Review: Zeal & Ardor – Stranger Fruit

Zeal & Ardor’s debut full-length, Devil Is Fine, seemingly emerged from nowhere last spring, taking the enigmatic one-man project from relative obscurity to somewhat of an online phenomenon. After all, given the rather purist perspective many metal fans tend to favour, acts from the more experimental end of the spectrum will always provoke strong reactions when thrust into the limelight. For Zeal & Ardor, though, the core concept of blending African American spirituals with black metal proved much more than mere novelty, as Swiss-American songwriter Manuel Gagneux weaved magic from the seemingly dissimilar sources, and also merged the two philosophically, applying Scandinavian black metal’s themes of liberation-through-Satan to the sheer oppression experienced by victims of the transatlantic slave trade. Approaching the release of second full-length Stranger Fruit, the multi-instrumentalist has seen attention everywhere – from online blogs and social media to mainstream sites and newspapers – and, considering the project’s status as a buzz-band, it’s fair to say the circumstances going into album number two are much different. This time, Gagneux has something to lose, so it’s perhaps more astonishing to see him emerge with something as vital as Stranger Fruit.

Devil Is Fine surprised with a bizarre concoction of styles that no one had previously attempted to fuse, placing harmonious melodies and soulful dirges next to blast-beats and dissonant shredding. Comparing those tracks to the work of the band’s debut demo, the obvious progression was in the cohesion, especially the noticeable lack of jarring seams despite the schizophrenic switches in style. In this regard, Stranger Fruit is yet another step up, seeing the various elements of the band’s sound – spirituals, blues, gospel, soul, melodeath, black metal, electronics et al. – running in tandem and serving each other instead of constantly battling for the foreground.

The increased runtime (Stranger Fruit boasts nineteen tracks to Devil Is Fine’s nine) allows Gagneux’s talent to truly blossom as it never has. Despite his writing alone, the way these tracks build and morph is fascinating to behold and, on more than one occasion, genuinely thrilling. The album’s heaviest moments (‘Waste’, ‘Fire Of Motion’, ‘We Can’t Be Found’) prove infinitely more potent and volatile than they were last time out, often exploding out of nowhere like a furious, demonic gut-punch, but Gagneux knows his way around much more than hellish shrieks and fiery guitars. The infectious melodies, which come in the form of soulful croons or bluesy stomps, will twirl around inside your skull long after you’ve stopped listening. Indeed, the infectious swing of ‘You Ain’t Coming Back’ reminds of mainstream R&B despite being menacingly buttressed by tremolo-picked guitars, and the triumphant semi-balladry of ‘Built On Ashes’ is an oddly uplifting closer sure to invoke deafening singalongs at gigs.

Where Devil Is Fine was a musical feast, overwhelming listeners with a tableful of ideas, Stranger Fruit scoops those ideas into a single bowl and converts them into something entirely more fulfilling. From the electronic interludes that bookended the debut LP’s tracks to the furious bouts of blackened chaos that first helped Gagneux captivate the metal scene, Stranger Fruit takes the disparate components that initially made the band such an enticing prospect and refines their roles. Its more brooding, more soulful, more poignant and oodles heavier; a wonderfully creative endeavour that stands as a more realised rendering of Gagneux’s unique vision.

Stranger Fruit is out June 8th on MVKA. Purchase here.

Words: George Parr

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