Release Date: 8th June 2018
Label: MKVA Records
Genre: Avant-garde Metal
Black metal and blues? Of course, that isn’t going to work. It sounds like someone has spun a roulette wheel of music genres in order to come up with a new hybrid. In fact, that isn’t too far off how the project known as Zeal & Ardor began. Posting to 4Chan, brains behind the band Manuel Gagneux would ask users to suggest two contrasting genres to meld and create a composition within half an hour. After being prompted with ‘black metal’ and ‘n****r music’, Zeal & Ardor came to life.
Despite the genesis of the band being attributed to a stranger posting on the internet, Gagneux has stated the ethos of the band as ‘what if American slaves had embraced Satan instead of Jesus?’. The ensuing result is metal compositions dancing with the devil and the occult, with the vocals declared in a chain gang format. With Zeal & Ardor’s debut album Devil Is Fine demonstrating Gagneux’s vision (he wrote, performed, recorded and produced everything himself), the metal community and beyond was shaken by this ambitious genre-bending. Finding its way into many end of year lists in 2017, audiences were curious as to what satanic offering will be conjured next.
Just over a year after the re-release of Devil Is Fine, Stranger Fruit was shared with the world. Expanding the recording line-up to include a live drummer (who would also become a member of the live show), Zeal & Ardor became a fully-fledged band, and no longer a bedroom project. With mixing and mastering handled by studio heavyweights Kurt Ballou and Alan Douches respectively, the lo-fi production of the debut release no longer hindered the vast instrumentation and layering of the band’s compositions. Whether it be the simplistic blues guitar stylings borrowed from Robert Johnson – one of Satan’s most notorious clients – or the freezing tremolo picking imported from Norway, the various disparate elements blend together seamlessly.
Starting with an intro track that is an enjoyable song in itself, we instantly get a taste of the variety of musical tools on display. Blues guitar, black metal, spiritual vocals. There’s even a percussive drive provided by the sound of chopping wood, as if this truly were the music performed by slaves. Gagneux makes a point to keep the image of slavery present throughout the album. The album’s title is a reference to the Billie Holiday song ‘Strange Fruit’, which itself was written by Abel Meeropol in the 1930s, and served as a protest to racism (the ‘strange fruit’ in question refers to the lynching of black people that was widespread in America). The song ‘Don’t You Dare’, featuring the refrain ‘don’t you dare look away, boy’ is initially sinister in its softly spoken delivery, evoking the image of a slave driver threatening his slave, and as the song intensifies, Gagneux is bellowing the command with rage. ‘Row Row’ is an up-tempo track starting with vocals and handclaps, mirroring the only instrumentation available to slaves, but the singalong nature of the song is darkened by the opening line ‘row row, you’re never gonna go’.
Just as present, however, is biblical imagery, particularly that of the Devil. While Stranger Fruit evokes the image of lynching, it could also be interpreted as the temptation offered to Eve in the Garden of Eden. With lines such as ‘no grace, say the beast’s own name/ left hand up by the end of the day’ found on ‘Servants’, it is clear that Gagneux is entertaining the idea of accepting the devil as one’s lord. Latin chants as if performed by monks are scattered across the album, which, while not explicitly satanic, has taken on a darker interpretation due to the work of countless horror films. In fact, penultimate track ‘Coagula’ features the words ‘solve coagula’ repeated relentlessly as if summoning a demon. The words themselves appear on the arms of the Baphomet, and translate roughly as ‘solution and coagulation’, to break down and reform. This is often interpreted as a form of alchemy (an ungodly act in itself), or as a challenge to Christianity.
Lyrics aside, the music itself is much more ambitious than the ‘black and blues’ tagline it has been given. Influence from Tom Waits can be heard on some of the album’s weirder tracks, nu metal guitar riffing can be heard during the outro of ‘We Can’t Be Found’ and the opening to ‘Fire Of Motion’ (try and convince yourself that isn’t Wes Borland playing), and ‘Row Row’ features a breakdown riff that wouldn’t be out of place on a Trivium record. The opening vocal hook to ‘You Ain’t Coming Back’ evokes a gospel/R&B sound, despite the dispiriting lyrical content. Even some of the interlude tracks try to subvert convention. Early instrumental track ‘The Hermit’ ostensibly creates a calming, ethereal soundscape with vocal oohs and synth pads, as if wandering through the woods of Lothlórien in Middle Earth, but a closer inspection of the harmony results in quite an unsettling response due to the strange and unconventional choice of chords.
It is hard to pick a standout moment for this record. All the tracks are very immediate, and while enjoyment would certainly improve with further listens, there aren’t any ‘difficult’ tracks that require more attention. The riffs are incredibly strong and the merging of genres is so natural it almost happens without one noticing. Most importantly, Stranger Fruit is full of hooks. For all the achievements and feats of songwriting the metal scene has created, it is a genre that is lacking in hooks, be they vocals, guitar riffs, instrumental tags, etc. Occasionally a band like Slipknot will come along and demonstrate it can be done on some of their more radio-friendly singles, but Zeal & Ardor have created an album with hooks in abundance. Some metal purists may dismiss a hook as a pop technique that ‘real’ musicians shouldn’t rely on, but why would you not utilise a songwriting tool that converts a listener to a fan before the first song has even finished? Despite this pop sensibility to songwriting, the album has much stronger metal elements than Devil Is Fine, fully utilising screams as a method of delivering vocals rather than just to accent the start of the metal section of a song, and realising there is more to extreme metal than tremolo picking and blast beats. With their second record, Zeal & Ardor have evolved from a successful mashup of genres into one of the most inventive metal bands around today. If the legend goes that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to play the blues, who knows what they’ll say about Zeal & Ardor in years to come.
Recommended Track: We Can’t Be Found