I suspect my reaction was a lot like others. What? Slave spirituals and black metal combined? Wait, metal in general and soulful music? Aren't those like oil and water? Can anyone really make that work? The answer is yes.
Zeal and Ardor "Devil is Fine"
This one has been out for a bit. When it was released on March 1 of this year, I took notice, but the concept wasn't really mixing in my head so I put it on the back burner for a while. It was brought to my attention again recently. I had one of those “oh yeah...derp” moments and here we are.
Manuel Gagneux has a voice made for belting out soulful sounds. Had I heard him sing in the style incorporated on this album before I knew that Zeal and Ardor is a blend of genres, I likely wouldn't have expected him to do that black metal scream so well, much less incorporate elements into his music. Let's state the obvious. Soulful, bluesy American slave spirituals are so far removed from metal in general.......so....yeah. BUT...this man has taken unexpected ingredients and fashioned them into something delightfully unusual and rather tasty in my opinion. Some tracks will still have to grow on me a bit, but the quality is unmistakable. Color responses sit somewhere between light green and lime green with all the guitar work appearing as a phrenetic rust red wave sweeping all around and sometimes through me. I'm actually relieved for the sensory consistency. Going into this, I was convinced it would be sensory overload.
Speaking of tracks......
“Devil is Fine” There is zero mistaking the style of music. It is what it says it is, and it's like a subtle segue into what is to come. If you really let it sink in, his voice can take you back in time to that era of inequality, class divisions, and war without it feeling like a political statement. The chain rattles add a element of fear, a reality check of sorts, and strangely are catchy as fuck.
“In Ashes” Here there are black metal elements in their full Norwegian glory. It is everything one would expect black metal to be, with a dash of those soulful vocals glazed on top. For the record, that banshee scream around 2:30 is bad ass.
“Sacreligium I” If you didn't know any better, you would swear that a huge dubstep beat was about to drop. There's a deviation away from anything “metal” in my opinion, but the blues and soul elements stay consistent. The vocals have an eerie echo to them reminiscent in my head at least, of a man who's been locked away for dubious reasons, and passes the time singing.
“Come on Down” No doubt, the intro is catchy as fuck. I love the harmony. This is the best example on the album of blending spirituals and black metal. It's a quick trip from a chain gang in the heat of an Alabama summer to the forests and fjords of Norway where epic riffs are born and corpse paint is the style of the decade.
“Children's Summon” It calls to mind the opening of “Mr Tinkertrain”. The metal elements are distinct. However, this song is less a blend of genres and more a well orchestrated shift between styles. Think of it like pouring two trails of water down a hill. Instead of joining into one stream, they continue as two but stay perfectly paced with each other.
“Sacreligium II” It's like having a pretty but creepy music box sitting in the corner that plays on it's own sometimes. Best experienced with the lights out.
“Blood in the River” Gagneux's soulful vocal sensibility is the standout feature of this track. There are chain rattles, creepy preachy spoken word, and an epic black metal scream with chord progressions reminiscent of the icons of Norwegian black metal.
“What's a Killer Like you Gonna Do Here” Catchy catchy catchy as fuck. Reminds me of Fatboy Slim's “Weapon of Choice”. Definitely not metal.
“Sacrilegium III” What is it with these? Interludes in a sense. Really pretty but scary at the same time. My brain wants to respond one way but my instinct says otherwise. Therein lies the brilliance of Zeal and Ardor. You can't categorize it, or respond to it in one specific way, and you can't stop listening.
It's brilliance really. I'm curious to see what else Gagneux does with this project.