Review Summary: Do you feel the thunder?
There’s no mystery in what Zeal and Ardor create. Their genre tags remain as enticing as ever—whereabouts is a listener to uncover a blues-rock/spiritual/avant-garde/ black metal hybrid –yet the execution consistently amounts to lackluster results. There’s enough glamor to the endless backing choir vocals, addicting song structures and slick production, but it’s simply a smoke-and-mirrors show disguising what sounds like a messy coding job. Questions including but not exclusive to, “How does one go from one category to another, let alone one portion of a track to another?” or “What is a record’s flow?” or “Does this actually have black metal or just heavy guitars sometimes?” can be left at the door, thank you. Why? Because bug fixing is for wusses. Go get a computer sciences degree, nerd. Founder and frontman Manuel Gagneux is here and he desires to infect any willing ear with enough swagger and headbanging fodder to drive a mosh pit crazy. By all accounts, such an objective is respectable and, sarcasm aside, there’s plenty of potential in what the Swiss project produce. The band has found a niche by combining dissimilar musical classifications and merging them in a manner that’s perfectly accessible, be a listener’s preference more in the extreme music realms or the lighter sides of rock. However, it becomes increasingly difficult to excuse flaws when, now on their third record, the group has yet to learn from prior lessons. The highlights can work, but Zeal and Ardor
in sum is another mixed-bag of hits, flops, and underdeveloped concepts.
A majority of the album’s 38-minute duration is spent bouncing back and forth between its influences rather than compiling them in a harmonious way. To those coming from Stranger Fruit
, this is nothing new; Zeal and Ardor have liberally bent their genre pool to suit whatever they want on a second-by-second basis. In much the same way modern pop albums fire everything at a wall and hope a moneymaker lands, Z&A manipulate their sound to suit possible singles regardless of consistency. This tactic can sporadically generate earworms; the gradual entrance of “Run” works exceptionally when attached to an ominous chorus of black metal shrieks, which simultaneously covers up the barebones instrumental work. A well-executed breakdown keeps the pressure high, and a reprise of the refrain cements the song as a masterclass in black-metal pop. Deficiencies are able to be ignored and the track has robust internal consistency. Of the more spiritual/folksy cuts, “Golden Liar” succeeds the most, featuring a decently structured crescendo that bides its time, allowing charismatic vocals to drive the number home to its eventual eruption with a backing tremolo riff and resonating choir singing. Minus an abrupt ending, the tune is enjoyable enough to become serviceable pop, once again owing to having a properly-structured idea or set of ideas.
The good news ceases there. Beyond the blatant single-bait “Church Burns,” Zeal and Ardor simply cannot write a proper song to showcase what they want. There’s no road map for wherever the band plans to go with “Erase,” what with the bulk of the tune being based around a thin breakdown in the bridge that is repeated not once, not twice, but three
times. No black metal to be found here; rather, the collective has hinged their heaviness upon the chug train, and the compositions suffer significantly. The song fades into nothingness as it knows no other way to end—but then the tempo spikes for a moment with a jazzy riff, because it can. Later on, the listener reckons with “Feed the Machine,” and the band’s inability to create transitions becomes evident. The more spiritual elements and supporting vocals jostle for space with an industrial metal aesthetic, awkward chugging, and misguided breakdowns, with each being inserted arbitrarily. Yet, nothing compares to the cataclysmic failure that is “I Caught You.” The opening singing lines orchestrate a decent build-up that is immediately soured by bargain-bin low-end abuse. It is equal parts a Rammstein D-side, a bro-core breakdown exhibition, a trip to the local djent factory, electronics, and the whole ‘spiritual’ thing—by now a gimmick rapidly running its course and almost entirely relegated to the same style of call-response vocals. Separate sections stop instantly, preventing any semblance of momentum from taking root, and it guarantees that every novel concept will be jarring by default. If that doesn’t gel, oh well, Zeal and Ardor might just duplicate it for good measure! This entry is unquestionably the messiest to be found, though it’s sadly not out-of-place amongst comparable duds.
Whenever Zeal and Ardor stumble upon something that may be interesting, it’s rarely given ample space to breathe. There are entirely too many resources on their self-titled devoted to uninspired chugging and, as a consequence, the black metal has nearly been suffocated. It appears occasionally, such as the instrumental “Emersion,” but the song fails to reach the next level; the contrast between glittering synths and explosive tremolos is decent, albeit somewhat monotonous, and it is never revisited in Zeal and Ardor
’s fellow tracks. Tacked on near the end of the LP is “J-M-B,” a pure rocker that sports a quick pace and palpable aggression. Unlike previous cuts, Zeal and Ardor preserve the momentum between separate passages, allowing the adrenaline of the number to increase. Then, rather unceremoniously, it’s terminated; it’s less than two minutes long and is gone in a flash. No other formation on Zeal and Ardor
comes close to this due to being bogged down by lethargic guitars determined to chug like college dudes on spring break. There’s no salvaging the utter lack of return value inside “Gotterdammerung,” and the incessant transition dilemmas aforementioned conquer whatever promise “Hold Your Head Low” had. Despite exhibiting signs of life, the group becomes scared about sticking to one thing for too long and promptly dies. Might have the disappointingly short “Bow” been evolved into a grander beast? Do you remember what was said about questions?
It’s fitting that Zeal and Ardor
is completed in such an abrupt manner; a collective incapable of performing a seamless shift cap off their newest disc with electronic ambiance right after finally crafting a decent configuration. That fleeting thrill of “J-M-B” bafflingly descends into the pointless “A-H-I-L,” thus signaling the end of the record by means of songwriting suicide. What it all amounts to is a textbook scenario of a musical act attempting to do far too much than can be done, all the while applying little exertion to even somewhat pull it off. This isn’t to say that Zeal and Ardor have a formula that can never
prevail, but that their reliance on tropes to fabricate ‘experimental’ outputs inevitably ruins any chance of triumph. Why the black metal was sidelined to the degree it was here is certainly an odd decision that begs many more pesky inquiries. Perhaps diving that far into the metaphorical deep end is the true issue; after all, this is a band that partially owes their existence to 4chan. Through that lens, it’s relatively fun, harmless shlock if accepted on its surface as a nonsensical concoction of pop music with an accessible harsh edge. Pop kids can feel tough, metal kids can brag that they listen to just about everything—everyone wins! The objective is to not think at all about what’s actually
coming out of the speakers. Spend a moment pondering over the why’s, how’s, what’s and whatever else’s, and you’re in for an uncomfortable time.