ZEAL & ARDOR - Stranger Fruits



Zeal & Ardor’s debut album, 2017’s ‘Devil is Fine’, was one of the most startling and original metal releases in years, if not decades. A high-concept piece depicting a group of African slaves who, rather than accepting the God of their captors instead, found the Devil. It was equal parts bonkers and brilliant, the blending of gospel, blues and extreme metal was unique and unprecedented. The real trick, however, was always going to be following it up. You can only be unique once, so was the music - and the whole concept - strong enough to withstand a second album?


The answer is a resounding yes. Zeal & Ardor have nailed it. Originally just a bedroom project for main man Manuel Gagneaux, the surprise success of the debut album, and subsequent live shows have led to the recruitment of additional musicians and the fleshing out of the band’s sound. The blending of the twisted spirituals, soul, electronica and vicious, shredding guitars has become seamless, the songs more rounded and complete. It is more accessible and yet more brutal than ‘Devil is Fine’, in fact on ‘Row, Row’ it somehow manages to be both simultaneously. It is possibly the heaviest thing they’ve recorded and also the funkiest slab of black metal you’re ever likely to hear.


Zeal & Ardor still sound like nothing on Earth, disconcerting and sinister but with a pop nous that draws you in rather than pushes you away. Listen to the gentle piano intro and gospel harmonies on ‘Gravedigger’s Chant’ or the soulful R&B of ‘Built on Ashes’, and you’ll find yourself happily singing along to lyrics about death and violence and blood red rivers without even realising it. And yet lacerating guitars and death screams are never far away on songs like ‘Fire of Motion’ or ‘We Can’t Be Found’. And while the concept of devil-worshipping slaves remains, the themes of oppression and the rejection of the ruling classes have uncomfortable parallels with today’s society.


Most importantly though the songs themselves are excellent, from the menacing blues of ‘Don't You Dare’ to the smooth beauty of ‘You Ain’t Coming Back’ there is so much variety on display here it would be impossible to describe it all. There’s lush instrumentals and blasting beats, the music swells and soars thrillingly and while they stay true to their original blueprint they still have the ability to surprise.


For some perhaps, all this is too much, but the album maintains a remarkable coherency throughout. It could easily be an unlistenable mess but Zeal & Ardor pull off the difficult task of bringing it all together with ease. You could also question where it fits into the grand scheme of things, is it metal? Is it blues? Gospel? Soul? But ultimately, does it matter? It spans genres and defies classification and while for some that might be off-putting, for those who embrace it there is something very special here indeed. It won’t please the metal purists – but then, what does? – however, if you’re willing to go into it with an open mind then a true masterpiece awaits.


Track Listing:
Gravedigger’s Chant
Don’t You Dare
Fire Of Motion
The Hermit
Row Row
Ship On Fire
You Ain’t Coming Back
The Fool
We Can’t Be Found
Stranger Fruit
Built On Ashes


Line Up:
Manuel Gagneux: Vocals, Guitar
Denis Wagner: Vocals
Marc Obrist: Vocals
Tiziano Volante: Guitar
Mia Rafaela Dieu: Bass
Marco von Allmen: Drums


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