I’ll be blunt. Manuel Gagneux’s freshman release under Zeal & Ardor contained a total of four and-a-half full songs, a glockenspiel solo, an interlude track leading to another interlude track, a video game soundtrack and a remixed recording of a dial up modem. Maybe the Sacrilegium parts are just lost on me and I didn’t pick up whatever Manuel was putting down. If so, feel free to call me an uncultured swine in the comments.
That is not to say that it was a bad release, but one that could have been a solid EP with those 4.5 songs. Songs like “Devil is Fine” and “Come On Down” brought Gagneux’s audacious genre bending talent to black metal and the internet exploded with adoration. The bluesy/black metal project arguably brought innovation to a genre hitting a creative plateau: where how “fresh” a sound is measured by the size of the band’s pedalboards (See: Sunbather). While the band doesn’t shy away from post-black metal influences, Zeal & Ardor’s sound is undoubtedly different from any other musical project. This status as a sonic breath of fresh air and a puzzling level of inconsistency surrounding album composition set their next album up to be a highly anticipated potential disappointment.
Stranger Fruit shattered these expectations. Zeal & Ardor has created 13 songs that flawlessly integrate the band’s doleful disposition and phonic soul with instrumental ferocity. The album opens with an intro into their first released single “Gravedigger’s Chant,” a soulful call-and-answer chorus backed by an escalating piano section and choir to give the harmony some real meat. From there, the album skews heavier with “Servants,,layering a “stomp-stomp-clap” beat with alternating guitar chords and ends with a chilling “Servants… Join Us…” incantation. “Don’t You Dare,”, a highlight off Stranger Fruit, has the listener ushered into what Gagneux paints as the witnessing of an atrocity with lyrical references to human sacrifices in an upward parabola of instrumental intensity. The song peaks at a typical black metal segment of inaudible shrieks, circular riffing and blast beats, something that Gagneux sprinkles into many of his heavier works. Unfortunately, these tend to sound eerily similar to the wall of vibrating steel heard on “Come On Down” in the last record. “Row Row,” another clap track-laden composition becomes a little cookie cutter, where the lyrics “slave to none” could be replaced with any chorus in prior songs and the listener wouldn’t know the difference.
There are some “fluff” tracks here and there, but unlike Devil Is Fine, they serve to better expand on the dourness than jar the listener. “Hermit” is a delightful ambient track with a humming choir set to the pitter-patter of rain and animal sounds that paint the picture of a damp isolated section of forest. “The Fool” and “Solve.” electronic segments similar to Sacrilegium II or III, are more out of place but I feel that as I listen to more of Zeal & Ardor these interludes come off a forced “peak and valley” effect for the album. Considering most of these tracks are under four minutes long, these interludes may be better served as segments of other songs.
Another notable track would be “We Can’t Be Found” featuring a slap and twang intro that grips the listener to yet another pummeling blackened blues tune. The album closes with the Gregorian chant charged “Coagula” and the attempt at John Legend to distorted riffs that is “Built On Ashes” to double down on melancholic soul.
Overall, I was thoroughly pleased to hear more of Zeal & Ardor. Stranger Fruit feels like it was both the missing half of Come On Down and then a refinement of their signature black and blue cacophony. There are some loose ends in there, but you’re likely less of a snob than myself and wont care. Stranger Fruit by Zeal & Ardor comes out on June 8th, 2018 via MVKA. Pick it up and you wont be disappointed.