It was a challenge from members of 4Chan that inspired what eventually became Zeal & Ardor. In an interview with Noisey, Manuel Gagneux (the Swiss-American powerhouse behind the project) shared how a 4Chan suggestion of blending black metal and African American spirituals stuck with him. While the genres seemed at odds with each other, Manuel recognised a link between the two: Norwegian black metal rose up in rebellion of enforced Christianity. Zeal & Ardor is the music that Manuel felt would have resulted if American slaves had similarly rebelled.
Zeal & Ardor introduced their revisited take on musical history by releasing their first album Devil Is Fine in February 2017. The ‘satanic spirituals’ were captured as unique collisions of sounds on the album, finding soul, black metal, and dubstep in amongst the nine tracks, where tinkling music boxes made just as much sense as the sounds of dragging chains. The horror of ‘no one is coming to save you’ was palpable, as was the rejection of a God that would create such suffering, and eyes instead turned toward darker forces. Since then, Manuel entered the studio with producer Zebo Adam and mixer Kurt Ballou (Converge, Kvelertak, Nails), and the result is the larger and heavier Stranger Fruit, which releases on 8th June.
Stranger Fruit had the haunting and crushing “Gravedigger’s Chant” as first single, with lyrical repetition having horrors hit home. Sadness is behind this resultant fury, where jangling pieces and deep bass pulses have us unable to look away from stinking death. In this massive track, we’re confronted by the worst of human life, and in these circumstances it’s easy to reject that a higher power has any say at all. This single (and its fittingly sombre music video) was more than enough to entice me to listen to the album in full.
To backtrack a touch, the track simply called “Intro” is where the album starts before we hit upon “Gravedigger’s Chant”. With “Intro”, soulful hums and a sound of wood chopping have the listener left feeling exposed in the wind, in a moment of rustic peace, before the inevitable comes crashing down. Goosebump intensity gradually builds into a feeling of needing to run far far away and not look back, with aching riffs left behind. When the noise settles back down as calmly as it began, the rustic nature with gently strummed guitar and hums feels like a dream. Perhaps the fantasy of escaping the hardship being endured.
Stranger Fruit is clearly a collection of unpredictable tracks in terms of sounds. From its unsettling introduction, the third track “Servants” is unwavering and forward-urging. There’s a shadow of something on the fringe that’s about to strike, and an impulse to be ruthlessly ambitious to get ahead in an untrustworthy world. Drum thuds and rhythms that ebb and flow contribute to a collective that are gaining power to take revenge. Screams paint the landscape with fiery riffs, and layered voices add to the sense of an uprising.
“This is the end of the line when the servants have their way”
In the night air, crickets and lone guitar are joined by a growing group as “Don’t You Dare” starts. Becoming chilled through my skin as progressive layers of sound join in, a warm voice begins to evolve into something progressively forceful. We’re soon pulled deep into the wildness of black metal and facing things we’d rather not. While I’m not entirely sure of what the track is about, it’s brilliantly unsettling, wild, and powerful. Ridiculous drumming is an almost intimidating stand-out, and doesn’t cease to impress as we move into the raw and intense “Fire Of Motion”.
Bass intensity and thunderous beats of “Fire Of Motion” are the precursor to heavy rains of blackened metal, landing sharply and unrelentingly. The monotone and layered vocals and intricate riffs that extend for miles amplify the feeling of an impossible journey ahead.
On this metaphorical journey of Stranger Fruit is a pause at the sixth track, with “The Hermit”. Here we surrender to choral round notes, bird calls, and insect chirps. I’m enjoying this beautiful space after the previous terror, while also feeling ‘this may not be what it seems’. Warm tones and harmonies flood through and my whole body tingles with this lifting sound. With the addition of clicks and pops and piano notes, I feel a little queasy and out of touch with reality, hovering above the earth. I’m flooded by waves of melody and hopeful notes and I’m not sure where this is going.
This is followed by an upbeat and hand-clapping number, “Row Row”. It’s instantly infectious as filthy guitar smashes up against soulful moans as this escalates into blistering blackened intensity. This is crazy and brilliant; this spanning of different sounds. Wild and fierce, I can’t tell if we’re escaping or being controlled. Heart-racing intensity with an enthralling guitar focus is breathtakingly brilliant, even moreso when gut-punching drum blasts join in.
The following track “Ship On Fire” oozes more of a storytelling vibe, where hums blanket the track as the unraveling story of a character is expressed. Searing riffs and drum overwhelm have us tumbling around in the chaos. It’s a beauty of a track, and as a listener I am both stunned as well as mesmerised and hanging onto each word spoken, and the directions in which these riffs are traveling. It’s perfectly eerie with backing chants and thunderous drumming and massive riffs. At this point I craved more words to do this justice. “Ship On Fire” demands deep listens. Repeatedly.
“Waste” begins with guitar noise raining down and mysterious vocal calls. Manuel’s voice breaks through the noise, with confidence and courage. Deeply plunging riffs and metallic screams craft jaw-dropping intensity here, most stunningly when blast beats marry up with screams. This is hugely intense on all fronts, as though my entire body is being impacted by it. It’s not all wall-of-sound madness through, as gorgeous riffs are entrancing in their own right and a guitar melody blooms toward the end of the track, seeming as though it’s keeping things held at bay. I never thought I’d call such full-on metal ‘beautiful’, but it really is.
“Don’t let anybody tell you that you’re safe”
I found the tenth track “You Ain’t Coming Back” very emotional for reasons not immediately understood. The distorted vocals pour out reassurance and experience garnered from digging into dark veins of history, while at the same time being nurturing and encouraging. With aching riffs and weary beats, sage advice comes from one who has seen things they never wanted to. Progressively growing, the track climbs to mountainous heights in sound, while retaining earnest expression of harsh truths.
Instrumental track “The Fool” is a meandering piece of music which has synth flowingly weave through the track, with delicate chimes morphing into something more piercingly electric at times. It’s an unusual piece of music considering the rest of what we’ve heard, but serves as a moment in which to float around.
We’re dropped right back into twanging riffs, clap-beats, and vocal layers with “We Can’t Be Found”. Impressive riffage and raw screams are dragged forward by rapidfire beats. Then championing ‘the new God’, the track embodies threatening complexity with angular forward movement and irregular rhythms.
“There’s a storm out there”
“Stranger Fruit” is intriguing from its echoing beat beginnings, stagnant piano chords, female vocal calling into the fog, and Manuel’s sombre voice sharing a story of the stranger fruit. It’s some kind of gift to go from something relatively settled through to edge-of-sanity unease. “Stranger Fruit” has me feel like I’m falling when a layer of screams are added on top of the already mentioned sounds. The relentless piano stagnancy has the whole thing feel like we’re part of a machine; unnerving in its sameness. The alarm that’s expressed due to vulnerability is a spark that lights a flare of intensity, where the track becomes a skin-clawing experience of fear and insanity. The unrelenting stagnant piano crumbles into static. The experiences of these songs is something artful and tough to encapsulate without having been experienced.
“Solve” is another music box style of interlude, where waves of sound move over us in otherwise silence. Ever changing to the ears, “Solve” captures something light and pleasing at times and unnerving at others. I’d love to know the inspiration behind these interludes.
The mostly instrumental track “Coagula” follows. Crushing beats and repeated chants are the tapestry of this song, rich with potency and amplifying the forces that are created by alarming riffs and sonic hugeness. It’s 1:38 of grandeur and unease.
The final track of Stranger Fruit is “Built On Ashes”. I don’t know if it’s my emotional investment in this album through to this point, or the song itself, but I became quite moved by this track; seeing it as an exhalation and surveying of landscape after a long journey. It feels like a resolution here, where delicate piano, raw vocals, and evolving intensity encapsulates what has been shared earlier in the album. Despite the darkness of the lyrics and aching riffs, there’s an overwhelming sense of hope somewhere here buried under the static and distortion. Where there’s freedom in unwantedness, and there’s possibility in losing everything.
That feeling also encompasses Stranger Fruit for me, where instead of rolling over in defeat, the energy is one of “GET ON YOUR FEET AND RUN”. It’s also about finding encouragement in unexpected places in the aftermath of deception. There’s nothing to lose and no strings of loyalty attached. Manuel’s voice cuts through noise and proves an ally in a soundtrack of evading control and amassing forces to overcome adversity. The intriguing stories shared and the intensity of blast beats and screams, recorded in full sonic colour, make Stranger Fruit something larger than life.
Sixteen breathtaking tracks that will render the listener speechless as they're swept into the artful experience crafted by blistering riffs, impossibly fast beats, and the commanding and compassionate voice of Manuel Gagneux.