When the debut Zeal & Ardor album impacted it really was that rarity of originality, strength of concept and touch of execution that marked it out as something very special indeed. The fact that it would be set upon by hipsters and Guardian bloggers was no fault of the music, the musician or the intent. Nor was the fact that some more kvult than thou types would despise it just for that. Devil Is Fine is and was a huge, emotional, musical monument.
So here we are trying to follow that with Stranger Fruit, a title with a clear nods to both the odd but compelling melange of music and the blues classic lament on racial hate and lynching, something with clear current political undertones which I am sure was part of mastermind Manuel Gagneux’s intent.
For those of you who are unaware, this music is a strange but perfectly and organically blended sound of blues, gospel, soul, black metal and electronica. Yeah written down it sounds ludicrous, but hearing it? Oh lord. From the haunting intro of humming voices, chopping wood and rising wall of noise like something from Johnny Cash meets Wolves In The Throne Room, you are right back in their world. Harsh work, swamp heat, the tang of despair and the staring the Devil in the face when God is nowhere. ‘Gravedigger’s Chant’ layers vocals gospel style with a deep South turn of phrase and great crashes of guitar, thumping drimsr and keyboards. Slow, ponderous swinging of shovels the surge is enveloping like a burial shroud. ‘Servants’ is harshness, fury and rebellion. It rages through the vocals, the call outs to the backing voices, the ringing guitars crashing down like fire. ‘Don’t You Dare’ uses the repetition of phrases to bring a hypnotic vibe before unleashing an utterly unholy howl.
Oh yes, this is how you do a follow up. You tighten up, you crystallise and you take just one confident step forwards. The moments of short interlude, like the quiet of ‘The Hermit’ instead of being separators as in the debut are blended in, a gentle eerie walk between the ritualistic ‘Fire Of Motion’ and the anger of ‘Row Row’ where black metals riffs rise and fall and the words ‘slave to none’ are snarled through bared teeth. I think it’s fair to say that there are no shocks after their first album here – maybe ‘Waste’ is as close as they have ever come to full on black metal in a Cascadian style but again more a step than a shock. The album has more coherence than the debut which was more horrific postcards from a history brought to the present day, where Stranger Fruit is more a whole world, a place.
I guess highlights for me include the utterly bleak ‘You Ain’t Coming Back’, a scraping bone drawn across raw soul of a song. The overtly Satanic and ripping ‘We Can’t Be Found’ with an almost death metal touch to the guitar and some superb basswork and drumming and the aforementioned ‘Row Row’. But really I need to mention the closing song ‘Built On Ashes’ with gorgeous soul vocals backed by that wall of guitar in a mournful way that only black metal can achieve. Staggering end to an exemplary sophomore album.
Anyone with albums by Johnny Cash, Robert Johnson, Nick Cave, King Dude and a love of black metal too needs to put aside preconceptions and listen to Zeal & Ardor. This follow up is mature, hugely thoughtful and unbelievably atmospheric. It puts no foot wrong and shows enough of a gaze to the future to suggest that the difficult third album is in fine, fine hands.
Mesmerising. Never has a band been so perfectly named