Album Of The Week: Zeal & Ardor’s Stranger Fruit
When Manuel Gagneux threw Devil Is Fine up on Bandcamp in 2016, it seemed to come out of nowhere. Rather than a Swiss-American’s bedroom project, Zeal & Ardor’s debut sounded like it had been unearthed from some muddy creek bed, where aeons of dirt, ash and blood mingled. The band’s introduction hit with the force of a concept fully realised: black metal and Delta blues fused together by the idea of plantation slaves turning to Satan as a means of personal defiance of their masters. Its insurrectionary spirit was explicit in the cover, the sigil of Lucifer laid over the portrait of Robert Smalls, an enslaved African-American who led a rebellion aboard a Civil War ship and won.
Its uniquely radical formula surprised many. It was more surprising to its creator, when it received widespread critical acclaim and popularity in the metal community. Following it up was always going to be tricky, now the blues cat was out of the black metal bag. And if its binding concept is based in rebellion – liberation through the great adversary – how do you maintain such a charged spirit of resistance when you have become accepted?
It is perhaps not so odd, then, that Stranger Fruit sounds like only half a step forward, stranger in some places, but familiar in others. That is not to take away from the eye-bulging intensity on display here, though.
Gravedigger’s Chant revels in fire and brimstone as a blasphemous choir sways to a drunken piano groove, chords hammering home like nails into a coffin. The thrashing Fire Of Motion, meanwhile, is a crucible of cleaving guitars that temporarily burns away all bluesy impurities.
Yet against these moments of unholy fervour, there are some that merely preach to the converted. Servants and Row Row follow the established left-hand path so closely they come across as two-dimensional, lacking in diabolical energy, and Stranger Fruit starts to sound like Devil Is Fine 1.5. By contrast, the understated menace of the title-track’s chilling vocals evoke more dread than a Friday The 13th box set. Similarly, Built On Ashes may repeat the doomed mantra, ‘You are bound to die alone’, but the glimpse of freedom in its overwhelmingly soulful melodies shows that there is still unexplored territory for Zeal & Ardor to exploit.
Make no mistake, however, Stranger Fruit is a singularly raging proposition, and one that is still worthy of the Luciferian seal that adorns its cover. After all, the Devil always takes care of his own.
Words: James MacKinnon
Zeal & Ardor’s Stranger Fruit is available now via MVKA. Check it out below.