Devil At The Crossroads: Zeal & Ardor “Stranger Fruit”

Zeal & Ardor is an avant-garde metal band you don’t want to sleep on, we’re here to tell you why.

Genesis

Ever sit around with a group of friends discussing the “what ifs” of sub-genre crossover? Blackened-djent-pop, post-death-nu metal, symphonic-power-pirate-folk-grunge? …Nah? If you have, then you’ve probably come up with some unique mixes and some silly shit. Well, leave the silliness at the door, I’m here to talk about bluesy-black-metal, post-black-gospel or how founder, singer/songwriter and guitarist Manuel Gagneux described themselves, “what if African American slaves had embraced Satan instead of Jesus?”

Zeal & Ardor bring a surprisingly fresh sound to the metal world. They share as much in common sonically with Muddy Waters and Skip James as they do with Mayhem and Immortal. Add in a touch of southern gospel and a splash of pop and you have Zeal & Ardor. What started as a 4chan joke turned into something beautiful and I cannot stop listening to it.

Manuel Gangneux’s musical journey began in Switzerland, which eventually brought him to the shores of America (with many projects spanning multiple genres). Manuel released the first Zeal & Ardor album,  Devil is Fine, in 2016 to much acclaim. The album was one of the best metal records of 2016 according to Rolling Stone. By the end of the year, the band had a record deal with MVKA and a music video for the single and title track “Devil is Fine.”

In 2017 the project became a full fledged band, expanding the ranks to include a full set of musicians, with Marco Von Allmen (drums), Mia Rafaela Dieu (bass), Tiziano Volante (guitarist) and Denix Wagnaer and Marc Obrist providing backing vocals.

Which brings us to…

Stranger Fruit their second album, first as a full band, that takes the listener on a musical journey from the backwoods of the southern U.S to the icy peaks of Norway.

 

Track-by-track review

The album starts off slow and muddy, like trudging through a Louisiana bayou, only to bring you to the crossroads to sell your soul to the Devil before returning to the bayou like nothing ever happened.

“Gravediggers Chant”  is true to its name, a bluesy gospel track that brings to mind the singing melodies of a chain gang, all while telling a dark and mysterious story and setting a tone that’s easy to lose yourself in. This was the first track I had heard and was intrigued but puzzled as to why iTunes had this in the metal section.

“Servants” was the track that really grabbed me, kicking off with country-esque blues and climaxing into a classic Marilyn Manson sounding chorus. It does all this while maintaining the feeling that this could be preached in a Baptist church in Alabama.

“Don’t You Dare” has to be my favorite track from the album. The intro of crickets and twangy guitar, coupled with blues vocals, doesn’t even hint at what’s coming until you’re engulfed by a dueling punk rhythm set to black metal chords. At the drop of a hat, you’re instantly transported to the backwoods of Bergen, Norway (climbing a mountain with Ghaal). The blend of blues and black metal on this track is what sold me on the album.

“Fire of Motion” is a heavier track with hints of death metal in the vein of Decapitated. Starting with a pounding punk bass line and grungy vocal delivery, the song quickly bursts at the seam with black metal overtones leaving you wondering what else this band could possibly deliver.

“The Hermit” uses ambience to bring you to a different place, almost as though you are being baptized. It made me feel like I had shed the first few tracks and was ready to start a new journey to a wonderful utopia.

“Row Row” brings back the Baptist church vibe, that quickly turns dark in delivery, but makes you wanna clap along all the same. The chorus then sends us back to Scandinavia, displaying a sense of urgency in the vocals that is eloquent yet foreboding. The track features another blend of bluesy gospel and black metal that left me wanting more.

“Ship on Fire” tells a haunting story of a man at sea with similar styling of previous songs, at a mid-paced tempo, along with the addition of Latin backing vocals, haunting atmosphere and a passage that could be found in a Behemoth or Dimmu Borgir song (pushed to further excellence by the vocal delivery).  This track manages to stand out midway through the album.

“Waste” begins in Deftones fashion and smoothly transitions to traditional black metal territory. Without skipping a beat, it goes all out in the chorus with blast beats, screams, wails and a clean sung harmony (featuring a female vocalist). The song closes in an uplifting manner proving there is no shortage of tricks up their sleeves to keep the album sounding fresh and surprising.

“You Ain’t Coming Back” treads into a pop and blues territory that I found quite enjoyable. Tracks like this, while probably not interesting to the average metalhead, show the depth of musicianship and songwriting abilities of this band. As a musician myself, I really appreciate this and it helps break up the album quite nicely. Most albums have lost me by this point with a “copy and paste” of riffs that sound to similar and leave me disinterested, not this one.

“The Fool” blends synths and organ in a “lullaby meets 8-bit video game music” kind of way.

“We Can’t Be Found” is another personal favorite blending blues, more black metal, a touch of thrash, a smidgen of hardcore and a pinch of Djent. This creates another unique track with a stomping groove and a big chorus that still leaves you wondering what else they can deliver.

“Stranger Fruit” brings yet another element to the table using the dark atmosphere of Type O Negative, Trent Reznor inspired vocals, and a droning riff that make the song stand out on an album full of unique songs, still dark but with an industrial feel.

“Solve” resembles “The Fool”.

“Coagula” brings back Latin vocal chants with a ceremonial delivery. A heavy track but short in length.

“Built on Ashes” is the final track and one of the finest, it has an uplifting feeling and the vocal delivery reminds me of a preacher with his choir. It leaves you with the sense that everything’s going to be okay, even with its dark undertones (like a reflection of a triumph through difficult and emotional times).

When I stumbled onto Zeal & Ardor, I didn’t know what I was expecting. What was a quick iTunes search for new music before band practice, led to an audio journey by musicians who are unafraid to try new things and experiment with contradicting styles. What caught my eye was the name and album art but what made me keep listening was the ability of the band to stay fresh throughout the album. Along with great song writing, the ability to tell stories and set a tone that actually makes me feel something. The name of the album can almost sum up the band’s sound, a “strange fruit” indeed.

 

Check them out at their:

Website

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Forest is the vocalist for Killborn, a melodic death metal band from Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada.