn’t the case here. Herzel’s Unis dans la gloire demo is one of the precious few modern era metal demos that has stayed in my regular rotation for years and their recently released debut album Le dernier rempart is everything I hoped for in a follow-up.
Herzel are a traditional heavy metal band hailing from France. As with any band from France in this style, people are drawing immediate comparisons to local legends Sortilège, but I would caution away from that. There are no apparent similarities between them and Herzel aside from the fact that they’re countrymen and both are excellent in their own right. The closest comparison to my ears is US power metal legends Warlord. Herzel has the same sense of driving melody with a hint of a medieval flair, but rest assured that Herzel’s sound is entirely their own like with all great modern bands.
What makes Herzel such a strong band is that they avoid many of the common pitfalls that modern traditional heavy metal bands find themselves in. For starters, Le dernier rempart is a very cohesive and well thought out album. The songwriting is impeccable and Herzel clearly took their time to arrive at this result. They formed all the way back in 2013 and took two years before they would release their Unis dans la gloire demo. Then it took more than 6 years from the demo to finally arrive at Le dernier rempart. Again it’s clear to me that this isn’t some rushed affair – they took their time. This is further supported by the perfect 36 minute duration of the album. In my opinion, the perfect runtime for a record in this style is somewhere between 35 to 45 minutes. If you go under that, you run the risk of just not having enough material to make for a good listen. On the other hand, if you go above 45 minutes the album really starts to drag. There are of course exceptions to this, but by and far this rule of thumb holds true for my listening preferences.
It’s not just the runtime and song quality, but also the track listing that elevates Le dernier rempart. Where your typical album tends to falter by the time we get to the B side, Herzel do the exact opposite. Le dernier rempart opens strongly enough with a couple of great songs, but then we have a tasteful two minute interlude that gently guides us from the A side of the album to the B side where we’re immediately greeted by “Berceau de Cendre” – the album’s highlight and a masterclass in songwriting. The track has a slow build up before it bursts into a barrage of unforgettable melody after unforgettable melody. The lead guitar work is the shining star of the album and on full display here, but Herzel do a great job in the rhythm section both on this track as well as throughout the album. The drums drive forward the record and the bass, which is quite loud in the mix, has its own unique lines that compliment the incredible guitarwork. The excellent vocals are just the cherry on top.
Vocalist Thomas Guillesser really is one of the better vocalists I’ve heard in a long time. He doesn’t have a ridiculous range or impeccable technicals, but his voice is powerful, emotional, and still pleasant to listen to. This is more than welcome in a genre where an increasing number of vocalists just grate my ears to put it lightly. As you can probably tell from the album and song titles, Herzel have made the choice to sing and write in their native French. I laud them for this decision because as a result, the vocals are very natural and comfortable for me to listen to even without being fluent in French (sadly, my middle school education failed me here). Far too many bands make the mistake of singing in poor English instead of their native language. It admittedly can make for catchier music and I’m positive it sells better too, but nothing beats the comfort and fluidity of singing in your own native tongue.
Le dernier rempart is an album that I’ve been waiting to hear for years at this point, but I’m very glad to say that the wait has been well worth it. Herzel took their time to put together an excellent record that cuts right through all the noise and stands out on its own as a unique offering. Do yourself a favor and pick this one up for a listen if you haven’t already.
Favorite track: Berceau de Cendre