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Zeal & Ardor Album Review: An alternate history spin on gospel blues metal

March 5, 2022

Manuel Gagneux did it again.

Zeal & Ardor, Gagneux’s wrathful brainchild that combines the musicality of African American field gospels with the distorted electric guitar and demonic screeching of black metal, released a new self-titled album on Feb. 11. The release is preceded by six singles, out of a tracklist of 14: “Run,” “Erase,” “Bow,” “Götterdämmerung,” “Golden Liar” and “Church Burns.” They serve as quite an effective microcosm of the album’s overall sound, in addition to being bone-chillingly awesome.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve listened to “Götterdämmerung,” and how many times I’ve headbanged to it so hard my head felt like sliding off my neck. In the world of metal and metal-adjacent music, the song is as simple as it gets: repetitive, relentlessly pounding snare and bass drums, the boniest of riffs upon a wall of electric guitar whirring, the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure that can do no wrong, and pure, unbridled screaming – in German and Latin. All in little more than three minutes. The rhythm is industrial, the lyrics are sinister, the end result is insanely effective and will drill itself into your skull.

For me, that is the beauty of Zeal & Ardor. Gagneux doesn’t write long songs: no Z&A tracks have ever exceeded five minutes. What he does do is take musical elements from incomparably different realms – “Götterdämmerung” features a gospel choir backing, a Z&A essential – and smash them cacophonously together into a dark writhing mass that works, somehow.

This combination is the lifeblood of two previous Z&A full-lengths, Devil Is Fine and Stranger Fruit. Zeal & Ardor continues that effort with a little more polish, a little better production, which replaces the strange audio ceiling cap of those two albums with an outlet for bigger, louder intensity and even more uncontainable anger.

In Z&A, the biracial American-Swiss Gagneux has created an alternate history. It is a world where the Black slaves of the American south rebelled against their conditions by rejecting and inverting the Christian teachings of their white masters, which were meant to keep them in place.

As such, Z&A lyrical content is riddled with Satanic (or more precisely, Baphometic) and demoniac imagery, quotes from Aleister Crowley and Anton LaVey, and occult references. These are traditional themes in metal and especially black metal, but with Z&A they are implemented with a new cultural purpose. They are an expression of contempt, subversion, individuality and freedom, not just from social norms but from dehumanization.

According to Gagneux, Devil Is Fine is about life in captivity and Stranger Fruit about the escape. As a logical progression, Zeal & Ardor is about what comes after: being on the run, clandestine ruminations, a grand plan. The album’s depiction of life after emancipation is thus both harrowing and triumphant, delivered through a variety of moods and styles that swing from folksy blues to spiteful hollering – courtesy of Gagneux’s effortless switches between loud, resonant clean vocals and harsh, gravelly screams – to dreamy electronic ambience.

Variety has always characterized the Z&A sound, and this latest release is no exception. Some highlights for me include the rhythmically driven and ironically named “Bow,” which decries society’s apathy toward the weak and neglected; the drums- and riffs-laden “Feed the Machine,” which alternates between groovy choral melodies and monstrous breakdowns without warning; and “Golden Liar,” a quiet, soulful tune that gradually builds to a dramatic climax.

Zeal & Ardor may not please all fans of spirituals or pure metal. But for those seeking an experience that fuses genre experimentation with meaningful lyrical themes, I cannot recommend the works of Manuel Gagneux enough.

Zeal & Ardor is available for streaming and purchase on all major music platforms.

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