As a music creation tool, the internet has become a valuable asset as of late, with various acts only being able to create their music by connecting online. With the works of Manuel Gagneux though, the creation of his work has been one of the more unique online stories in some time, one which saw him asking for two genres to splice together on 4chan before the suggestion to mix black metal with the chain gang music of African-American slaves caught his eye.
Apparently this was an idea that needed more time dedicated to it, thus came Zeal & Ardor to fully explore the avenues such a merger could take on a subsequent debut full-length Devil Is Fine. Though to call this album a full-length may be overselling it; it only has nine tracks and barely breaks the twenty-five minute mark, and yet it’s fairly easy to see why. It’s telling that the artwork – an image of Robert Smalls, a slave who freed himself and seventeen others by commandeering a Confederate transport ship, with the Sigil of Lucifer superimposed over it – could imply a lot about the quality of the mixes, the sort of on-the-nose image / sound synergy you’d expect to see from any number of online remixers. It doesn’t help that Devil Is Fine meets those expectations too, the sort of weird, mercilessly janky project that only resides in the murkiest depths of Bandcamp.
To be fair, the two parts do work in isolation. The black metal sections mightn’t push the envelope but their icy blasts are made all the more cutting with occasional shrieks that are at least passable, while the chain gang sections are actually pretty good, developing an eerie aura around them with the scratchy layers of chants and the rattling, minimalist percussion. But when there’s any attempt to put the two together it really doesn’t work, mostly because any combination of them is negligible at best. At least Blood In The River transitions from its chants into the bursts of tremolo picking, more than can be said for In Ashes and Come On Down which jump between both extremes in a way that has no flow or cohesion. Even when it threatens to break into something bigger with the rumbling guitar that builds through the title track, it cuts out in favour of sparse piano that causes any interest to shatter. Half the time it doesn’t even feel like a fusion, just dissonant chunks of sound sequenced next to each other, especially when it comes to the three Sacrilegium interludes which throw even more ingredients into a pot that already feels like it’s leading to an unsuccessful recipe. Sure, the glitched-out electronics of I sound good on their own, but pairing them with the warped music box lullabies of II and III makes no sense, and placed inside the context of the album, they share nothing even remotely with the overall concept.
Speaking of said concept, the idea of slaves breaking away from the Christianity of their masters to embrace Satanism is certainly interesting, but Gagneux doesn’t do a lot to explore it. The title track and the whispering, tapping What Is A Killer Like You Gonna Do Here? at least try to establish the framework for some sort of narrative, but it feels like a story that never progresses beyond the base form of the slaves renouncing their captors. Granted, that may have been the idea – as a soundtrack or product of such an event, it could be argued that Devil Is Fine works to an extent – but for a subject that has rarely been touched before, if ever, what’s on here feels like a missed opportunity to explore something truly fascinating, rather than form the skeleton of it and abandon anything more detailed.
But honestly, Devil Is Fine isn’t the kind of project from which great quality should be expected from. After all, this is an album born from a creative block and inspired by a forum post, one which feels like it was dead in the water before it started. Points for creativity, sure, but even then, there doesn’t feel like there’s anymore that can be done here beyond expanding on something that’s almost guaranteed to become tiresome if stuck to for too long. Don’t expect to hear much more for Zeal & Ardor in the future, only if you’re up for scouring Bandcamp in future where any further material will undoubtedly remain.
For fans of: Vodun, Watain, Deafheaven
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Devil Is Fine’ by Zeal & Ardor is released on 24th February on MVKA.