Zeal & Ardor dished us some wickedly good fruit with their blistering, bluesy black metal on their recent debut Australian run. Our review of the Melbourne stopover at Stay Gold, with photos from the Brisbane leg of the tour, below!
[PC: Third Eye Visuals.]
I remember hearing Zeal & Ardor’s ‘Devil Is Fine‘ LP back in 2016, before it’s label re-release in 2017, and thinking to myself: “I love this, but I’ll never see it live myself“. Boy, I am so glad that me from three years ago was wrong! Debuting live in Australia last week ago, this Swiss avant-garde, blues/black-metal act landed here far sooner than I ever thought they would. (Cheers Carbon Sunset!) And there was a thick air of excitement hanging around Stay Gold on the night in question. From the buzzing conversations over-heard before and after their set, the feverish response the band received, to even one lady in front of me Snapchatting someone with the caption “Zeal & Ardor fuck yeah!“. Fuck yeah, indeed!
It’s been some time since I’ve been as mesmerised by a band’s live performance as I so deeply was with Zeal & Ardor’s Melbourne headliner. Of course, 2018’s ‘Stranger Fruit‘ was one of my favourite records of last year, so I’m immensely biased in that statement. But you gotta believe me: this was next level. It was so difficult to tear even the slightest bit of attention away from their power-house set while their spiritually blackened sermon raced along at full-speed. Other than having their own lighting, there weren’t any over-the-top bells or distracting whistles, and the band didn’t need any. They had everything in their own repertoire; songs that take on an other-worldly aura once performed live. Zeal & Ardor travelled almost 19 or so hours to be here, and they most certainly brought it!
All covered in their black hoodies as they took the stage, opening as they so often do with the sample-heavy electronica of ‘Sacrilegium I‘ before sliding gracefully into the dark, pyre-stoking tones of ‘In Ashes‘, Zeal & Ardor’s cultish proceedings were now under-way. Very quickly, it became apparent just how well put-together their live set is these days. This was a perfectly well-balanced set between their two records, 2016’s ‘Devil Is Fine‘ and 2018’s ‘Stranger Fruit‘. So from the chanting ‘Devil Is Fine‘ camp (excluding the opening two songs), you had damn fine cuts like ‘Come On Down‘, ‘Blood in the River‘, and the haunting, rattling hymn of the iconic and titular ‘Devil Is Fine‘, with the band later departing to the gorgeous soundscape of ‘Sacrilegium III‘. Interestingly, all of these older songs felt so much larger, so much “fuller” when performed live here. Almost like that’s how they were always meant to be heard and performed.
As for their latest ritual, ‘Stranger Fruit‘, it (obviously) dominated much of this set, reminding us all just how powerful these songs were and still are. ‘Gravedigger’s Chant‘, the musical brimstone of ‘Fire Of Motion‘, the catchiness of ‘Row Row‘, the brooding stomps of ‘Servants‘, the heaviness of ‘Waste‘ and the hooks ‘We Can’t Be Found‘ – all injected both blackened delights and sing-alongs into the night’s events. All filtered through the lens of a bluesy but extreme metal exterior.
Calling it “false black metal”? Who cares when it’s executed this well! For that storm-summoning grimoire chant during ‘Ship On Fire‘? So cool live; shouted right back at the band with vigour. The spine-chilling timbre of the layered, tremolo-heavy ‘Built On Ashes‘? Awe-inspiring. The dynamic of ‘You Ain’t Coming Back‘ only further highlighting one of my favourite Zeal lyrics: “these days are gonna pass like a grass fire/don’t let anybody ever tell you that you’re safe“? All showcasing their clever songwriting. And the eponymous ‘Stranger Fruit‘ track? It’s never sounded as menacing as it does live, with Manuel Gagneux’s earthy growl roaring over cavernous drums and pounding pianos: “Stranger fruit, with a beckoning call/ From crown to the root, this tree won’t fall“. If you’ve got doubts about this band and their sound, then absolutely see them live. It’s an experience that’s bound to change your mind.
Even just a few songs deep into this set, one thing was clear: Zeal & Ardor are such a tight live band. Every member understands their role and contribution, and they all nail it.
Marco Von Allmen is a great drummer, triggering all of their samples easily enough and exuding rock solid playing throughout. Marco was also all-smiles behind the kit for their set’s full duration – despite the macabre aesthetic – but I loved seeing that: someone just lost in their craft. Guitarist Tiziano Volante maintained a strong, mechanical picking hand throughout, nailing all of the little guitar touches in the band”s more dynamic, softer moments too. Bassist Mia Rafaela Dieu remained mostly stoic on her stage-right position, yet with a well-mixed bass sound and a great tone, there wasn’t anything else she needed to do better -it was spot on. (I’d also like to sincerely wish her well, as I learnt after the gig that she’s been incredibly sick lately, even staying in hospital just before leaving home for this Australian tour. Yet whatever was ailing her could’ve fooled us on this night whilst playing. Get well soon Mia!)
Zeal & Ardor all know the deal whilst up there performing, what each member must do, and that tandem quality makes for solid performances. Yet for some out there, I’m sure that the inclusion of their two backing vocalists live, Denis Wagner and Marc Obrist, is kinda dorky, but for yours truly, it adds so much. Gifting more life to the field-holler vocal moments of their songs and spreading their breadth more so. When he wasn’t backing up the band’s leading man, Marc, with all of his flowing brown locks, would headbang with reckless abandon. Whereas Denis, also during any given violent black metal section where he didn’t have any parts, would shake violently like a man possessed. Both men bring so much to the table for this band’s stage presence and live sound, so much so that without them, Zeal & Ardor’s live set would indeed feel lacking. They’re an integral piece of the puzzle as any other member. Better yet, they both sounded great too!
As for the band’s real “it” factor, vocalist/guitarist/song-writer/mastermind Manuel Gagneux, he is definitely the leader; the star of the show. Managing both lead vocal and guitar duties, and donning a cheeky NSYNC T-shirt for us Melbournians, the guy never missed a beat, literally and figuratively. With no awkward stage banter getting in the way, and skipping cliche crowd-hyping parts, he presented an honest and endearing frontman rather than a cocky one. Manuel’s use of an FX mic was also a great added touch, ensuring that his frequent piercing screams (and soft humming vocalisations during ‘Stranger Fruit‘ and ‘Waste‘) were all as reverb-soaked as they were on-record. And I so appreciate that attention to detail. He also looked noticeable jet-lagged between songs, but as soon as he would turn around to confront us and the microphones, you couldn’t tell a single thing was off through his physical persistence and vocal conviction.
Manuel talked very little between songs, but no one seemed bothered by that fact. No words were really needed for this connection to happen. Both audience and band alike were all here for one thing: the music. Just as he once stated live, “we don’t get paid to talk“, so it was all about getting down to brass tacks. Which is funny, given that their band name is just two fancy words to say enthusiasm and passion, as that’s how one would best describe not only their performance, but this sold out crowd’s reciprocating love. This was an incredibly eager audience, damned excited to take part in an hour’s worth of dedicated dark lord worship. Truly, people were belting out these words of hellish devotion like their very souls depended on it!
Entering the final stretch of what was their second ever Australian show with ‘Don’t You Dare‘ and ‘Devil Is Fine‘, we get two of the strongest examples of Zeal & Ardor’s music. With ‘Don’t You Dare‘, you get an awesome cross-roads meeting of macabre blues and fearsome black metal, coming complete with that Anton Szandor LaVey sample towards the end. Then, the rattling chains and call-and-response vocals of the Satanic veneration to ‘Devil Is Fine‘ became a communal moment for all tightly tucked away into this small yet hot band room just off Brunswick’s Sydney Road. As soon as Manuel’s resonating call of “little one, better heed my warning“, it was apparent that everyone present had been waiting almost three years to shout these lyrics loudly back at the band in-person.
Ending, as per usual, with the mighty, out-stretched black wings of ‘Baphomet‘, Zeal & Ardor were done. An hour or so of their best material flew by in a heartbeat because of how enthralling it all was. Despite unreleased cuts like ‘Cut Me‘ and ‘Hold Your Head Low‘ being absent from the set, the Swiss group pulled out all of the strongest tracks from both albums. And that’s all that was required from them for this gig to work as superbly as it did. For the general consensus of the night was summed up in one word spoken by many different mouths: “WOW“. All of my friends I spoke with after the gig, both in-person and online, had nothing but rave praise to share. Personally, a week and a bit on, I’m still left in shock and awe by this stunning set. Zeal & Ardor, what a fuckin’ band!