Zeal and Ardor – Strange Fruit
Passion and invention ignite an album of avant-garde black metal blues
Words: Phil Weller
Zeal and Ardor’s 2016 debut album went from obscurity to cult classic almost overnight. Written, recorded and self-released by Swiss-American musician Manuel Gagneux, it’s unique and daring blend of melancholy yet defiant delta blues and bleak but forceful black metal was instantly captivating. Roadrunner Records saw its special potential and soon snapped up Gagneux’s project, pulling the record from Bandcamp, where it first emerged, to give it their own magic treatment and re-release it with the kind of fan fair it deserved.
Two years later and Zeal and Ardor are now a fully fledged band and Strange Fruit bears the resemblance of that. Across a more substantial album ignited by its collectivity, they meld together two conflicting musical styles with clarity and fiery inspiration; they’re debut, self-titled album was special, burning with originality, but here they have stoked the fires of their imagination to create taller, warmer and more vibrant flames.
Gravediggger’s Chant is a dark, piano-led number which talks of murder and builds to a sinister crescendo marked with thumping rhythms and bleeding synthesizers. Here they’re blues side dominates, with only the brooding intent of black metal’s explosivity present while Servants, which follows, allows those gathering dark clouds to rain down. Driven by bluesy vocals which nestle somewhere between a strut and a shuffle, its timbre grows angrier as it progresses before finally unfurling into black metals violent grandiosity. The band’s grasp of tension and release is stunning and it is moments like this, and the delightfully devilish Don’t You Dare, where the fury of their black metal makes a perfect companion for their delta blues build-ups.
Lyrically too they talk often about the slave trade and oppression, delta blues the vehicle for conveying those emotions and their heavy, tumultuous black metal then takes it to a blood-boiling climax that is extremely satisfying.
Strange Fruit is a heavier effort than its predecessor, longer too with their debut barely longer than Reign In Blood, and that extra depth allows them to be even more deadly. The ambient electronica interludes of The Hermit, The Fool and Solve allow you to catch you breathe between the sieges of some of their heaviest and impactful music to date. Row Row, a definitive highlight, combines the vocal tonality and rhythms of upbeat delta blues with dark, occult tinted lyrics before launching into a barrage of aggressive and adrenalising riffs. Ship on Fire fuses atmospheric guitars with rapid fire kick drums and burgeoning gang vocals which sound like a villainous religious cult chanting Latin over a sharp, stabbing breakdown. Waste takes the pace of black metal and places light and catchy vocal melodies over the top, purring with emotion before bursting with passion across its multiple crescendos while the short and sour Fire of Motion sounds like a warzone from start to finish.
In just two short years Zeal and Ardor have gone from experimental bedroom project to a defined and accomplished, blossoming young band. Strange Fruit is heavier and even more inventive than the first, their ideas executed with a greater clarity and grace. Their sound is more rounded too, benefitting from more musical minds injecting their personalities into the tracks with nuanced basslines, clever drum fills and well utilised backing vocals and now more than ever you are left with the feeling that this band has something truly special. It is a magnificent album that delivers so much with intelligence and brutality with equal aplomb.