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'It's About Departure; Burning Bridges And Not Regretting It': Zeal & Ardor On 'Stranger Fruit'

Wednesday, 13 June 2018 Written by Alec Chillingworth

Photo: Manuel Gagneux

A crow caws. There’s the sound of crunching and snapping.

“I’m in a graaaaveyard,” says Manuel Gagneux.

But he isn't really in a graveyard.

“I’m actually in a really beautiful park by my rehearsal space in Switzerland,” he clarifies. The multi-instrumentalist is preparing for a slew of European dates that will take Zeal & Ardor to the more-metal-than-thou Wacken Festival in Germany; the UK’s ever-more-palatable, yet still eclectic Download Festival; and a coveted slot at Montreux Jazz Festival on Lake Geneva’s shoreline.

Even for someone whose one-man project churns out an ungodly, idiosyncratic blend of extreme metal, blues, gospel and more, the ininterary is a mixed bag. “A lot of mainstream bills and subversive, strange, art-rock bills book us,” Gagneux explains. “I think it’s because people can’t quite categorise us yet, so it’s just a case of throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. It’s kinda fun, because we have to earn the crowd. People need convincing – we’re too poppy for metal crowds, and we’re too metal for pop festivals. We live in a zone of compromise.”

We’ve heard this spiel before, but this isn’t Pete Wentz claiming Fall Out Boy sound like Slayer when they play radio-friendly festivals. Zeal & Ardor’s second record, ‘Stranger Fruit’, is a musical entity that truly exists in both camps. Gagneux’s soulful, heartfelt vocals aren’t a million miles from John Legend territory, but the icy noises of Waste, Fire of Motion and We Can’t Be Found could have come from Norwegian black metal’s grim, frostbitten roots.

The biggest complaint lobbed at Zeal & Ardor’s ‘proper’ debut, ‘Devil Is Fine’ (born in 2016 and re-released in 2017) is that it’s inconsistent. It does Gothenburg death metal, chain gang chants, black metal and electronica, and some found it difficult to digest. “The first album – or EP, I guess – was more proof of concept than an album,” Gagneux says. “Y’know, it was shittily produced by myself, and I was still dabbling. I had help with this new one. I’m more confident. I had help to make it sound… well, not shit.”

Co-produced by Gagneux and Zebo Adam – “He’s known for producing pop, but the first time I met him, he was wearing a Russian Circles t-shirt!” – and mixed by Converge legend Kurt Ballou, ‘Stranger Fruit’ is much more cohesive than its predecessor. It lurches along with a filthy, industrial stomp. It’s Godflesh-esque, and keeps us on edge.

Throughout, Gagneux’s vocals are weightier and less run-of-the-mill. As hyper-heavy and ludicrous as ‘Devil Is Fine’ was, its clean singing always felt a little uncanny. Inspired by Alan Lomax’s field recordings, they were the final part of the project that didn’t feel entirely Gagneux’s. It was a case of imitation rather than innovation, but his voice has blossomed on ‘Stranger Fruit’.

“With the last album, it was me trying to emulate all of those old records,” he agrees. “It got to the point where I noticed, best case scenario, it’ll just sound like someone else. And I’m not going to be happy with that. So I just tried to develop my own sound. But I did listen to a lot of Mike Patton – Mr. Bungle, Fantômas, stuff like that. So that might be something else I’ve stolen!”

He’s selling himself short. He’s much more than a musical magpie. He humbly calls the album “kinda cumbersome”, but it feels accomplished and well-rounded. Using black metal as the common thread, he springboards into territories unknown, through bluesy tunnels and Gregorian u-turns. But everything always comes back to the dirgey, genuinely moving source that can only be Zeal & Ardor, for good and bad.

His initial lyrical concept for the project – slaves turning to Satan instead of God – remains an oddity, reflecting the music’s obtuse nature, while Zeal & Ardor’s unpleasant beginnings on 4Chan are still visible in the rearview mirror. There have been allegations that Zeal & Ardor is a flippant exploitation of African-American history but that’s something Gagneux, the child of a black mother and white father, has always been aware of. He knows this is a serious subject.

“I felt like I didn’t give enough context on the last record, to the black music side of things,” he admits. “’Stranger Fruit’ is an allusion to the Billie Holiday song, Strange Fruit: ‘Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees’. She’s talking about lynched black people hanging from trees back in the day. So it’s an expansion on that.”

What’s so intriguing about ‘Stranger Fruit’ is there’s a tangible sense of story; a narrative arc coursing through the chords that you can never quite get a handle on. There’s the sound of wood being chopped as part of the intro. An uprising of sorts on Servants. A botched escape during Row Row and Ship on Fire. A moment of pain and regret in You Ain’t Coming Back. The futile endgame of Built on Ashes: ‘Like a strange fruit that’s out of season, you are born to die alone.’ It’s stirring stuff, and an expansion on the simple concept that played out through ‘Devil Is Fine’.

“There is a narrative,” Gagneux confirms. “It’s about departure. Burning bridges and not regretting it. Now…this is gonna sound really fucking lazy, but I’m gonna say it anyway: anyone could apply their own narrative to it, and it’s just as right as mine is. I’m aware that sounds lazy. But to take that away is equally horrible. I have so many albums I feel I could write novels about. When I listen to Tom Waits’ ‘Rain Dogs’, there’s an entire story in my head. I don’t want him to destroy that.

“One of my intentions with the album is there’s not complete clarity regarding when it’s taking place,” he adds. “On one hand, Servants sounds like a slaves’ rebellion. On the other hand, it could be a reference to the state of the American middle class. It’s a double entendre. To directly reference such things would be too on-the-nose for me, personally.”

Whatever your thoughts on the message, Gagneux is messing with extreme music. Taunting it. Refusing to let convention bend him into shape. ‘Stranger Fruit’ is 2018’s weirdest high-profile metal release, and there might be more to come, sooner than expected. “There’s a lot of stuff we’ll play live that isn’t on the record,” he says. “We might do a live recording this year, so that’ll have a shit-tonne of music on it.”

But even if nothing immediately comes of that – after all, much of ‘Stranger Fruit’ was played live over a year ago, just as ‘Devil Is Fine’ enjoyed its re-release – Zeal & Ardor’s new album is almost an hour of captivating sonic devilment. And despite its pop sensibilities, its ear for melody and its irresistible catchiness, it’s more black metal than the new Marduk record. It’s more black metal than the latest Shining album. It’s more black metal tha- no, it’s not more black metal than Immortal’s new one, but you get the idea.

Most of the genre’s acts, old and new, fall into a formula. It gets boring very quickly. “Black metal used to be this exciting exploration of new sounds,” Gagneux concludes. “To me, black metal is adventurous and cheeky. It has that ‘We’re gonna do this, whether you like it or not’ vibe. That’s what I classify as black metal.”

'Stranger Fruit' is out now on MVKA.

Zeal and Ardor Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Fri November 30 2018 - BRISTOL Fleece
Sat December 01 2018 - BRIGHTON Haunt
Sun December 02 2018 - LONDON Electric Ballroom
Tue December 04 2018 - BIRMINGHAM O2 Institute
Wed December 05 2018 - MANCHESTER Gorilla
Thu December 06 2018 - LEEDS Church
Fri December 07 2018 - GLASGOW King Tut's

Click here to compare & buy Zeal And Ardor Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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