REVIEW: ZEAL & ARDOR – “Stranger Fruit”
In 2016 Manuel Gagneux took the world by a storm with his solo project Zeal & Ardor’s sophomore record ‘Devil Is Fine’. Bringing a mix of gospel/spiritual music and black metal sounds, Zeal & Ardor created something that had never been heard before. While black metal elitists were quick to turn their face the other way, the album had a crossover appeal unlike any other ‘metal’ record. Fast forward to the present and Gagneux is ready to unveil his latest work in ‘Stranger Fruit’.
Right off the bat “Intro” and “Gravedigger’s Chant” show an amalgamation of spiritual instrumentation and black metal tremolo riffing. Aiming for a much more larger and heavier overall soundstage, Zeal & Ardor play a few elements differently compared to their previous work. Whereas ‘Devil Is Fine’ was built around the captivating spiritual-like choruses, Manuel Gagneux brings a bit of spite and roughness into his sound on ‘Stranger Fruit’. While still retaining the unmistakable unique sound of Zeal & Ardor, it ensures that the project at no point comes off as one trick pony.
The one man band is also not one to shy away from experimentation. Having complete knowledge of the mass appeal of their signature sound on ‘Devil Is Fine’, Gagneux experiments with larger sonic diversity on ‘Stranger Fruit’. The tracks are deliberately arranged to come off as opposites. “The Hermit” is one of the most powerful mediative sections of the album and listening to the track alone would leave the listener unprepared for the gospel driven “Row Row” which hits immediately afterwards. Combining the preachy chorus with some of the best screams, Gagneux manages to even blend in some melodic death metal elements into the track without breaking a note.
The majority of the songs stick to the average 3 minute mark, making maximum impact and never overstaying their welcome. This not only allows each track on ‘Stranger Fruit’ to have its own unique signature, but also ensure that the listener is drawn in for the total duration of all 16 tracks. “You Ain’t Coming Back” serves as a fantastic example, bringing in a very unique structure (even in the realm of Zeal & Ardor) through the almost pop/alternative style of vocals. Coupled with the drone/industrial black metal background music, the track makes a powerful statement before paving the way for an electronic/ambient instrumental in “The Fool”.
Reserving the strongest material for the last “Built On Ashes” clocks at four-and-half minutes, bringing the best mix of influences ever heard on a Zeal & Ardor track. Starting off with an almost post-rock meets blues moment, the powerful vocals that almost sound as that of a preacher preaching a gospel take over. Midway the post rock elements make a return, this time around supported by electronic elements and give the album a smooth closure.
To sum it all up, clocking just over 45 minutes ‘Stranger Fruit’ is a strange delicacy that will leave a different taste in every listeners mind. The deliberate song placement intended to play off each other musically, can keep a few listeners engaged and may prove to be distracting to others. The album clearly lacks a cohesive flow (on purpose) and with multiple spins, some of the softer moments may start waning for those who enjoy the heavy moments of Zeal & Ardor, while others may relish those breathers. It’s a unique piece of art whose beauty truly lies in the ears of the beholder.
With ‘Stranger Fruit’, Zeal & Ardor continue to create artistic music which throws all categorization right out of the window. Manuel Gagneux has a whole new sense of purpose as he takes the listener on a much more heavier and darker journey than ever before. While black metal elitists will once again whine at how this is just another hipster attempt at diluting black metal. The rest of us can safely say with ‘Stranger Fruit’, the devil is finer than ever before.