Review Summary: If this album were to be a film, it would be directed by Tarantino- unpredictable and violent.
What constitutes a new sound within heavy music? Metal’s longevity is predominantly down to the limitless expanse in which bands can illustrate heaviness, yet, it occasionally feels like there’s nothing unheard of within the genre other than bands developing and perfecting an existing sound. While the spirit of the genre is undeniably alive and kicking, rarely does heavy metal birth something truly unique. However, every now and then, an artist appears seemingly out of nowhere and creates something truly unique, simultaneously relieving the scene of potential stagnancy and offering another completely new sound to toy with.
Manuel Gagneux, the brains and soul of Zeal & Ardor, introduced the world to a vision of a terrifyingly descriptive and emotive picture of slave-era America where the slaves would channel their hope and dreams of rebellion in a spiritual manner as opposed to physically. Consequently, “Devil is Fine”
, exposed Zeal & Ardor as an anthemic and unifying proclamation to Satan imbued with a dark, passionate and violent mentality. “Devil is Fine”
was a debut album that threw categorisation out the window complete with a crossover appeal that ascended Gagneux from obscurity to widespread awareness.
Aside from the binding of two genres that ordinarily should not be glued together “Stranger Fruit”
, Zeal & Ardor’s latest album, follows unpredictable song structuring which to some will yield two reactions: confusing or intriguing. Straight from the intro track into “Gravedigger’s Chant”, the erratic manner is established where the chopping of wood develops into torrents of tremolo and free gospel singing twists into a morbid and imposing presence. “Don’t You Dare” also skips over genre boundaries with ease as western twanging advances into folky guitar riffs then to shredding shriek and finally back to Gaganeux’s isolated and threatening voice. On a larger scale, the album may focus on a few softer songs with a determined emphasis on the clean, gospel call-and-respond singing and gentle instrumentation before inexplicably exploding into a furious black metal track. The sheer amount of ideas that Gaganeux pours into this album explains why the album stands at a lengthy 16 songs long. Because of the diversity and unique signature each song displays, they couldn’t simply be cut together otherwise it would sound disorganised.
While disorganised and unpredictable may sound like the same thing, “Stranger Fruit”
proves that there is a distinct difference between the two definitions, chiefly down to how clean the album sounds despite its erratic charisma as well as how catchy the songs actually are. When music is unpredictable, something- a theme or a mood- needs to tie everything together and on this album and a constant eerie vibe is what turns these unpredictable songs into one coherent record, assisted greatly by Kurt Ballou’s menacing production job. This eeriness manifests in the calmer, reflective moments where isolated, drawn-out sounds create a distinct feeling of unease. Additionally, eeriness develops within the icy screams during the fiery songs such as “Waste” and “Fire of Motion” and within the lyricism where Gagneux expresses dread, fury and threats when dealing with the suppression and abuse of black people in America.
With the amount of experimentation “Stranger Fruit”
reveals, it was never designed to be an immediately accessible album. Moreover, it is such a unique and hugely daring record that it will take a long time to digest and accept. Refreshing, catchy and fascinating, Zeal & Ardor’s sheer intrigue and crossover appeal will surely cause ripples in the heavy metal scene in no time at all.