Zeal & Ardor's self-titled album: "Originality is a scant currency, and Manuel Gagneux’s pockets are full"

Zeal & Ardor's black metal meets black spirituals mesh reaches near perfection on their self-titled third album

Zeal & Ardor - Zeal & Ardor
(Image: © MNRK)

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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

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Alec Chillingworth

Alec is a longtime contributor with first-class BA Honours in English with Creative Writing, and has worked for Metal Hammer since 2014. Over the years, he's written for Noisey, Stereoboard, uDiscoverMusic, and the good ship Hammer, interviewing major bands like Slipknot, Rammstein, and Tenacious D (plus some black metal bands your cool uncle might know). He's read Ulysses thrice, and it got worse each time.