Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Review: Zeal & Ardor, "Zeal & Ardor"

When a band gets classified as black metal, that’s usually going to be a hard pass. The label conjures up a certain stereotype, I suppose, that just doesn’t appeal to me. I imagine an album that sounds like it was captured on a shoebox recorder in someone’s basement, guitars that sound like angry bees and a guy in corpse paint screaming in an incoherent rasp about Satan. I expect songs that are linear with little melody and certainly nothing so mundane as a chorus or hook.

Yes, I know that’s a broad generalization of the genre and not truly representative of everything it contains, but that’s what immediately comes to mind.

There are plenty of exceptions, but none quite as exceptional as Zeal & Ardor. In fact, I wouldn’t call them black metal at all, but that seems to be the general consensus. There are elements of the music present, certainly, with occasional buzzing guitars and screams, and there’s the general disdain for religion that permeates black-metal lyrics. But there’s so much more at play here, including blues, soul and, strangely enough, a heavy gospel influence.

I love to find bands who are doing unique things, and I discovered Zeal & Ardor with their 2019 album Stranger Fruit, which I enjoyed quite a bit. But I kind of felt like their past albums were hit and miss. The songs that I liked, I really liked, but there were quite a few skips for me, too. I think they’ve found their stride on this one, though. The production on Zeal & Ardor is greatly improved over their past records, and the songs just hit harder for me, even though in many cases they’re perhaps a little less heavy.

But let’s start on the heavy end with the song that probably comes closest to that black-metal label, “Gotterdammerung.” The tune kicks off with an absolute banger of a head-bobbing riff before frontman Manuel Gagneux rips through German verses in the expected rasp. For the chorus, things mellow out a bit and Gagneux shifts to English and shows his more soulful side. The kicker comes at the end of the chorus, when he screams “GOTTERDAMMERUNG” and the song explodes back into that opening riff. If that moment doesn’t get your pulse up and your head banging, you probably shouldn’t call yourself a metal fan.

It’s that soulful side of Zeal & Ardor, though, that creates one of the most interesting and powerful tracks on the album, “Death to the Holy.” The song starts with the feel of an African-American spiritual with claps and call-and-response vocals, but it very quickly takes a darker turn as a heavy guitar comes in and Manuel Gagneux shifts to a more sinister whisper before rising to a scream for the title line in the chorus. As is often the case with this record, the gospel influence is at stark odds with the anti-religion lyrical content.

The same can be said of “Church Burns.” The song itself is a stomping, heavy blues rocker with strong gospel overtones. We get the soulful delivery and call-and-response vocals again, and I can honestly see this track getting some serious traction in the mainstream – if not for the obvious issue that will keep it from getting any mainstream attention at all. A song on that subject, honestly, should not be so catchy and infectious.

In other places, there’s almost no heaviness to be found. “Golden Liar,” for most of its four-minute run-time, is a dark and quiet piece, but that doesn’t make it any less powerful as Gagneux captivates with his vocal delivery. Even when the distorted guitars and drums come in at the end, it’s still not heavy by comparison to the other songs on Zeal & Ardor.

There are very few wasted minutes on this record, but there are a couple of tracks I’ll probably skip. “Emersion” for example, pretty much sounds like black metal-influenced elevator music to me, and the outro song “A-H-I-L” is kind of wasted space. But pretty much everything else on Zeal & Ardor is solid, and most of the songs bring something new and different to the table within their established strange mix of genres.

“Run” finds Zeal & Ardor playing with some industrial and nu-metal influences, which come out again on “I Caught You.” “Hold Your Head Low” opens up as a straight blues tune for about the first minute before descending into an atmospheric black-metal hell for the next 30 seconds or so, and then we’re back to the blues, rinse and repeat.

The bottom line is that I can pretty much guarantee that you’ve never heard anything quite like Zeal & Ardor. You may have heard the elements before, but the way that Manuel Gagneux and company put them together is something special. The subversive nature of their music is sure to be a turn off for some, but for the rest of us, it’s a powerful statement and a refreshingly original take in a musical world that doesn’t seem to have many of those anymore.

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