Zeal & Ardor’s Visionary Diptych
I’ve always been wary of supplementary info—CVs, mission statements, explanatory notes—preferring to encounter a work on its own terms and without critical biases. Also, once a project is released into the world, the listener’s response essentially obviates the artist’s intent. That said, some backstories are more intriguing than others; i.e., that of Manuel Gagneux, aka Zeal & Ardor:
I used to make these threads where I would ask people for musical genres; one would post ‘swing’ and the other would post ‘hardcore gabber techno’ and I’d fuse the two and make a song of it in thirty minutes. One day, someone said ‘nigger music’ and another said ‘black metal.’ I didn’t make the song then, but it stuck with me, and I thought it was an interesting idea.
The practice of generating random rules or guidelines designed to emancipate one from habitual and inhibitive methods was part and parcel of 20th Century Dadaism and Surrealism. In the 1950s, Brion Gysin and William Burroughs made further use of the “cut-up” method. In 1975, Brian Eno employed his Oblique Strategies to foster flexibility in the recording studio. One might consider these approaches alternate ways in which to “disorganize the senses.” “Prompts” have become a staple of writing workshops in collegiate settings and online. Random instantiation of parameters can, paradoxically, induce clarity, allowing one to experience a newfound sense of artistic freedom.
In Gagneux’s case, his use of virtual prompts has resulted in a particularly fertile hybridization. Zeal & Ardor’s debut, 2016’s Devil is Fine, is a pioneering mix of musical genres and reconstructed narratives. The band’s 2018 follow-up, Stranger Fruit, is a sustained exploration and refinement of approaches prototyped on the debut. From the opening track of Devil is Fine, Gagneux asserts himself as an historical revisionist: field chants, rhythmic shaking of chains, a volatile reimagining of entrenched ideologies and perspectives. The singers, though enslaved, are anything but submissive, embracing a pagan invocation while rejecting the Protestant (Anglican) hymn. “Gravedigger’s Chant” from Stranger Fruit, is an elaboration on the debut’s title song, as is “Servants,” with Gagneux singing: “servants join us / now listen here you can join us / or you can die in the fire.”
In Devil Is Fine’s “Ashes,” Gagneux perhaps references the death of Emmett Till, singing, “Burn the young boy / burn him good,” concurrently voicing a counter reality: it’s not Emmett Till who burns, but rather his white oppressors. The song launches into breathtaking musical segments that undergird Gagneux’s snarling vocal, reminiscent of the aggressive but atmospheric metal forged by Ghost on their 2010 debut, Opus Eponymous. Stranger Fruit’s “Don’t You Dare” melds the blues chant (“morning might never come ’round these parts / sun never gonna come up”) and the sinister indignation of metal, moving from a Robert Johnson-inspired verse to an acidic riff à la Megadeth to a pummeling distortion-and-scream section reminiscent of Marduk, Gagneux alluding to “human sacrifices” and “Alexis Belial Bellator Halli Rha.”
Devil is Fine’s “Children’s Summon” exemplifies Gagneux’s ability to synthesize disparate sources, opening with a melody that sounds like a nursery tune played on a toy xylophone. The piece segues into a blistering passage—replete with Gagneux’s harrowing scream—reminiscent of Golgoroth or Mayhem. The track then morphs into a chant that oscillates between sounding as if it’s being performed by Benedictine monks in a monastery and Satanic devotees guzzling blood under a full moon. In this way, Gagneux defaces the line between Christianity and anti-Christian stances in much the way that Blake inverted conventional morality with The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Nietzsche upended western values with Thus Spake Zarathustra.
With Stranger Fruit’s “Fire of Motion,” Gagneux continues to blend metal and blues, adding industrial accents reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails (I’m convinced that Trent Reznor’s latest, Bad Witch, is indebted to Zeal & Ardor’s debut). With “What Is a Killer Like You Gonna Do Here?” Gagneux further expands Devil is Fine’s palette, creating ambient segments that remind me of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew or A Tribute to Jack Johnson. The album closes with “Sacrilegium III,” more electronic prog-rock than metal, though a savage moodiness is sustained throughout the piece. The final tracks of Stranger Fruit similarly accentuate Gagneux’s diverse sources, “Coagula” founded on an eerie and repetitive chant, “Built on Ashes” spotlighting the project’s most conventional vocal, an odd detour into mainstream R&B that would be appropriate on one of Gagneux’s Birdmask projects, but seems out of place on Stranger Fruit. Then again, what might strike some listeners as a relatively placid closure to an archetypally mercurial project can be regarded as an ironic commentary: that a history characterized by glaring oppression, criminality, and suppressed rage has resulted, at least in part, in a paradigm that fails to acknowledge and is disconnected from its existential and aesthetic origins. In this sense, the track is Gagneux’s critique of mainstream music, especially its sub-summation and commercialization of African (-American) sources.
As Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is a recasting of (pre-) Civil War history, and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle a postmodern take on WWII and its outcome, so Zeal & Ardor’s Devil is Fine and Stranger Fruit are reconfigurations of accepted timelines and traditional forms. Recontextualizing field chants and blues elements, as well as longstanding and politicized narratives within the bellicose and subversive textures of black metal, Gagneux has produced a diptych that features some of the more compelling music released in recent years. It may not be ultimately significant that these projects were prompted by (racist) posts on a website (then again, who doesn’t love a good rock anecdote?); however, it’s certainly auspicious that Gagneux’s response has resulted in work that notably expands the rock idiom, illustrating that original derivation and derivative originality are integral to the contemporary creative process.
John Amen is the author of several collections of poetry; most recently, Illusion of an Overwhelm, finalist for the 2018 Brockman-Campbell Award, and work from which was chosen as a finalist for the Dana Award. He is a Staff Reviewer for the music magazine and website No Depression. He founded and continues to edit The Pedestal Magazine.