Zeal & Ardor – Stranger Fruit


Album

Stranger Fruit

Label

Independent

Year

2018

For Fans Of

The occult, the blues, death, black metal.

Summary

This devil is much better than fine.

Rating

90 / 100

Black metal is one of heavy music’s most malleable genres. Mix blackened sounds with synthwave and thee shall receive GosT. Smash together redneck/Appalachian folk with black metal and you get Panopticon. Merge black metal and shoegaze to net you stunning acts like DeafheavenLantlôs and Danish blackgaze newcomers, MØL. Black metal elements plus piercing shrieks with solid dance-punk vibes equals the maddeningly catchy sounds of Australia’s own Pagan. Pull together hardcore and blackened undertones and you end up with the killer new stuff from High Tension. You get the point.

As for Zeal & Ardor, founded by Swiss-American vocalist/songwriter/producer, Manuel Gagneux, the project’s debut LP ‘Devil Is Fine‘ (2016), was an experimental LP built around clanking chains, field-chants, bluesy spirituals and ominous black metal. All set to a bleak historical backdrop of American slaves embracing Satan instead of Christianity and the church. Kinda like if the members of Mayhem grew up in the deep South. It was an incredible combination; a bold sound that pushed a one-man project out into the heavy music world’s forefront with coverage from every major publication and their dog.

On glorious second LP ‘Stranger Fruit‘, things have changed for Zeal & Ardor, but all for the better. Namely, a five-piece band now supports Manuel’s dual-vocals and ambitious songwriting. Backup singers Denis Wagner and Marc Obrist bolster the frontman, offering call-and-response parts and wonderful harmonies; guitarist Tiziano Volante helps the six-string department to make denser, more interesting guitar work; while bassist Mia Rafaela Dieu and talented drummer Marco von Allmen hold down the rhythm section. As a result, Zeal’s instrumentals blossom from the already dynamic songwriting, and it’s clear that extra time and care went into the creation of this raging new beast.

For example, the band’s overall production is tighter and larger in scope; all thanks to Converge’s Kurt Ballou doing some really solid studio work. From this, Marco’s weighty drumming hits harder too, propelling each song along at a far stronger pace. Mia’s bass work is also more prominent, giving these compositions real weight with a wickedly gritty and thick tone. As for Manuel himself, his heavier, vicious screams and guttural devilish growls fully command this 16-track sermon; harsh vocals that compliment and contrast his poppier and often distorted clean singing parts beautifully so.

It’s not a stretch to say that Zeal’s powerful blend of black metal and blues has grown further, while also finding room to naturally expand and experiment in both areas. Meaning a grand mixture of gospel, church choirs, bluesy riffs, blast beats, second-wave black metal, dark samples, call-and-response vocals, and even warm analogue synths await you. All bringing me to a pre-emptive but assertive conclusion: ‘Stranger Fruit‘ is bigger, bolder and better than ‘Devil Is Fine‘.

Manuel Gagneux, Mr Zeal & Ardor himself.

Stranger Fruit‘ is a more worldly record, perhaps reflective of the touring experiences Zeal & Ardor shared together after the success of ‘Devil Is Fine‘. And as I assume, Manuel also not wanting to dwell too much on what he did before and in giving this new record more time to brew in the pit. The LP is rooted in Norwegian black metal, African black spirituals, American blues, and anything to do with Satanism; seeing Manuel and co. go all-in with their aesthetic. For as Manuel sang “A good God is a dead one” on ‘Blood In The River‘, ‘Stranger Fruit‘ is just as occultish and Satanic – if not more so.

With reverberant vocals, soft hums, a subdued blues guitar motif, sounds of an axe chopping wood, and a gravelly male voice speaking “we’ve all heard the stories…“, Zeal & Ardor’s new epic unfolds with the logically titled opener, ‘Intro‘. This first-off-the-ranks piece feels like the perfect continuation from their debut; capturing the same level of ominous mysticism before those aforementioned “stories” take over. Then, on cue, ‘Gravedigger’s Chant‘ rises from the dead with Manuel’s soulful and grit-tinged vocals, wall-of-sound guitars, cascading tom hits, organs bleeding underneath, and honky pianos to wash away our sins. Making it perfectly clear that Zeal haven’t wallowed away in what first caught them the attention of the world.

This idea is also captured with this album’s moniker borrowing the name of the 1939 Billie Holiday song, ‘Strange Fruit‘ – a blues-jazz song protesting the lynching of African Americans in the South during the early 20th century. The lyrics act as an extended metaphor for a tree’s hanging fruit swinging in the breeze matching the hanged bodies of the (mainly black) victims. It’s fuckin’ grim stuff, undoubtedly – both that old Holiday song and this new Zeal record. Yet from that inspiration, ‘Stranger Fruit‘ leaps forth as a staggering release that deals with racism, rejection, oppression, isolation, fleeing persecution, and eventually, hopefully, freedom; all in its own blackened, bluesy and subversive way.

As such, and to no surprise from pre-existing fans, this is a highly macabre album laced with the thick stench of death, emotional defeat, worldly horrors, and personal tribulations. Admittedly, I could be wrong in my own readings here, as this is vastly more ambiguous than ‘Devil Is Fine‘ ever was. But the possibility of many different readings is what makes for fantastically urgent lyricism (‘Row Row‘, ‘Ship On Fire‘), interesting metaphors and poignant imagery (‘Stranger Fruit‘, the rebellious ‘Servants‘), as well as some utterly amazing music (‘Don’t You Dare‘, ‘Built On Ashes‘).

While some songs see Zeal extending their bluesy and experimental arm-length, other tracks knuckle right down into a metal feast. For instance. ‘Waste‘ hits an extreme and dire black metal depth unlike anything else Zeal & Ardor have reached before. Yet amongst the track’s hallowed screams and writhing instrumental chaos, it also finds time to smear delicious high-register vocal melodies and distinct, atmospheric guitars over the top of the whirring blast beats and cacophonous noise. Likewise, ‘Fire Of Motion‘ and ‘We Can’t Be Found‘ thrash, riff and chug their heavily dissonant ways through blackened cathedrals mid-sacrifice, again making for some of the most “metal” tracks Zeal have to their name.

In other more dynamic moments, the brilliant ‘Don’t You Dare‘ begins with a classically twanging Southern riff, all before descending into blackened madness surrounding the cultish imagery of conviction and loyalty. Effectively and fittingly quoting the Church Of Satan founder, Anton LaVey, via a well-placed sample towards the end too. That guy may have been a fucking nutter but his sample here is all kinds of eerie and unnerving.

Over on the potent title track, over hammering piano notes, buzzing riffs, booming drum grooves, and a ghostly looped vocalisation, Manuel roars about the racially-charged metaphors at the core of ‘Stranger Fruit‘. Both of this eponymous song itself and the wider album too. From ethnic hatred, the rotten nature of man, and to an untimely death via sway of the hangman’s noose. There’s a storm out there, indeed.

With groovy rhythms, catchy pop vocals and hooky instrumentals bashing up against fierce black metal, ‘Row Row‘ and raging tempest ‘Ship On Fire‘ deal with topics of freedom, and what people will do to survive when it comes down to the wire. This back-to-back pairing sees Zeal hurling us down mammoth rapid rivers of surging darkness and melody; keeping you expecting the unexpected at every turn. And god, those evil monk-like chants that quote spells from some grimoire during ‘Ship On Fire‘ merge superbly well with the heavy bass riffs and palm-muted guitars of its massive arrangement too. Just one such great example of the band having real fun with their occult-theme whilst also making incredible compositions.

For most, 16 songs can be too much, but Zeal & Ardor have laid out a tracklisting that flows together mostly well.

What breaks up this record are three instrumentals: the serene and ambient ‘The Hermit‘, the twinkling analogue synth tritones focus of ‘The Fool‘, as well as ‘Solve‘. The rainforest-like sound effects and beautifully airy quality of ‘The Hermit‘ makes for a haunting yet uplifting instrumental piece. And by the time those modulated classical acoustic guitars enter towards the end, you’ve got something brilliant on your hands. Then, as for ‘The Fool‘, it’s a short but sweet retro synth piece that’s just simply lovely to listen to.

However, while those two are good, the latter is by far the weakest. See, ‘Solve‘ arrives very soon after ‘The Fool‘ and merely feels like a rehash rather than a progression, unlike so many of these other compositions do. It’s there to give listeners a breather, obviously, but it gets in the way and the album could do without it I feel. In a similar slight miss-step, we have ‘Coagula‘; another very short piece that revisits the earlier motifs of those seance chanted vocals from ‘Ship On Fire‘, but doesn’t really push the album forward in a meaningful way. It’s just kinda… there.

Which makes the final moments of this amazing record a little inconsistent for me, seeing as the head-spinning high-point of ‘Stranger Fruit‘ arrives with the stunning closer, ‘Built On Ashes‘. Huge walls of tremolo guitars, distorted back-and-forth vocals, millennial whoops, spacious dynamic moments, and pounding metal drumming collide together. The piece carries real emotional weight throughout – one of coming returning home and of one finally reaching the end of the road – and when those spine-tingling guitar bends drop in, I find it impossible to not sit in awe of this utter masterpiece. It shouldn’t work, but goddamnit, it does and in beautiful fashion too; all because of Zeal’s exceptional delivery and superb songwriting craft.

Built On Ashes‘ – along with this album overall – creates the same blood-chilling sense of grandeur within me that song ‘Devil Is Fine‘ once uneasily wrapped me up in almost two years ago.  I honestly thought their last record may have just been a one-off, but Zeal & Ardor have proven me absolutely wrong with ‘Stranger Fruit‘. And I’m more than okay with that!

Conclusion

With ‘Stranger Fruit’, Zeal & Ardor are unlike any other band making waves through black metal, blues and other underground music circles of late. With this sublime second LP, they’ve summoned up a magical, morose, macabre and, for the most part, a masterful sound – a stunning sequel in every sense. This is undeniably Zeal & Ardor proving to the world that they weren’t just some flash-in-the-pan act back in 2016, but rather, something truly special to behold.

Tracklisting

  1. Intro
  2. Gravedigger’s Chant
  3. Servants
  4. Don’t You Dare
  5. Fire Of Motion
  6. The Hermit
  7. Row Row
  8. Ship On Fire
  9. Waste
  10. You Ain’t Coming Back
  11. The Fool
  12. We Can’t Be Found
  13. Stranger Fruit
  14. Solve
  15. Coagula
  16. Built On Ashes

Bite down into the vile flesh of ‘Stranger Fruit’ come Friday, June 8th. 

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