[Cover artwork by Flog Diver | Illustration & Design]
From the perspective of an American fan, one of the true benefits of enduring these many years and still holding true to rabid fan status after growing up alongside metal throughout the 80s is finally getting an opportunity to pick through classics (both notable and unsung) from other corners of the globe that rarely had the fortune of landing in US record bins 30-plus years ago. The French scene in particular provided a wealth of 80’s acts that drew similar lines compared to the luminaries of the day, pulling inspiration from hard rock and punk that resulted in stacks of punchy rowdiness that made it clear that romance, fashion, and wine were far from the only thing the country was well versed in. But yes, apart from the rare Sortilège album or French metal by way of Quebec—Voivod and DBC, for example—your tape-trading network from three decades ago would have required significant reach to reap the full benefits of what was happening in the French scene throughout the 80s.
Compare that to today when all you really need in order to experience music from virtually every nook of the Earth is a decent internet connection and a thirst for exploration. That’s one of the clearest benefits of being a fan in the modern age, and it’s something that hits all the more dramatically when a record like Le Dernier rempart suddenly glides across the desk. Had this record been released during an era when metal of this style was most prevalent—the mid-80s—the likelihood of a random headbanger this far west of the Prime Meridian actually getting to experience it in real time would have been slim to none. And that’s despite the best efforts of bands from yesteryear doing whatever was deemed necessary to tempt the western market, like the aforementioned Sortilège, who re-recorded their first two albums with English lyrics in hopes of widening the net.
Label: Gates Of Hell Records.
Point of fact: Herzel doesn’t actually sound too much like a number of the classic French metal bands more of us are now acquainted with from the 80s. I mean, sure, it’s a stone’s throw away from some of the more intrepid material that cropped up, but there’s a reason Herzel cites the early US power scene that wasn’t afraid to push into progressive territories that pre-dated what we’ve come to know as “prog metal.” Similar to bands such as Warlord, Virgin Steele, Heir Apparent, and the earliest interpretation of Queensrÿche, Herzel blends just the perfect amount of adventurousness into the melodic metal formula. Their approach is a touch more raw, though, which is something that’s absolutely worked to their advantage in a similar way that Canada’s Sacred Blade did back in ’86 with the release of Of the Sun + Moon.
As hoped, the record leans heavy on amiable melody front-to-back, but it never dips too far into anything that feels excessively bouncy or cheerful. The Celtic roots have a lot to do with that warmth and geniality, as Herzel does a wonderful job of either featuring it front and center—the brief interlude title track, for example: one of two songs that feature the notably boisterous double-reeded bombard—or shading it behind the overall melody.
As demonstrated by the opening “Maîtres de l’océan,” the guitars are always up to something melodic without beating you over the head with endless noodling. Not that Kévin Le Vern and Gurvan Lardeux are opposed to soloing, mind you—the same cut features the longest lead exchange of the album during its final 2 minutes, it’s just that the approach here relies on “melodic bursts” more so than it does bottomless jamming, with the rest of the time allocated to loads of creative riffing supplemented by a terrifically active bass. Actually, that particular component requires a little more attention: Bassist Mordiern Le Dissez is a total freak on the frets cover to cover on this record, with moments that bring to mind Steve Harris as an influence just as much as they do Mel Schacher and his penchant for slapping out something that really boinks.
When Herzel fully goes for the throat—“La flamme” and “L’épée des dieux” in particular—the energy level and extra bit of rawness hanging off the riffs give the mood a notably satisfying “bygone NWOBHM band” vibe, not unlike what one might hear upon dusting off songs from Bleak House or Witchfynde. It also gives vocalist and founding member Thomas Guillesser a chance to spotlight his impressive wail, as well as providing opportunity for drummer Ion Philippon to rumble through some really fun and punchy fills. You remember fun, right? Le dernier rempart is indeed quite fun without leaving you feeling as if you just got slimed by a bunch of wacky Helloween b-sides.
At an unusually brief (for the modern age) 36 minutes, Le dernier rempart feels like it might benefit from adding perhaps one more song, but better to leave ‘em wanting more than overstaying your welcome. And honestly, the songs vary plenty in pacing and offer enough righteous twists and turns that hitting play again soon after the record ends will likely become a common occurrence. That replayability is vital, and tacking a backstory with the potential to inspire listeners to do a little additional research if they’re not already familiar with Brittany is gravy on the already tasty taters. Remember how you once daydreamed through history class and suddenly became interested in Alexander the Great after Maiden threw him in your face? Heavy metal: Loudly inspiring us to learn and explore in ways that Mrs. Pinklebottom’s Social Studies class FAILED.
Bottom line: If you love adventurous and melodic traditional heavy metal with the added benefit of perhaps expanding your cultural perspective, Herzel’s wonderful Le dernier rempart is ready to win the day. And thanks to the wonders of the modern age, the album is a mere handful of clicks away. Take THAT, 1980s.