Bart M. : For those who have not been paying attention the last couple of months: Zeal & Ardor is the project of Swiss American Manuel Gagneux. After the release of his debut album 'Devil Is Fine', on which we hear orthodox, American slave music combined with a kind of black metal, various people took notice of this, I would almost say experiment, and among other things this afforded Manuel a spot on the Roadburn 2017 bill. A spot in the by artists favored hall: The Patronaat. Even though Zeal & Ardor would appear to be the odd man out on a festival like that, it is actually quite logical to invite them if you think about it. Roadburn is very progressive and allows many forms of heavy music a platform. The performance was a huge success, even though there was a power outage twice, as if the devil himself was screwing around with it - and during the first of these outages the audience as one began singing along to 'Devil Is Fine'.
What is the connection between slavery and black metal? Quite simple: black metal has always been a protest against Christianity and especially the way it was forced upon the Scandinavians, just the way as it was later forced upon the black slaves that lived in America. Because they were forced to adhere to the rules of this religion it became very interesting to do the exact opposite of what was demanded of them: getting involved with the devil, who is then no longer seen as the tyrant of all tyrants, but much more as a symbol of freedom. Thus, the combination that Zeal & Ardor presents us here is really not very far-fetched.
So what has changed since 'Devil Is Fine' (2016)? The biggest change is that Zeal & Ardor is no longer a one man project but has now become a full-fledged band. And that is good news because this has made the music develop in a major way since the debut and what we are hearing on the new album, 'Stranger Fruit', is that the combination of gospel and black metal is now so refined that the result feels very, very natural. Occasionally we can hear the addition of post metal influences and all of this put together I think we can safely put this music in the avant-garde metal section. It is this kind of development that show that there is still a whole lot of very bright future in the world of heavy music. It remains a case of seeking boundaries, combining different styles and more experimentation, and of times this results in catastrophy, but Zeal & Ardor shows that every once in a while the result is stunning. 'Stranger Fruit' continues along the lines of 'Devil Is Fine', but it brings along a lot more depth to the theme, both lyrically and musically.
But what is it that we are hearing? For those who have stuck with me so far, you will probably have got the idea now. The intro gives away a lot of what to expect by singing and shouting a few things in a familiar gospel voice, as, in the background, we hear a kind of chopping noise that leaves a lot up to the imagination. Delicious and gruesome, especially when you think about that later on on this record there is talk of taking bodies down and washing clothes until the creek sees red. This continues into a wave of black metal that at the same time puts you at ease but also manages to freak you out. After this the mood has been set and we continue to stumble into one dark adventure after another. All the way through we hear convincing and devout vocals, ranging from ice cold screams to gospel choirs to a clear and decisive voice. A lot of variation and each of those has a distinct use in the story that is being told. Sometimes one of the musical styles (the aforementioned, but also electronics) takes a step back to let one of the others become more evident, but this is always in balance. To be honest I find that unnecessary to say because this is no longer just a combination of styles, this has become its very own thing. 'Devil Is Fine' was remarkable in the genre, but 'Stranger Fruit' is obviously a distinct landmark in the perpetual evolution of metal.