I vaguely remembered Zeal and Ardor when I put my name down for this review. I tend to compartmentalize aspects of my musical fandom into arbitrary segments such as genre-associations and assumptions based on band names, and in my head Zeal and Ardor were not exactly on the metal side of that spectrum. In fact, I remembered them as some sort of indie or shoegaze band, and was surprised to see them labelled “black metal” on the review list. Maybe the “black metal” tag and the title ‘Stranger Fruit’ should’ve been more of a tip-off, but it was only about halfway through the second track that it all came back to me: this was that weird band I heard about that mixed black metal with African-American spirituals and gospel music.
Stranger fruit indeed.
Their sophomore album takes the bizarre fusion established on their debut ‘Devil is Fine’ and improves upon it by working to meld the two disparate styles instead of merely playing them side by side. There’s less of a focus on slave-influenced spirituals than there was on ‘Devil is Fine,’ in favour of a more gospel influenced sound than there was on their debut, and the audio is also noticeably cleaner. The result is a remarkably consistent and amazingly listenable list of 16 tracks, mostly around or under 3 minutes, but still quite dense and, even while you’re listening to it, quite baffling. Even without the full-on black metal influences, which aren’t fully apparent until 5 or 6 tracks into the album, it’s almost unbelievable how well this fusion of styles works. It’s less gritty and more accessible than their debut, and it’s a style with which I could see Zeal and Ardor making some real waves in the metal world in the years to come.
Most of the songs boast main man Manuel Gagneux singing a distorted gospel or soul-influenced hook that is often absolutely irresistible that I’m not usually one for short songs, but each track has its and Gagneux between the standard 3 minute chain-gang anthems nearly eclipsed by intermittent black metal fury are pseudo-ambient breather tracks such as The Hermit and The Fool, keeping the album from becoming too same-y or suffering from melodic overload. Other than that, there just too many individual highlights to name; basically every fully-fledged song will grab you in some way or the other, either through the blistering riffage the pounding, primal percussion, or often even just because of some unbelievably catchy hook.
So far, I have no major criticisms of this album. I had 3 days to listen to and critically evaluate ‘Stranger Fruit’ before I had to submit this review. I’ve protested this time restriction a couple of times to fairly ambivalent responses, and I just don’t think 3 days is enough to get a consistent impression of most albums – much less an album as genuinely intriguing as this one. But what I can say with confidence about ‘Stranger Fruit’ is that throughout those 3 days I rarely had a waking moment in which I didn’t have one of its tracks kicking around in my head. I’m still not quite sure where ‘Stranger Fruit’ sits in regard to its overall quality as an album… or its song-writing… or even the longevity of its genre-melding, and my rating is (in my head) tentative, liable to rise or fall as I continue to digest what I’m hearing here. It really could go either way – this is either album of the year material, or something that I’ll tire of very quickly. But at the very least, Zeal and Ardor has transcended their status as a bandcamp oddity – and at the most, they’ve established themselves as one of the most uniquely ground-breaking musical projects in metal. I would highly recommend that you listen to this. Now.
Preorder your copy of Stranger Fruit out now via MKVA Music HERE!