The Cover Story

Zeal & Ardor: “The more music we put into this world, the more obvious it becomes who we really are”

Over the last decade, Zeal & Ardor has grown from a niche experiment inspired by a bigoted shitpost into one of the most exciting and invigorating outfits in avant-garde metal. With fearless fourth album GREIF, Manuel Gagneux is still broadening horizons, thumbing his nose to genre convention and inviting his bandmates into the studio to make their boldest statement yet…

Zeal & Ardor: “The more music we put into this world, the more obvious it becomes who we really are”
Sam Law
Noémi Ottilia Szabo

Manuel Gagneux has not the type of mind to forget the most bizarre traditions of his childhood. At 10:30am, on one of three rotating dates in January, his hometown of Basel in Switzerland would be rattled by the banging of drums and the booming of ceremonial cannons from a raft floating down the River Rhine. Onboard would be the first of three outlandish characters, each representing one of the medieval guilds, which historically stood for the working classes of Kleinbasel (‘Little Basel’) north of the water. Wild Maa is a green demon awakened after the winter solstice to herald fertility and new life. His route will take him to the shore, where he will convene with Leu, a copper lion, representing the power of fire and light, and the central figure of Der Vogel Greif (‘The Griffin’): part snake, part eagle, part lion, symbolising the internal spirit, bold and free.

“If you grow up on my side of the river – the better side, the cool side – it’s an event you’ll go to with school every year,” the Zeal & Ardor mainman’s eyes light up at the memory. “Everyone surrounds this figure in what’s effectively a medieval fur suit, doing weird dances. It’s so strange and huge, probably almost three metres tall. So it was always going to leave its mark on me.”

Accompanied by jesters known as ‘The Four Fools Of Ueli’, the figureheads then make their way to the Mittlere Brücke (‘Middle Bridge’) where a host of dignitaries and many of the townspeople await. There, each of them will make a show of turning their back to Grossbasel (‘Big Basel’), historic home to the oppressive gentry, and its iconography of gold-crowned, tongue-out aristocrat Lällenkönig. Then they parade north, for a boozy circuit of traditional taverns well into the night.

“It’s basically about sticking your ass out to The Man,” Manuel goes on, explaining an enduring fascination with – and admiration for – The Griffin. “I really don’t know how much success that ever yielded, but it’s such a cool thing to do. He’s the underdog. Or the under-griffin, so to speak…”

Named after that mischievous creature, and beginning its story with this account of the eccentricities of west-central Europe rather than the troubled history of the United States’ Deep South, it's clear that Zeal & Ardor’s fourth album GREIF was always going to be a change of pace for the avant-garde trailblazers. The reasons for that, and their associations with the mythical beast are numerous and layered. Questions of identity, as always for Zeal & Ardor, are central to that.

“There’s a huge pocket of hypocrisy in it,” Manuel begins to unpack, linking to the righteousness always at the project’s core. “In some ways, we are the underdogs, making this weird music. But we’re also peddling merch to people. We’re part of that music industry machinery that we claim to critique. We’ve always had at least a semi-political outlook, though, so it’s not too amiss.”

On a more practical level, the multi-species makeup of the griffin could represent the changing face of Zeal & Ardor itself. Starting out, this was very much a one-man band, written and recorded fully by Manuel himself. As demand for live performance grew, a live line-up gravitated together to bring his bold works to life. But as that line-up solidified – co-vocalists Marc Obrist and Denis Wagner, guitarist Tiziano Volante, bassist Lukas Kurmann and drummer Marco Von Allmen – there was a need to acknowledge their input.

“This is the first record on which everyone in the band is playing their own instruments,” Manuel expands. “I still wrote everything myself, I am a control freak. And I love writing songs, which I do best alone. Plus, I had a loss-aversion where if we were to write an album together and it were to flop hard, then in my subconscious mind, I might think how that would never have happened if it hadn’t been for the other guys. That would be poisonous to our relationship. But we are in the process of democratising everything in the band, and this move was a big part of that.”

“To live where there’s this huge discrepancy between our status feels sh*tty”

Hear Manuel on instilling a sense of democracy in Zeal & Ardor

Financially, having a performance credit on the album means royalties. In terms of esteem, too, it can feel like the difference between being a hired gun and part of a larger organism. Manuel stresses that it’s simply “fairer”, and feeds into the positivity of the whole damn operation.

“Up until now, I’ve been the guy who does everything,” the frontman exaggerates with a knowing grin. “I’m like, ‘Sucks to be you guys. Guess you’ll need to go work when we’re not on tour. I’ll just be over here sipping piña coladas in my Cybertruck!’ The conversations around playing live have been like, ‘Okay, this is the tour. Are you with us or are you not?’ That always felt shitty. Now we’re all at the table when everything is being pitched. Maintaining these guys’ company and camaraderie is important to me. So is seeing them fairly reimbursed. Naming this record after the Vogel Gryphon and not doing that would be a shitty move, wouldn’t it? A royally shitty move!”

Broader input also reaps its own reward in more diverse sound. Zeal & Ardor has always revelled in experimentation, but where in the past that has been hemmed in by its foundational brief – the project’s genesis was a racist 4chan challenge, in less acceptable language, to combine black metal with African-American slave songs – or the adjacent, albeit more advanced, aesthetic that has evolved from 2016 debut Devil Is Fine through 2018’s Stranger Fruit and 2022’s superb self-titled third LP. Ultimately, Manuel underlines, GREIF is about embracing the free-flying defiance the griffin represents, not so much to poo-poo real-world tyrants, but the oppression of preconception itself.

“We’re a band who’ve never really tried to adhere to genre,” he spreads his arms. “This album is about going further: turning your back on – showing your ass to – the conformity of genre. There are so many artists out there that play just one genre of music, but I don’t know a single person who limits themselves to listening to only one. I feel like a lot of people have different kinds of music in them and it’s such a pity that they don’t tap into it. For me, that’s a moonable offence…”

Rolling out to the world, the GREIF cycle begins at its end. In the context of the album, lead single to my ilk is a haunting conclusion, drawing the curtain on a head-spinning 14-track odyssey: bittersweet, contemplative, in search of something like peace. ‘They'll take you far away my kin,’ Manuel croons, mysteriously. ‘They'll take you places you have never been / So don't get lost in thought my ilk / Wrapped in finest cloth and finest silk…’ Stood alone, it feels more like a provocation, announcing that this album goes far beyond sadness and Satan, fire and brimstone.

“Is it super representative of the wider album?” Manuel ponders. “Probably not. But what track is representative of this album? Getting the weirdest shit out there first was kind of the point. It’s something of a palate cleanser. Then the second single will be [one of the harsher tracks] to give people a taste of the sort of whiplash sensation they can expect going between tracks on there.”

Indeed, GREIF is a bold, unquantifiable beast. Likening the sections of the band to the components of the griffin – a rhythm section weaving its magic close to the ground like the serpent; guitars soaring skyward as the eagle; vocals purring or breaking into a roar with the majesty of the lion – Manuel charts how they interlock and work with (or against) each other in powerful, often unpredictable new ways. Stacking its humming six-strings, dreamy ‘la-la-la-la-la-las’, and scourging screams, for instance, ‘Are you the only one now?’ is quite unlike anything they’ve put their name to before. But so too are the pumping riffs and head-spinning choruses of fists-aloft banger Thrill, and the heavy atmospherics of proggy, pitch-black power ballad Solace – in fascinating other ways.

Glimpses of the archetypical Z&A sound are confined to fleeting interludes (369, une ville vide) and penultimate showstopper Hide in Shade, which Manuel hints was included to placate narrow-minded listeners disappointed by the change in direction. “Well, if you’re one of those fans, and you’ve listened that far, you’re probably feeling pretty estranged,” he laughs. “So here’s this.”

More often, it feels like they’ve upped sticks from the swamps of Louisiana for the sunshine of California, with songs like Disease and Sugarcoat showcasing a blatant love of the deep grooves and sexy swagger of Queens Of The Stone Age.

“To not acknowledge that [influence] would just be cowardice,” Manuel shrugs as he name-checks the desert rock icons. Then a broad, self-conscious smile. “It’s ‘Zeal & Ardor goes to the beach!’ This is us in our Hawaiian shirts and sunglasses!”

Writing from late 2022, and recording over five months late last year at Marc’s studio Hutch Sounds, Manuel explains that the more scattershot direction was driven broadly by questions of how to enhance the Z&A experience – “‘What would be fun to play to people?’ ‘What would surprise and delight them?’ ‘What different colours and flavours could we bring to this?’”– but also by the experience of writing with those bandmates right there alongside him. How do they interpret the blueprints that he lays out? That’s never more evident than on the awesome Kilonova: its juddering rhythm and hallucinogenic composition feeling like a lost banger by Tool.

“I adore Kilonova,” nods Manuel. “I realised that we didn’t really have a song with a cool bass intro, so that was basically for Lukas. The drum fills are very Marco. I wrote them, but I was leeching off him, so he could leech off me leeching off him in this weird, incestuous creative process. The original file name was ‘Criminally Funky’. It’s basically a funk track that pretends to be a rock song. It all started with that ‘chikka-chikka-chikka’ rhythmic stuff – but then I guess we got Tooled!”

Thematically, GREIF is a change of direction, too. Manuel skirts politely around questions about the personal experiences behind songs as tellingly-titled as Fend You Off and Clawing out. With the increased prominence of the band, there is greater pressure, but he assures us it’s pressure under in which he thrives. Instead, the weight unloaded into these songs has far more to do with processing the recent loss of family members. Choosing to title with the Germanic ‘greif’ was no coincidence. Mixing up the ‘i’ and ‘e’ – as folk inevitably will – won’t necessarily mean they’re missing the point.

“For me, this is very much the most personal album that we’ve ever made,” Manuel keeps going. “It might be the first album where it’s not just me, but that’s part of grief: the acceptance that I can’t do this alone, the realisation that sometimes it’s good to lean on people for help. Plus, I’m not trying to encompass some massive socio-economic landscape here. I’m just sitting down and thinking about how I feel today, then allowing that to bleed into the songs. Is it sad? Celebratory? It’s an album about processing, but the end point of that process is a positive outlook.”

Abandoning that aforementioned landscape is striking. Personal focus takes preference. That’s no great loss, Manuel insists. Championing a cause is easy – honesty is far more meaningful.

“Bands make statements in response to these big world events,” he gestures. “That’s not wrong. But it has a self-serving element to it where you’re placing yourself as this kind of martyr figure: ‘I’m a famous person, so you must think more highly of me.’ That cult of personality rubs me the wrong way. I’d rather donate chunks of money to a cause and not make a T-shirt about it than vice-versa. It can be easy to forget that we’re just musicians. Really, it’s so fucking irrelevant what we think.

"Of course, we in this band are still very political people, still very much engaged. But this is an egotistical record. It’s about us fucking around and trying shit out. Maybe a little of the anger was lost by the wayside in that. But we’ve already spent a long time being angry. And we’ll be likely angry again soon enough. By no means have we ‘given up’. We’ve just found more efficient ways of contributing to society. It turns out that’s not just about farming likes on Instagram.”

“I’d rather donate chunks of money to a cause and not make a T-shirt about it”

Hear Manuel on Zeal & Ardor being a ‘political’ band

Sitting to Manuel’s left, a plastic caiman bears silent witness to our sprawling, high-spirited conversation. Otherwise, the interview space is sparsely decorated. Lifting the model crocodilian, he explains how he liberated it from a legendary local establishment that once hosted the mighty Black Sabbath, but has since become a bit “shite”. He occasionally veers off with questions of his own or recommendations of movies and music we should check out – from Argentinian horror flick When Evil Lurks to Swedish ‘folktronica’ collective Wintergatan. At one point he reveals that if Limp Bizkit guitarist Wes Borland would play the Chocolate Starfish banger Boiler at his funeral, he could die a happy man.

Boundlessly creative, effortlessly charismatic and razorblade sharp, it is easy to understand how he’s ended up creating one of the most revolutionary bands in modern music. But the absence of self-importance doesn’t cease to surprise. This cuts to the heart of Zeal & Ardor in 2024.

“This band didn’t really make sense in the beginning,” Manuel rolls his shoulders. “And it makes even less sense now. The fact that seeing a shitpost on the internet has led to me being able to travel the globe yelling at people with my friends is wild. With time it only gets more absurd. So I just take it and smile.

"The less material you have, the more unknown space and the more mystique there is. The more music we put into this world, the more obvious it becomes who we really are. The original ‘elevator pitch’ will never go away. That’s fine. It’s something we’ve hugely profited off. But I won’t allow it to censor me or influence what I do. I don’t like to put up walls within my creativity. Down the road, I might even feel like my ideas are bankrupt or this mind is empty. I might need to go digging for ideas at 'Salsa Soundworks' or something like that. As long as it sounds good. As long as it fits.”

So we might even get a Zeal & Ardor nu-metal album down the line?

A mischievous grin. “Oh yeah!”

Sometimes people will ask why Manuel doesn’t reserve such leftfield ideas for a different venture? It’s a question that answers itself. The mastermind has worked on a whole plethora of new projects of late, most of which went nowhere. His (excellent) 2022 “yacht rock” album Soft Captain didn’t exactly light up the charts. Less obvious as it may become, there is still an “identity” within which Zeal & Ardor songs should be able to exist. Place 2022 rager Götterdämmerung alongside to my ilk, for instance, and they mightn’t share many characteristics, but they can live in the same house.

“It’s about the juxtaposition of harsh music with other music,” Manuel nails it down. “That could be within one track or over a sequence of several. I’m seeking that feeling of pleasant whiplash.”

In that, winning over the metal community has not been as challenging as Manuel feared it might.

Whether slotting onto massive U.S. and European festivals like Aftershock and Wacken, or ruling over more niche UK gatherings Bloodstock and ArcTanGent, fans have been fascinated and thrilled. Looking to extensive upcoming dates with German neofolk troupe Heilung, Manuel is confident about tapping into the same experimentalist appetites and the affinity for curating history through music.

“People are going to watch some Viking LARP-ing and strange summonings,” he half-laughs, “then we come along and shout about Satan with a twang for half an hour. It’s gonna be great!”

He balks, however, at the suggestion that Zeal & Ardor could be termed ‘thinking-man’s metal’.

“It’s more like pineapple-on-pizza metal,” comes his enthusiastic counter. “I see us in that same kind of category as acts like Perturbator or Carpenter Brut where, ostensibly, we shouldn’t connect with certain kinds of metal fans, but they still appreciate us. Could we call it ‘Thinking-man’s pineapple pizza?’ Is that a valid compromise? It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but some people will still agree that it’s a pizza even though there’s a little forbidden fruit on there.”

Don’t expect that approach to change any time soon. Manuel admits to having suffered a moment of “retroactive anxiety” when his bandmates asked him how it had been if this new era had rattled off the rails. Fortunately, it’s not a reality he needs to face up to.

“I was just ignorantly trying things out,” he widens his eyes, dramatically. “But I think that what we created turned out to be a resounding triumph. And there’s no going back from here. I’m not going to have that awkward conversation with the guys where it’s like, ‘Time for the next album. Oh, by the way this is a solo project again. Sorry! And, by the way, we’re called Zeal & The Ardors, now…’”

Good vibes. Footloose influence. Banging tunes. A few years ago, that would have seemed an unlikely distillation of what Manuel and the boys would be up to in 2024. But, in the end, there’s a real beauty in seeing them break the chains and become the adventurous best that they can be.

“There are two things that I aspire to do with this record,” Manuel raises his palms as we take our leave. “The first is to reach some fans who don’t already know us. The other is to get the fans who already do to listen to some different, stranger shit. My dream outcome for this album would be if it were to cement us as ‘the band that experiments’.

"It’s hubris to speculate where else that might lead us. As I’ve said, this thing has already exploded my expectations many times over. It’s bizarre that we’ve managed to achieve what we have, to come this far. And I couldn’t be happier about it. Maybe that’s a very ‘un-metal’ sentiment on which to leave off. But that’s just the way it is…”

GREIF is released August 23. Zeal & Ardor play London's O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire on September 22 – get your tickets now

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