It’s hard to believe the origins of Zeal & Ardor are steeped in a surprising, wildly racist joke of sorts. Manuel Gagneux captivated experimental music fans with 2016’s self-released Devil is Fine, a blend of blues, folk, black metal and some electronic accouterments. I, like many others, loved the ideas that were on display. When the music garnered more attention and praise than I’m sure Gagneux ever planned for, he decided to move forward. He secured five other musicians to flesh the group out into a live performing entity as well as make more music. Is Zeal & Ardor a flash in the pan or a monolith to genre-straddling artistry? Going off of their latest effort, Stranger Fruit, I’m leaning much more toward the latter.
Devil is Fine was great, but definitely not perfect. I like what it did, but it wasn’t hard to see past the surface to a slightly shallow piece in need of much fleshing out. The concept, while relatively fresh, was still marred by some immaturity. Thankfully for us, and the band, Stranger Fruit shows what happens when you take a good proof-of-concept and bring it to production. This album is bolder, more soulful, catchier, more infectious, and just plain better than the previous one. This was achieved mostly by simply elongating various elements of their established sound to new heights while still staying cozy among the fires of hell where the band was forged. The low points are nearly non-existent, and the high points are more plentiful and satisfying.
I love metal and heavy music in general, but what I was really looking forward to was how the band would handle the lighter elements of their sound here. To put it lightly: they’re the star of the show, and don’t disappoint in the slightest. My hair stands on end at multiple parts of this album. Gagneux’s blues-rooted, smoothly sung candor during the verses of “Servants” is mighty compelling, manifesting a physical response in the form of foot taps. “You Ain’t Coming Back”, while backed by the fretboard tickling reminiscent of a building post-rock crescendo, the deeply soulful vocals are front and center. There’s a harmonization that kicks in after the first chorus that brings an unprecedented warmth, especially when the guitar fully drops out on the back half of the second verse. It’s spellbinding.
I can’t not talk about the heavy segments of this album, of which many are well-executed. Black metal became a canvas for Gagneux to draw and build upon on Zeal & Ardor‘s debut, but here we see a much more multifaceted take on the heavy elements. Just listen to “Fire of Motion”. It’s appropriately titled as it has fiery segments of more traditionally informed metal than kvlt Emperor worship. Gagneux’s harsh vocals are absolutely ferocious. The shrill shrieks remind of Freddy Lim’s (ChthoniC) legendarily powerful vocals. Don’t worry, black metal enthusiasts; “We Can’t Be Found” morphs from a folk guitar driven anthem to a black metal shredder complete with tremolo picking in an instant. The blast beat jackhammering of “Waste” will also please as it weaves in between post-metal influences and blues vocals. If you want some fun, check out “Row Row”, which is a bouncy blues ballad with a hand-clapped rhythm one second and a screeching metal bender the next. The pre-chorus refrain is a defiant chant: ‘We are the last of the legion/The last of the bastion/We are the best of the bastards/And slave to none!‘.
I admit I wasn’t a fan of the instrumental interludes on Devil is Fine. They were by far the weakest element of the album, detracting from what made it great. While Stranger Fruit has its share of these moments, they fare a lot better. “The Hermit” is eerie with deep, almost funereal bellows in the foreground as the sounds of various fauna provide points of articulation in the mix. It sounds like floating down a narrow river flanked by thick brush, fog covering the ground. If you did like the interludes on Devil is Fine, then “The Fool” and “Solve” are for you. They are both synth-heavy pieces that sounds like it was made partly with a Sega Genesis sound chip with its tinny and buzzy tones. They’re probably the odd ones out in terms of cohesion with the album’s overall sound and I think they sound too similar to each other to justify both songs in the tracklist, but it could be a lot worse. This is the little criticism I could levy against this album.
The fact of the matter is, Devil is Fine was a nice proof-of-concept that catapulted Gagneux to the forefront of avant-garde music. Stranger Fruit shows that the beloved Zeal & Ardor debut was mere child’s play in comparison. The band’s sophomore effort is anything but a slump, showing that there’s a lot more to explore at the intersection of soul and Satan. There are so many more treats to be unearthed within this album’s tracklist that couldn’t be covered here. You will likely not hear another album so satisfyingly contradictory, anachronistically pleasing, or aesthetically challenging this year, or at least one done this well. This music is stranger fruit, indeed, but it’s a fruit I would gladly – defiantly – indulge in over and over.
Notable Tracks: “Servants”; “Fire of Motion”; “Row Row”; “You Ain’t Coming Back”
FFO: uhh… Cobalt, Blut Aus Nord, Thy Catafalque?