Starting out as a one-man project, Zeal & Ardor has evolved into a full band, with creator Manuel Gagneux at the helm, driving the fused black metal & gospel blues beast that it has become. They’re set to release their first album as a band, the second after 2017’s debut full-length, ‘Devil Is Fine’, and I took a moment to speak with the man himself about the band, the tour they’re embarking on, and the album ‘Stranger Fruit’.

On the beginnings of the band as a whole, Gagneux shares, “I think it started with Walter (Hoeijmakers), who books this festival called Roadburn in the Netherlands, and he asked us to play there. At the time, I didn’t have a band, but this festival was actually kinda famous for being one of, not the biggest, but the most well-curated metal festivals in Europe. So, I just asked my friends on a whim: ‘Guys, I have this weird project and we could play this awesome festival. If you have time, maybe we’ll hang on two or three other festivals while we’re at it.’ Stupidly, they said yes and seventy gigs later, we’re still on the road. It’s basically just friends of mine who happen to be brilliant musicians, and they were dumb enough to join me.”

Drawing parallels between the rebellious nature of black metal and the hushed defiance of the American slaves, the underlying theme in Gagneux’s writing came from him asking himself how the slaves would have sounded if they’d openly rebelled against the Christianity that was forced upon them. As a tongue-in-cheek act, he announced the details of the new album, along with the video for its lead single, on a very specific date. “We pushed the single release back to fit on Good Friday. It’s childish, I admit it, but it gave me a good giggle.”

The haunting lead single, ‘Gravedigger’s Chant’, details someone’s final journey as their body is laid to rest. “It’s a pretty old song. I wrote that, like, three years ago. I was thinking about this weird alternate history thing, and there was something about gravediggers back in the day. They didn’t have the tools to efficiently dig a hole or embalm a person. It’s the most personal confrontation that your body will have before you’re put in the ground. I don’t know why I romanticised that, but something struck a chord with me and I wrote a song about it.”

The video for ‘Gravedigger’s Chant’ is as unsettling as the topic would suggest and is preceded in its storyline by the previously-released video for opening track, ‘Intro’. Watched in succession, they tell a dark tale of life lost and the steps taken as a result. “It was filmed in Switzerland. Actually, no, it was slightly off the border of France,” Gagneux recalls, before explaining the confusion, “We live in Basel, which is in Switzerland, but at the border of Germany and France, and we never quite know where we are, because we just ride around and we may be in Switzerland or Germany. We don’t really know. But that was definitely filmed in France, in an old military barracks.” The gloomy coldness wasn’t an after-effect either. “Dude, the actors…they froze their asses off. Also, they had to wear slightly more loose-fitting clothes, so they were definitely full-on cool guys and girls.”

One character in the videos stood out to me more than the rest of the cast, and I had to ask about the man in the hat and trench coat. “To me, he’s supposed to be basically the ferryman to the dead,” Gagneux explains, “But, to most of the people who’ve watched the video, he’s just a random guy that doesn’t do anything much in the video and leaves you confused for the first time. But I want to leave it up for interpretation, because I’ve of course got very specific views about what it’s supposed to be and it kinda kills the magic if I explain it.”

Marking the halfway point of the record, second single, Waste, was released in late April and contrasts heavily with ‘Gravedigger’s Chant’ in that it is markedly heavier than its predecessor, featuring more of the European black metal influence. “We released ‘Gravedigger’s Chant’ first because we thought what people expected would be like a half-metal, half-bluesy, half-soul thing, and we just wanted to give a gentle ‘f*ck you’ and do something that they didn’t expect,” Gagneux detailed, “And, for the 1-2 punch to that, we figured that if we can only release a pure, aggressive, metal-ish song next, ‘Waste‘ would be perfect. It’s actually one of my favourite songs on the record. Of course, it’s embracing and harsh, but there’s this odd tenderness to it, which I really enjoy.”

The band is in the early days of a long list of festival dates throughout Europe, including a show in Portugal on the day they release ‘Stranger Fruit’ to the world. Before touching on the tour, Gagneux shared with me the background of the record itself. “The title is a reference to a Billie Holiday song, where she talks about strange fruits hanging from poplar trees, but she was actually speaking about the lynched bodies that were hanged in those trees. The song was called ‘Strange Fruit‘, and ‘Stranger Fruit’ is kind of like the extension of that in modern times, where the bodies are no longer hanging from the trees, but laying on the ground with bullet wounds.”

With twenty-four dates left on the extensive tour, including some festivals known the world over, I asked whether there were any particular shows he considered a highlight on the list. “Well, of course there’s Wacken, which is the biggest metal festival in Europe, and also Download. I think the one I’m looking forward to most is Montreux Jazz Festival of all places, because, well first and foremost, it’s a jazz festival. The day we play, the first act is Igorrr – they’re also an experimental metal band. After that, we’re on, but after us is Gojira. We’re just stoked, not to play, but to watch that band. I think it’s going to be a f*cking great evening.” I opine that playing festivals gives bands like Zeal & Ardor the opportunity to share the stage with bands they admire, and even get a side-of-stage view of their performances. “We’re pretty much all about that,” Gagneux adds.

At the end of the tour, there’s a gap of a few months before they venture out for some more shows, so I was keen to learn what the near future held. Gagneux, though, was tight-lipped. “We can’t talk about that yet. Make of that what you will, but there is something that we’re not allowed to talk about.” Could there be some dates that stretch outside his home continent? We’re best to keep our eyes peeled as only time will tell. I, for one, hope they venture down to Australia, because – as I told him myself – I love this record.

Stranger Fruit’ will be released on 8 June 2018.