There’s a surprising amount of people out there who will tell you that there’s nothing new in music anymore. All modern bands are a byproduct of what has come before, and none of them can boast the uniqueness that once made music so thrilling. This, of course, is bollocks. There’s more music available now than ever, and whilst a generous helping of it may be little more than a crop of music fans imitating their idols, there are also perhaps more fresh ideas being thrown around now than ever in history. Occasionally, such innovation requires taking what already exists and twisting it into something new, or perhaps even merging textures that had previously existed only disparately.
In the case of Manuel Gagneux, the Swiss-American multi-instrumentalist behind Zeal & Ardor, this meant taking a genre all about freedom and applying to a style birthed by those who had none. Last year’s nine-track release Devil Is Fine saw Gagneux pose a ponderous question: what if the slaves of the south had turned to Satan in their quest to find liberation? Having created a release that put black metal squeals and furious blastbeats alongside spirituals in the style of folklorist Alan Lomax’s field recordings, Zeal & Ardor became one of the most debated names in the metal scene. With this year’s Stranger Fruit, he sought to prove that it was no mere fluke.
In truth, he accomplished much more than this. Stranger Fruit takes the ambitious approach of Devil Is Fine and streamlines it, allowing the opposing styles to run in tandem instead of just having one act as an interlude for the other. The album’s heaviest moments prove infinitely more potent and volatile than they were last time out, the melodious numbers more catchy and transcendent; perhaps most impressive is irrelevant semi-ballad ‘Built On Ashes’, which blends atmospheric black metal and soul to marvellous effect, with lyrics that reference historical lynchings (“You will swing free in the breeze then/You are bound to die alone.”) whilst commenting on modern-day America – “They’re coming closer just to kill us,” he croons.
The album is a fascinating one full of genuinely thrilling twists and turns, and we felt compelled to learn more. Read on to see what Manuel Gagneux has to say about the project’s latest instalment.
The iconography of the last album cover had a significant meaning, is there any deeper symbolism behind the Stranger Fruit artwork?
We picked the apple for a multitude of reasons. There’s the obvious connection to the album title, the forbidden fruit, and a nod to the Beatles.
What’s the meaning behind the album’s title?
It’s a reference to the Billie Holiday song ‘Strange Fruit’ where she compares the lynched bodies hanging from the poplar trees to strange fruit. The idea was to expand the concept to current times.
The biggest progression from your early demo through to the new album seems to be the enhanced degree of cohesion, both in the concept and the music. Is that something you’ve had to focus on whilst writing or did it come naturally with time?
That luckily just happened as I kept writing new material. There’s something interesting that happens when ideas get thrown away and new ones appear. The worth of old ideas diminishes substantially and the ideas are no longer looked at as sacred, but simply as ideas. It’s quite liberating.
Black metal can be quite a socially regressive genre, so its fans can be a bit apprehensive about changes to the music. Have you experienced much pushback from listeners?
There was some of course, but I think the biggest pushback in that sense already happened to other bands. It’s no longer a novelty, but merely an annoyance to them now I think. I guess we need to thank those other bands.
On the other hand, have you ever found yourself accused of cultural appropriation for taking influence from African American spirituals? If so, what would your response to that be?
I honestly fail to care. It’s a ridiculous concept and goes into silly places. Are Asians not allowed to use the circle of fifths? That’s a western thing. It’s all about intent. But being exclusive about one’s culture has a nasty aftertaste of auto-segregation.
Black metal has always been about liberation and outsiderism, so it’s ironic that some fans can be so averse to new ideas. Do you aim to challenge that close-mindedness with Zeal & Ardor?
I don’t have an agenda to change other people’s minds. I just make music that I personally like. But it is ironic that a once freedom-pursuing genre has all these rules.
Devil Is Fine followed the narrative of slaves evoking Satan to rise up and fight for freedom. Does Stranger Fruit continue this theme, or does it introduce a new concept?
It’s there, but it isn’t a storytelling thing or anything like that. The best thing I would like to achieve is a form of set dressing. The stage is set for the listener to draw his/her own conclusions. If I would have something specific in mind someone listening to the record would never interpret it the same way as I intended and I’m at total peace with that.
That concept seemed to be applying black metal’s themes of liberation to a case where freedom was drastically needed. Do you at all see Zeal & Ardor as a way of reclaiming those themes of freedom from those who would apply it to more reactionary sentiments? Especially considering the idea for the project partly came from an anonymous online racist…
I even think in a weird way it’s an extension of that liberating concept. What would be more black metal, than breaking black metal rules? It’s a middle finger everyone can enjoy.
Satanism can sort of be taken in one of two ways: the underlying theme of freedom can mean you see the need to fight for equality and freedom for all, or you can have that sort of selfish “looking out for number one” approach. What does it mean to you, and do you identify with any parts of it as a belief-system?
I’d say I subscribe to the more egalitarian side of things. A big problem I have with some religions is that they want to convince others of their beliefs, so I’ll just leave it at that.
How are things going as a full live band? Given that it was initially a one-man project, did it take time to find like-minded musicians willing to tour with you?
It was something I dreaded at first, but then I just asked friends of mine. They immediately understood the music and even gave it more energy. It was a huge relief and I think the live set speaks for itself, as it exceeds the intensity of the recordings by quite a bit. All thanks to them.
You’ve spoken about how the project started after an experiment based on taking two genres suggested by people on 4chan and merging them, what were some of the other genres you attempted to combine as a result of this method?
There was a whole slew. Serial dreamjazz, aleatoric antifolk, zeuhl post-rock, mathcrunk and primitivism witch house to name a few especially silly ones. Fun stuff.
Beyond any novelty behind the idea of melding seemingly disparate genres, what similarities do you see between black metal and spirituals?
I think both elements carry an emotional intensity. The metal part of things carries anger and urgency and the spirituals have an inclusive lamenting weight to them. Though they are dissimilar it really can be surprisingly homogeneous at times.
Your music has been lauded for its unique approach. Do you think it’s important to do something new with metal in 2018?
Not really. There are so many genres in metal that I simply can’t get enough of. But I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t grow bored if I had to make something that already existed. Maybe every once in a while.
What can we expect in the future? How do you see Zeal & Ardor progressing from here?
If there’s something I’ve learned in the past two years, it’s that I have no idea what will happen next and that I suck at predicting the future. We’ll tour this year and see what we are in the mood for. If we feel forced to make another album but have no ideas or aren’t motivated, it might be best to call it quits with this direction. Time will tell!
Words: George Parr