‘Black metal meets black spiritual music.’ Bottle it, flog it for all it’s worth. When Zeal & Ardor’s debut, Devil Is Fine, slithered into 2017’s end-of-year lists, we’d heard nothing like it: centuries-old slave chants blasphemed by black metal tremolo, bubbling electronica, dusty blues, Gothenburg melodies, and baroque Nick Cave-iness. Coining the idea of African American slaves praising Satan rather than God, Zeal & Ardor’s Manuel Gagneux established his ‘thing’. Stranger Fruit stretched that concept further in 2018, while 2020’s more immediate Wake Of A Nation EP tackled current affairs, galvanised by George Floyd’s murder.
Does album number three have anything left to do? Course it does. It has more ideas than Will.i.am drunk-texting Elon Musk. More twists than M. Night Shyamalan shagging a rollercoaster. But the difference is, Manuel knows what he’s doing. Zeal & Ardor is as cohesive as it is contrary, the title track’s industrial Godflesh drone set against silken, Satanic litanies. Album closer, A-H-I-L, is nearer to a Jim Williams horror score than it is to anything written by church-burning Norwegians.
Between those extremes, Manuel goes toe-to-toe with everyone. Emersion visits that sunshiny post-black metal Møl have cornered the market on, Götterdämmerung injects soul and ghoulish choirs into mid-2000s Dimmu Borgir stomp, while J-M-B buzzes like a necro Ministry backed by… honky tonk piano?
It’s all so propulsive, but it’s ridiculously accessible and nothing’s a footnote. Manuel’s gorgeous vocal timbre is never compromised, lending the record an aged quality – not least on Golden Liar’s Spaghetti Western-by-way-of-John Legend acoustica.
We’re told everything’s been done before. Digital cartoon monkeys are the pinnacle of creativity. The Simpsons is still going. Originality is a scant currency, and Manuel’s pockets are full. Devil Is Fine dreamt a new world, Stranger Fruit started the journey, but Zeal & Ardor cast its anchor and bought a house there. We’re just lucky to be invited.
Zeal & Ardor is out February 11 via MVKA