The reason that Zeal & Ardor’s Stranger Fruit was a great album wasn’t just because it expanded on their pre-existing creative vision, but also made it make sense. The fusion of black-metal with blues and African-American spirituals was never realised too well on Devil Is Fine (fittingly for a project conceived basically as a dare on 4chan), and so to have an immediately fascinating prospect actually come together just one album later was a real boost to what was already great on its own merits. Zeal & Ardor still sound like no single entity within metal, and it’s a testament to Manuel Gagneux’s own acumen that he’s managed to pull it all together so swiftly. So that’s why this self-titled album feels so odd, even for a band who, at the most nucleic level, are odd. It’s not a particularly clear step in any direction—forwards, backwards or sideways—and while it’s immediately tempting to praise Gagneux for exercising that kind of ingenuity, it’s hard to say that it adds up cleanly. But that comes with acknowledging that not being grounded in the central concept of its predecessors doesn’t hurt this album; easing back on the mysticism and enigma that came with them avoids running it into the ground or laying it on too thickly, but at the same time, you get the impression that a less succinct vision has surfaced as a collateral blow. It makes sense for a song like Bow to branch itself out to hit out at modern American racism and imperialism, and the doom-laden aura across the album will never not be potent, but you’re also not getting the inspired concept of past releases that makes this less impactful by default. To be fair though, it’s hard to hang on that too much; the need to do something more was always going to be a factor when Zeal & Ardor continued to make music, and this is probably the best scenario that could’ve immediately come around. They still have a darkness and mystery to them, cooled down from the blackened brimstone that characterised their peak, but still finding ways to rip apart the bluesy smoulder and bespoke percussiveness of Death To The Holy and Feed The Machine, and throw them into a black-metal maw.
But again, stepping out from an established core form also means taking a slight step down, as the self-titled album also relinquishes some of the focus of its predecessor. It’s much more like Devil Is Fine from the standpoint of how it’s built, though where that was a Bandcamp oddity to collate scraps of ideas, this is a version that does so with a bigger budget and field of view. As such, it hits the mark more readily—and is thankfully nowhere near as shoddy—but it’s still a lot more diffuse than what came directly before, and that can have ramifications on how substantial this feels. It’s good more often than not though, and it seldom feels like Gagneux is resting on his laurels across what almost clocks in at an hour, particularly in the broadening of his metal palette. Tracks like Church Burns and Götterdämmerung play with huge metal grooves that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Lamb Of God album, and having that meld into the blues of Erase and contort itself into tense snarls and picks on I Caught You really shows how much momentum there still is behind this particular creative synthesis. The relationship between the two sides is treated with more pliability this time; there’s more opportunity for one to exist without the other, without being wholly divorced from it. It’s where Golden Liar and Bow find their greatest footing, in the ominous, ravaged landscape invoked in the former and a quaking, bassy stomp in the latter that feels like a classic blues number being ripped apart from the inside. The experimental nature of an already experimental act really is emphasised on this album (occasionally a bit too much in the twinkling blackgaze of Emersion that sounds like it’s from a completely different album from a completely different band), and for an comparatively uneven as this is next to Stranger Fruit, it’s a great showcase of how capable Zeal & Ardor are at branching out. The loose ends and frayed edges are natural results of a step like this, which Zeal & Ardor have proven to be capable of ironing out in the past without much fuss. Maybe it’s transitional, but that’s also not entirely accurate to where this project seems to be going; if the ‘anything goes’ approach was insinuated in the past, it’s fully integrated in the text now, and how far that can be taken could see Zeal & Ardor hold their spot as one of metal’s greatest oddities for a long time to come.
For fans of: Algiers, Lingua Ignota, Vodun
‘Zeal & Ardor’ by Zeal & Ardor is released on 11th February on MVKA.
Words by Luke Nuttall