Cult hero status can be a blessing and a curse. Having spent the last eight years steadily cultivating their reputation as one of the metal underground’s most compelling and idiosyncratic new acts, via two acclaimed EPs and live shows that have already become the stuff of legend, Switzerland’s Bölzer are about to release their first full album with an insane amount of expectation bearing down on them.
Whether you regard them as wildly creative musical messiahs or hapless victims of gormless hipster hype, this band are a massive deal right now and Hero – that title, a reassuringly fearless statement in itself – is already one of the most important and fervently anticipated metal albums of 2016. Speaking with vocalist/guitarist Okoi ‘KzR’ Jones, it’s obvious that he views his band’s rise to prominence with some bemusement, but also that he understands why the next move he and percussive foil Fabian ‘HzR’ Wyrsch make will be placed under immense scrutiny. When the band premiered new song I Am III online in August, even this newly anointed standard bearer for the underground ethos was tempted to check out the response.
“Yeah, I’d be a liar to say that I didn’t look!” he grins. “It’s not fundamentally important to me because I’m very happy with the record, but it’s interesting to see what people thought about it on the positive end of the spectrum. I knew there’d be a lot of people who would have their feathers ruffled, and that’s cool. I’m sure there are people that will think, because of the new material’s production and presentation, that we’ve adhered to some kind of codex and we’re trying to appeal to a broader audience, but all I can say is that the way it’s come out is just the way we want it to be. Everything we do is instinctive. I’m quite happy that there are negative reactions and we can weed out those that I don’t necessarily want to play music for, and that’s fine.”
In contrast to Bölzer’s almost accidental mystique, Okoi himself is a garrulous, articulate soul who clearly possesses enough self-belief and conviction to render the petulant scowling of an entitled, anonymous few entirely redundant. Ironically, however, it is that exact same sense of haughty disinterest in hostile online babble and their accompanying refusal to toe the music industry game that has enabled the duo to become one of the most in-demand bands the underground’s ever produced. Offers from big labels have been many and varied, but Okoi couldn’t be less interested.
“That already happened two years ago. We had offers from everyone but we weren’t interested then and we’re not now,” he smiles. “That’s not going to change. It was uplifting to make an agreement with Iron Bonehead again for this new record, doing it with Patrick [Kremer, label boss], doing everything on our terms and seeing how far we can take it as a trio. His label is growing, we’re very proud to be a part of that and he’s obviously very proud of the whole thing, too. Obviously we could probably sell more CDs in HMV on a so-called big label, but that doesn’t mean much to me.”
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It’s a noble sentiment, but one that’s easy to say and far harder to implement in a meaningful way. But unlike many, less thoughtful bands that noisily scorn the mainstream for credibility points, Bölzer’s disregard for being assimilated into the metal mainstream has simply enabled the band and their music to remain special in the eyes and ears of those that have been converted thus far. Hero’s vivid widescreen enormity will doubtless alienate a few purists but for anyone who has been entranced by its creators’ inspirational otherness up to this point, it lives up to expectations and then some. While Okoi plainly doesn’t crave anyone’s approval, he clearly cares a great deal about meeting his own exacting standards.
“When you’re listening to a new release from a band that you love, and you can hear that the fire hasn’t died out yet or it’s gotten even stronger, that’s what you hope for,” says Okoi. “The production’s improved massively and it sounds big, because I want big! I don’t want it to be susceptible to my personal critique. I want it to be as good as I want it to be.”
Fans speak in hushed tones about the sheer power and hugeness of Bölzer’s live sound, and Okoi concedes that the biggest challenge they faced while recording Hero was to somehow encapsulate the intensity of their flesh-and-blood performances within the inevitably restrictive studio environment.
“We do think we’re a live band, so trying to transpose that to the studio can be very, very difficult,” he states. “When we play, we breathe with the music. It’s a big emanation process and there’s an atmosphere of elevation in the room if everything is functioning the way it should be. There’s energy in the air, there’s the noise and the crowd and then this cyclical exchange happens. In the studio it’s interesting to find that sweet spot where everything does function correctly and yet it still sounds good on an audio nerd’s terms. I think we’ve achieved a mixture of both.”
In the unlikely event that Hero receives a less than rapturous reception, it will be the enhanced production values and the songs’ imperious spaciousness that draw most of the fire. Although widely perceived as part of the black and death metal underground, what Bölzer are doing stands purposefully apart from any such association. The new album’s artwork is brighter and cheerier than the dense, dark images used on the band’s two celebrated EPs, and while extreme metal can hardly avoid embracing the dark, Hero’s most exhilarating moments are truly, startlingly uplifting. Okoi admits that his songs exist “in the pocket of that underground metal scene” but he is also adamant that anyone attributing well-worn blackened tropes like nihilism and hatred to Bölzer’s music are barking up the wrong petrified tree.
“For me, our music was always very light-flooded, light-orientated and uplifting. There’s no negativity about our sound whatsoever, in my eyes,” he shrugs. “I guess some of it is dark, but it’s not overbearingly dark or negative. We wanted to do something very refreshing and courageous. Hero is the one man, standing alone, the challenger. But it’s also an ideal, to be dreamed about or wished for, for a new age. It’s about reclaiming individuality in the modern sphere, because I think a lot of that has been lost.”
Reluctant cult heroes they may be, but Bölzer are making music that bristles with originality, both in terms of sound and the enlightened ethos that underpins it. There is no self-conscious grimness or necro-friendly posturing here, just a heartfelt belief in the power of heavy music and the immortal spirit of independence. Guess what? Bölzer are an underground band you can trust.
“We’re large-hearted guys, actually. We’re kind people. I’m not into any malicious bullshit or pseudo-Satanic rubbish. I have my dark and aggressive side, of course, but what I want to represent in the music is definitely something empowering, for ourselves first and foremost, and for anyone who wants to listen to it. I want it to be a positive force.”
HERO IS RELEASED ON NOVEMBER 25 VIA IRON BONEHEAD