It’s a Monday night, four days before the much-anticipated follow-up to Zeal & Ardor’s 2017 debut drops, and London’s Village Underground is packed for a special one-off club show. New songs live are always a risk, missing more often than they hit and often draining any momentum out of proceedings by saturating the night with material the crowd isn’t familiar with, but it’s testament to the immense buzz surrounding Manuel Gagneux’s genre-hopping project that the venue is sold out with people eager to catch a glimpse of new material beyond the three tracks that have been untethered before Stranger Fruit’s release.
Sixteen of the twenty-one tracks that Gagneux and his band of five (including two backing vocalists) unleash tonight are post-Devil Is Fine material, and yet the crowd remains infatuated throughout, as enamoured by the new tracks as they are by those they know. Whilst the new material is unable to conjure the huge singalongs of the “old” yet, the energy doesn’t let up, even as Gagneux ploughs through track-after-track of previously unheard material, excited as he is to unleash the new album – “like giving birth but with less placenta”, as he puts it. Few bands could warrant such devoted attention, but Zeal & Ardor’s music is unique, and like the motorway service station that can get away with charging four quid for a pack of Magic Stars, Gagneux can get away with an influx of new tracks simply because the punters can’t get the same product anywhere else.
It also helps that the sound is as perfect as one could expect from a metal gig. Whilst many acts from the metal scene are obsessed with ramping up the distortion to appear heavier, Zeal & Ardor’s sound is crisp and clear, and yet still potent enough to rattle your skull when they launch into sections of blackened chaos. The backing band are almost unfeasibly tight, helping the previously unheard riffs to pack the same formidable punch they do on record and the crisp bass (particularly on ‘Row Row’) and pounding percussion to stand out like they rarely get a chance to at metal shows.
Though you get the sense that tonight is a tester for new material before a slot at this year’s Download and inevitable tours after the album’s release, the band are no longer honing their sound. Instead of collapsing under the weight of the immense hype behind him, Gagneux has developed the band into a well-oiled machine, churning out harmonious melodies and bluesy stomps as well as adrenaline-fuelled blast-beats and dissonant shredding.
The balance between the two extremes has been well and truly struck, so much so that the catchy R&B of ‘You Ain’t Coming Back’, the triumphant semi-balladry of ‘Built On Ashes’, the danceable blues of ‘Baphomet’ and the raw metallic intensity of ‘Fire Of Motion’ are equally convincing, even when such disparate numbers are placed back-to-back. Perhaps the highlight in a night full of them is ‘We Can’t Be Found’, in which bluesy musings bookend bouts of furious black metal and formidable melodeath so volatile that the track is bound to become a staple of the band’s live set for years to come. Elsewhere, the two backing singers prove much more than a novelty, giving the ritualistic chants a thrilling authenticity and especially proving their worth on ‘Blood In The River’, where the duo join Gagnuex in a round so infectious it’ll be spinning around the crowd member’s heads for weeks.
Though it’s more a sign of Zeal & Ardor’s immense crossover viability than it is a signifier of any social changes within the metal scene, tonight boasts one of the most diverse crowds this writer has ever witnessed at a metal gig. White men may still dominate the crowd, but by merging extreme metal with not only African American spirituals, but also blues, gospel, electronics, soul, funk and even R&B, Manuel Gagneux has penetrated metal’s tough exterior and managed to appeal to people outside its inner circle. Gagneux may be eternally surprised to receive such support on a “Monday fucking night”, but with shows as exhilarating as this, he could probably sell out a Sunday morning show on Craggy Island.
Words: George Parr