The short but bright arc of Zeal & Ardor started essentially as a response to a troll on a message board, but has almost taken on a life of its own. The band’s (well, Manuel Gagneux, as Z&A is a one-man project) self-released debut, Devil is Fine, came out in late 2016 to high enough acclaim that a few months later it saw release via the MVKA label.
Sixteen months later, Gagneux is back with his highly-anticipated follow-up, Stranger Fruit. The concept of Devil is Fine remains intact: a curious, at times brilliant, combination of electronica, black metal, and slavery-era gospel. The difference on this sophomore effort is primarily one of length: where the debut was nine songs spread out over a mere 25 minutes, Stranger Fruit is nearly double that, boasting sixteen tracks and 45 minutes of run time.
Is the additional content worth it? Does Gagneux push his boundaries even further to the background? Not really. Devil is Fine saw his songs split into three basic types: electronic interludes, gospel numbers imbued with moments of heaviness and blasts of black metal laced with gospel.
Stranger Fruit is more of the same, really. Of the sixteen songs, we’re given three odd interludes and an intro, a number of catchy spirituals, and some ragingly heavy moments – and that’s the main difference between the albums. Zeal & Ardor permeate Stranger Fruit with an underpinning of rage that often rises to the surface.
The album is really a roller coaster ride of emotion. The first four songs progress from the traditional sound of “Gravedigger’s Chant” to the extreme howls and blastbeats of “Fire of Motion,” letting that rage build and break through more and more as the songs progress before giving the listener a break with “The Hermit,” an atmospheric interlude.
The pattern repeats itself several times, building again from the catchy, straightforward gospel of “Ship on Fire” to the harshness of “Waste.” As with the debut, the songs here are all quite short, two to three minutes, and Zeal & Ardor get to the point quickly.
There are a couple of moments where Gagneux does push himself a bit farther than his standard mashups. The title track is the oddest song here, built on a low piano chord, female choral vocals and rhythmic drumming, while the album closer “Built on Ashes” may be the best song on the album, with a compelling arrangement and Gagneux sounding like a subdued Chris Cornell at times.
Much like Devil is Fine, Zeal & Ardor’s best moments are when Gagneux embraces the gospel influences the most. “Gravedigger’s Chant,” “Ship on Fire” and “We Can’t Be Found,” for example, although the latter does bring in a thunderous, guitar-heavy finale. The vocal melodies on these songs all follow the same hymn-like rhythm, making them stick in your craw much longer than the songs themselves last.
That being said, with a couple of small exceptions Stranger Fruit is really just Devil is Fine doubled in length. There’s plenty to like on Zeal & Ardor’s latest effort, but the overall impression is simply more of the same. If you were taken by the debut, you’ll love this one as well.
(released June 8, 2018 on MVKA)
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Watch Zeal & Ardor – “Gravedigger’s Chant” Video