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The Devil Is In The Detail: The Rise And Rise of Zeal & Ardor

Thursday, 27 April 2017 Written by Alec Chillingworth

“We wanted to…how do you say it? Spit fire? When you take the special liquid, take the torch and blow on it. That. We did that with gasoline for a moped. Not really reflective stuff, just kinda dumb kid stuff. The shit you get into when you’re really bored, I guess.”

For some, Manuel Gagneux’s childhood pastimes might seem like the sort of “kinda dumb kid stuff” that growing up in the relative tranquillity of Basel, Switzerland would inspire. But, for those who know what Gagneux ended up being, it’s wickedly apt. Because it’s satanic as fuck.

Gagneux is the brains behind 2017’s hottest new metal act. And Zeal & Ardor’s flame burns warmer than a candle on Walpurgis Night. The project is a unique proposition that blends extreme riffage with haunting, Delta blues-inspired chants, where icy black metal is pitted against slave spirituals and satanic recitations. Elsewhere, dreamy electronica segues into Gothenburg-style melodeath. It’s completely its own thing and nothing else on Earth sounds like Zeal & Ardor’s debut proper, ‘Devil Is Fine’.

And people have been possessed by it. Full-on Exorcist stuff, this. Since releasing the album on underground Dutch label Reflections Records last year, Gagneux has been swooped up by MVKA and now has his PR handled by people who also look after some of the very biggest names in metal. He was booked for appearances before having played a single show, save for one solo set last year where he was “super drunk at two in the morning”. Those dates sold out.

But, as we sit backstage before he plays a packed Underworld in London, it’s abundantly clear that Gagneux never expected this to take flight. “It’s so bizarre,” he confirms, wide-eyed like he genuinely can’t understand how he got here. “There are star-struck moments, like with Tom Morello and Slash [who tweeted about Zeal & Ardor], but there are also all these, like, wrestlers who seem to be really into it. These American WW-something guys? I dunno.”



The response he’s received is surreal – hilarious, even – but it’s not been thumbs up across the board. Despite very rarely plunging into full black metal territory, Zeal & Ardor has nevertheless been tagged as ‘black metal meets the blues’. Black metal purists don’t like that. They like men dressed as badgers frolicking in the woods. They like things that sound like they were recorded in a coffin made of Styrofoam. They don’t like… well, this.

“The black metal purists are not fans, which makes total sense,” Gagneux says. “I mean, some of them are like, ‘Kill yourself’, but most of them…why would they waste their time writing something like that? They just don’t listen to it, which kinda solves the problem.”

“Kill yourself” isn’t a common response to people who make music you don’t like, but Gagneux cut his teeth on the insidious, anonymous messaging website 4chan. While working on his former project, Birdmask, he went to the site for musical mish-mash suggestions: he'd take two genres and allot thirty minutes to splice them together. One day, one of the suggestions was black metal. The other, from some reprehensible lowlife, was "n----- music".

A short while later Gagneux took that and decided to make it into something positive. He created Zeal & Ardor and ‘Devil Is Fine’ is probably the only good thing to have ever crawled out of 4chan. It’s not just the harder edges of the music scene that are paying attention, either. Gagneux’s music has been picked up by radio while he recently got a call saying he’d be supporting Prophets of Rage for a few dates this summer, including a set at Brixton Academy in London. Zeal & Ardor have also been announced to play the Reading and Leeds Festivals this August. “You can talk shit about a certain festival all you want,” he says. “But you have to commend them for incorporating strange acts.”

It’s a shift indicative of both the quality of Zeal & Ardor’s music and the scene surrounding them. Rock music is experiencing a mini ripple of resurgence in the UK mainstream at the moment. Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes are doing serious business in terms of tickets, while Bring Me The Horizon – whatever you think of their latest record – are now an established arena band.

But none of that is like Zeal & Ardor. When asked if extreme metal could ever play with the big boys again, like Cradle of Filth signing to Sony and scaring everyone’s mum at the turn of the millennium, Gagneux, a guy who sings about Satan and the river running red with the blood of the saints, suddenly gets a bit, well, sheepish.

“I can only speculate, and my speculations have proven to be wrong so far, so I’m not gonna waste my time doing that,” he nervously laughs. “I don’t know how dynamic the pop frame is, so it remains to be seen. I think it would be kind of arrogant of me to say either of those things, so I’m gonna shut up.”

Instead, let’s ask him to hark back to an era gone by, to a time before Noisey editor Kim Kelly introduced the world at large to Zeal & Ardor. To a time before the internet, even. To a time when Norwegian kids, not content with their suburban existence, changed the world from Oslo’s Helvete record shop. Where the rules were rigid, the aim was to alienate the mainstream and zero fucks were given about success or the profit and fervour that come with it. Could an act like Zeal & Ardor have thrived in that environment?

“Absolutely not,” Gagneux says, instantly. “It would have never worked. There are so many factors. First, yeah, the internet can spread everything instantly. Then you’ve got the zeitgeist element of things like the Black Lives Matter movement. And with black metal already being in the collective minds of people, the way it was back then… no.”

Maybe he’s underplaying his own talents a bit here, but nonetheless, Zeal & Ardor are playing to a sold-out audience tonight. Things are working out just fine in the here and now, even if Gagneux's still anxious about that. “I’m nervous as fuck,” he admits. “It’s still all very new and exciting, and we’re still very insecure when it comes to performing. We’ve gotta fake it until we actually can.”

Arriving onstage with five band members, all friends of his – “I asked them if they wanted to come on the road, they said yes, and now they’re regretting it.” – Gagneux cuts a menacing figure at the Underworld. He’s not nervous. He’s not faking it. He’s owning it. It’s in his eyes as he spits In Ashes. This is a man who believes in what he’s doing.

The band’s terrifyingly tight – the backing vocalists are genuinely scary – and even though there are a few awkward pauses between songs as they find their feet, it's worth noting that this is Zeal & Ardor’s third gig. Gagneux’s hoarse, gloriously rich vocals engulf the club. The singalongs to the chants are genuine spine-tinglers, particularly Devil is Fine’s venue-wide unifying call. This is something else.

There’s no altar or branding iron (although the latter is sitting at the merch desk, encouraging punters to buy branded leather patches). This is just a band ripping through some of the most unique, downright intriguing music ever committed to tape – and some that’s not even got that far yet. Plenty of new material is road-tested and it’s sublime, hitting a similar standard to the recently unveiled Don’t You Dare.

It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly one of the most memorable metal gigs in recent memory. This isn’t a flash in the pan. There is the potential for Zeal & Ardor to become an institution. The scope of the project could surpass Swiss metal luminaries like Celtic Frost and Samael, reaching into territory occupied by Nine Inch Nails and Type O Negative, both bands with unique, instantly identifiable root sounds that don’t really fit anywhere else. When you put the album, the live show and future prospects together, it really has the potential to be that good.

“I don’t think we’re a metal band,” Gagneux says, timidly nodding along to the Nine Inch Nails/Type O Negative comparison. “We bastardise metal elements. We do metal a disservice, something like that. We don’t want to paint ourselves into a corner. We want to keep the freedom of being able to fuck around with shit.”

If ‘Devil Is Fine’ is the result of fucking around with shit, then please, please fuck around with all the shit.


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