Zeal & Ardor – ‘Zeal & Ardor’

By Ash Bebbington

The brainchild of Swiss musician and sole member Manuel Gagneux, Zeal & Ardor is one of the most interesting, uncompromising and unique contemporary metal bands on the planet. If you’re new to this band, we promise you’ve never heard anything quite like this before. So what exactly do they sound like? To explain that, we have to start from the very beginning.

Currently on their third record, and fourth release overall, it feels trite to recount the much-told story of Zeal & Ardor’s inception but it is one that’s worth re-telling for those that haven’t read about it before. Sitting in his bedroom, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Gagneux was looking for new creative ideas. He left a post on the message board, 4chan, asking users to suggest two musical genres to blend together. What started out as a creative exercise became something greater when one user suggested he mix black metal with African-American spirituals. This seemingly impossible sonic mix became the foundation of the debut Zeal & Ardor record ‘Devil is Fine’, recorded at home by Gagneux and self-released in 2016 to much acclaim.

As the project has evolved, Gagneux has turned his back on bedroom production in favour of much more professional sounding studio recordings on full-length LP ‘Stranger Fruit’ (2018) and EP ‘Wake of a Nation’ (2020). Throughout the life of the project, Gagneux has gradually brought more genres into his repertoire, including gospel, soul and blues, while retaining black metal as a constant contrast to more melodic work. He clearly has eclectic taste and continues to add more of those influences to this project to great effect. While the genres may change, the real genius of Manuel Gagneux is the way he melds extremity with melody, and he does so stunningly.

This brings us to the self-titled ‘Zeal & Ardor’, which is a fittingly brilliant addition to Gagneux’s back catalogue. Under the ‘Zeal & Ardor’ moniker, he never misses and so it proves here with a record that stands alongside their best work.

If you’re a longtime fan, on first listen, it’s easy to take his knack for blending genres for granted so it’s worth stating that what he’s accomplished here is incredibly hard to do. His ability to take one of metal’s most abrasive and nihilistic subgenres and have it sit alongside genres that couldn’t have less to do with metal is nothing short of remarkable. On top of that, the songs are just really damn catchy and well structured. Gagneux is a dab hand at creating a vocal line that’ll get stuck in your head and refuse to budge.

If you already like Zeal & Ardor, there are plenty of moments here that’ll feel wonderfully familiar. ‘Death to the Holy’ is classic Zeal & Ardor, switching up between soulful vocals backed by piano and crushing extreme metal. ‘Feed the Machine’ is also recognisable, contrasting an outrageously catchy, bluesy call and response vocal refrain with some of the heaviest parts of the entire record. Meanwhile, ‘Church Burns’ sounds like something straight from the first Zeal & Ardor album, with clanking chains used for percussion as well as distorted and eerie backing vocals.

However, there are plenty of new ideas here too; ‘Golden Liar’ is completely unlike anything else that’s been released under the Zeal & Ardor moniker. It sounds like the song that plays as the hero rides to meet his fate in a classic western film. That Gagneux can attempt a style he never has before, and not only make it work but make it fit into an incredibly varied album is a huge testament to his songwriting ability.

Additionally, the instrumentals are more impressive on this album than on previous releases, and there are progressive sections that wouldn’t sound out of place on a shoegaze record. One such example is the track ‘Emersion’, which contains dreamlike electronics and blackgaze segments that are reminiscent of early Deafheaven.

Whether you’re a Zeal & Ardor fan or not, you need to hear this record. It may only be February, but this is sure to be one of the most interesting metal records of the year. In truth, we are lucky to have a band like Zeal & Ardor that consistently pushes the boundaries of metal in ways they never have been before while producing music of sky high quality.

ASH BEBBINGTON

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