On paper, Zeal & Ardor’s mixture of black metal and delta blues/soul has no earthly place working, let alone being so widely accepted. Put simply, there’s a reason it’s never been tried before. The African American spirituals, or more crudely “slave songs”, that head honcho Manuel Gagneux draws inspiration from are rightly regarded by many as sacred, protected with an emotional fervour born of historic scars that still resonate today. Perhaps not so coincidentally, this religious dedication is not dissimilar to the way many true kvlt black metal fans regard their own musical heritage, so if nothing else, I guess the name is apt. However, to distill the work of Zeal & Ardor to a single black-metal-meets-gospel headline is to demean both genres, and dismiss much more.
Whereas Gagneux’s debut, Devil Is Fine, was an often jarring experience, smashing chain gang chants, black metal squalls, electronic beat-downs and satanism together to form an angular, jagged rabble, Stranger Fruit smooths the lines, drawing these dysfunctional friends together to form a unified gang. Lessons learned on the road and the recruitment of a full band give the music legs that never existed before, allowing Gagneux to curb his lurches into the unknown and play the whole field. Having created his own genre, and proved it can work, he now has free reign to see where this music can go, and like a toddler with a fire hose, it goes everywhere.
Tracks like Fire of Motion have a real Digging The Grave era Faith No More sense about them, while Built on Ashes could be covered by Sam Smith or James Bay with no one batting an eyelid. Slayer, John Lee Hooker and Quicksand raise their heads on the punishingly catchy We Can’t Be Found, yet the quite astonishing You Ain’t Coming Back sounds like Lana Del Rey being violently possessed by the spirit of Hunter S Thompson. In fact, the band are arguably at their least powerful when they go hard on the black metal, Waste for example offering astonishingly little compared to the likes of Gravedigger’s Chant or Row Row, which soar on chanted vocals bigger and bolder than anything you’ll hear this year, and my god those choruses. So simple, yet so effective, haunting and so deep under your skin you’ll think they were somehow made of genuine human bones. An incredibly moving and affecting piece of work, Stranger Fruit is the kind of album that vinyl collections demand to be started with, and will turn Zeal & Ardor convert into devotees, and newcomers into quivering, cowled acolytes.
Stranger Fruit is available 8 June via MVKA