Album Review: ZEAL AND ARDOR – Stranger Fruit

It doesn’t get blacker than Zeal and Ardor. As far as I can tell, this is the first and only negro spirituals plus black metal act out there. Manuel Gagneux originally started Z&A as a solo project in 2014 more or less as a dare from a 4Chan user, who suggested Gagneux combine “black metal” and “ni**er music.” Now in 2018, we get Stranger Fruit, the first full-length release from this very real band.

Black metal and spirituals? Why not? We’ve already experienced how well black metal can blend with traditional forms of music. We had black metal with folk music from bands like Finntroll and Agalloch, and black metal fused with bluegrass with bands like Panopticon. I would argue that there is little in tone as somber as slave music, and the gritty production of black metal already lends an old-school flavor that feels right at home alongside bluesy spirituals.

Lyrically, the two marry beautifully as well. It’s not a big leap from exploring the slave experience to the other macabre subjects black metal delves into. Essentially, Z&A explores an alternate history of American slavery, one in which the slaves found strength, solace, and revenge through a Satanist cult rather than clinging to Christianity. At their root, these are songs about violence—violence perpetrated by slave masters, and by slaves themselves through revolt and cultist ritual.

No doubt, Stranger Fruit is a complete fleshing out of the budding ideas in Gagneux’s early releases, such as Devil is Fine. This is a complete album, full of decent, and resoundingly original songs that carry a strong theme. Synthesizing your own unique genre of music obviously gives you massive points for originality, which gives Stranger Fruit a boost right out the gate.

However, the album isn’t perfect by any means. There are 16 tracks on this album, nearly all of them right close to three minutes long. The lyrics and vocal parts are repeated constantly within each track, which I believe is a conscious choice. I think Gagneux purposefully remained true to the traditional structures of spirituals, committing to a few bold, evocative lines that are easy to memorize and be echoed by large groups of people. Although I applaud sticking with this sort of call and response format, it’s both the music’s strength and weakness. Nearly every line in the album is repeated at least once, and with all the songs of similar length, the music is literally repetitive.

That being said, there are some very interesting interludes to break up the track list—vital on an album with so many songs. The first stark example of this is track six, “The Hermit,” which is a beautiful, form-less, ambient interlude, that is oddly hopeful among the barrage of threats, dead bodies, and human sacrifices the album flaunts. Track 11, “The Fool,” is a playful, digitally programmed piece that harkens back to some of Gagneux’s earlier, more poppy compositions. It’s the polar opposite of the gritty, old feel of the other tracks. A couple tracks later, “Solve” is a complete continuation of this sound. It’s clear these two songs were once one and are deliberately split up to lend a much needed respite, and a delightful callback nearing the album’s conclusion.

Stranger Fruit is at it’s strongest when seamlessly transitioning from spiritual to black metal. Clearly, Gagneux agrees, as he perfectly introduces you to this concept straight off the bat with the aptly named “Intro.” We enter the scene to the sounds of a sorrowful humming, and a simple beat thumped by hand. We hear a bluesy guitar, complete with moaning bends. Then, a few mumbled lyrics, “We all heard the stories. Bring it to your knees. Ain’t no lord gonna help you know.” As the words land, a distant electric guitar tremolo begins to fade in, and then meets up with the classic black metal double bass drum roll. Two minutes in, we know what we’re in for, and if you don’t like it here, you won’t enjoy this album.

Another great example is at the one minute mark of track four, “Don’t You Dare,” where we get our first real scream. They come sparsely through the album, but the payoff is good. At 2:30 we get an even rarer full-blown black metal vocal section. The following track, “Fire of Motion” has some more excellent screams and black metal vocals. For me, these extreme metal parts bring the dynamic punch that makes Z&A special, and I wish there was a little more.

This track also has a brief, but effective piece of sampled audio, something we saw on Devil is Fine. Gagneux is clearly an avid experimenter, and there are a lot of surprising details strewn throughout Stranger Fruit, such as sampled audio, spoken word, Latin chants, and digitally produced sounds. And yet, the overall sound remains familiar—rooted to traditional black music.

“You Aint Coming Back” is a stand out track as well, carrying R&B vocals over top howling black metal guitars. I love the soulful voices, complete with a humming chorus and a tactile beat, produced either through actual clapping or snapping, contrasted by the relentless sound-scape of the guitars. Rather than trading off styles the way most of the tracks do, this one unapologetically marries the two, and holds my interest even without any extreme vocals.

“We Can’t Be Found,” is the most progressive song on the album. It transitions through many different styles and plays with beats in ways the other tracks don’t. There’s a long guitar section starting at 2:08 that doesn’t resemble anything else on the album, and the guitars are panned in some really fun ways. I strongly recommend listening to this one in stereo.

The title track, “Stranger Fruit,” definitely has it’s own flavor. It has a droning, industrial three note part that repeats throughout the entire track. There are some ghostly, echoing voices that repeat perpetually as well. The lyrics aren’t as opaque as on the other tracks, that is, they don’t directly point out ideal human sacrifices, but the song is still full of unease. Rather than telling you that something is wrong, the song makes you feel that something is wrong, and that impending doom lurks around the corner. Evocative and effective title track.

Overall, this is an engaging album with a lot of layers, and you’re not going to find this sound anywhere else. If I had it my way, there would be some longer songs, more unfettered guitar, and some different narratives to the lyrics. That said, the sheer novelty of the band carries it a long way. I don’t know what demographics this band will pull fans from, and what those fans listen to otherwise, but I’m confident Zeal and Ardor will draw people in. The real question is, how long will Gagneux remain attached to this particular project? Will we get another album, or will he let the trolls of 4Chan send him in a different direction? There’s clearly a lot of effort, and a lot of heart in this project, and he has a whole band to work with now, so I’m hopeful for the future of this, the blackest of all genres.

RATING: 8/10


FAVORITE TRACK: “You Aint Coming Back”


FOR FANS OF: Agalloch, Mashed Potato Johnson

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