Zeal and Ardor – Stranger Fruit (Album Review)

Zeal and Ardor – Stranger Fruit
Released: June 8th, 2018

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What initially began as meeting a challenge put forward by members of 4Chan to combine African American spiritual music and black metal soon became one of the most powerful and unique bands currently in existence, Zeal and Ardor. As odd and opposite as the two genres of music may seem, the brain behind it all Manuel Gagneux, somehow managed to bring the two together resulting in the kind of music that would’ve been had American slaves rebelled just as Norwegian black metal rebelled against the institution of Christianity. Not only was the debut release one of my top albums from last year, it is undoubtedly one of my favourite releases ever and his latest offering to the world Stranger Fruit is no exception to this either.

 

Stranger Fruit starts off with a blues-influenced, morose intro, only to build up into a crushing piece of heavy riffs and eerie dissonance. This is where it all begins and you can feel the intensity of the journey that lies ahead. The first single released stunned the world, every note of ‘Gravedigger’s Chant’ filled with tremendous power, sorrow and aggression. Continuing in a similar but not exact vibe from ‘Devil is Fine’, Manuel’s powerful vocals come surging through immediately. What makes this track an even more confronting listen is how clear the lyrics such as “Bring the dead body down”, are in amongst the other elements of intense sound, it flows so magnificently.

Albeit only one track in, you can already feel that energy flowing through and from the music On the third track ‘Servants’ is where you start to hear more of that heavy, black metal touch but only just. By this point you start to realise just how much of a relentless force the music of this album is; drums thundering forth and heavy riffing, it all comes together to create a track that is beyond powerful, one that undeniably conveys the emotions and solidarity of the community it represents. Crickets and a subtle guitar riff begin ‘Don’t You Dare’ but eventually builds up into an absolutely eerie track of thick layers, huge, heavy progression, stepping into the realms of black metal. The raw, unsettling nature will have you drawn in, leaving you completely taken by the wild drumming and the deep, husky vocals. This primal atmosphere of the music continues on into ‘Fire of Motion’, a complex riff-laden track with fat bass lines and layers of trippy vocals that signify the depth of emotion in not only this track, but the whole release. An intro that sounds like a mix of Behemoth and Godflesh, it’s hectic and relentless. But what makes all of this music absolutely fascinating is that most of the lyrics can be heard crystal clear even through the layered vocals, guttural growls, and crushing riffage. Blast beats and a head bang-inducing energy, it’s unpredictable, inspiring and has a strong impact on the mind of the listener.

The Hermit’ is the breather of the first part of this amazing journey. With deep choral hums, the chirping of birds and the soft harmonies flowing, in amongst the wonderous chaos, this track gives you a sense of peace and calm; a calm before the storm might I add. ‘Row Row’ on the other hand is a very wild and soulful track that seems to hold a lot of passion and truth within it. While the mind-blowing ferocity and brilliance of the guitars will grip you instantly, you can’t help but wonder the real story behind the plethora of feeling hidden in the music. ‘Ship on Fire’ continues in the vein of Zeal and Ardor’s previous release and reminded me of one of the tracks ‘Blood on the River’ which has a very powerful black metal, occult vibe guiding the track throughout while maintaining that old bluesy instrumentation and with more tribal chanted vocals.

 

It’s ingenious the diverse range of sounds that goes into a single track and it seems that Manuel has mastered the art of bringing together such element as is seen in the next one ‘Waste’. The plethora of sounds he brings forth in his music continues as this song delves into a much more horror-oriented atmosphere, complete with blood-curdling screams, maddening blast beats and heavy riffs. A sonorous melody woven in towards the end is yet another hint in Zeal and Ardor’s music that all is not lost. And while ‘Waste’s blackened magical soundscapes will hypnotise you, ‘Ship on Fire’ has a more mesmerising vibe, in that it is still heavy but in a way that may seem much easier to process.

The story continues; every moment, character and the plot unravelling slowly as you allow yourself to be completely consumed by the music, a mood perfectly exhibited by ‘You Ain’t Coming Back’. The distorted vocals are almost thought-provoking, but also uplifting; the build up on this track is phenomenal as it soars into a gargantuan outburst of sound. ‘The Fool’ is an instrumental track that has a sweet and soothing synth melody flowing throughout, sounding much like the organs of a majestic Cathedral. It moves around as if in a labyrinth, and when you least expect it transitions into an absolutely beautiful upbeat tune at times. It is definitely one of the stranger tracks on this album but proves to be a fitting definition of Manuel’s musical ingenuity and versatility.

As we inch closer and closer towards the end of this mystical and emotional journey, there is more realisation that the atmosphere created in each of these tracks is something of pure genius; ‘We Can’t Be Found’ is probably the track that blew me away. I’m not even sure how to describe it but the high-pitched underground screeches and thunderous drumming are probably the highlights, not to mention the sudden shift into a more country like gospel track. It’s ridiculously good is all I can really say, I’ll leave the rest to you. Title track ‘Stranger Fruit’ comes in next and is as mystical as its name with a trippy intro, angelic female vocals in the distance, telling us a story through layers of magnificent dissonance.  It’s songs like this that exhibit the artist’s unorthodox musicianship; the repeated piano notes are sure to draw you in as the track picks up in intensity and tempo and undeniably brings to the listener a sense of uneasiness and nervousness yet seems to ignite a certain flame within you.

 

Solve’ is probably one of the weirdest but most beautiful interludes I’ve ever come across on an album. What sounds like the music on the merry-go-round of a really boisterous carnival and gradually builds up into a video game soundtrack makes for a pleasant instrumental melody in the midst of the sheer heaviness of Stranger Fruit. Now anyone who knows me well enough will know how hard and fast I fell for the next track ‘Coagula’. Right from the deep, powerful choral Latin chants in the beginning which repeat throughout, the force with which this track’s instrumentation and soundscape is delivered is beyond brilliant. The sheer intensity of this journey that is Stranger Fruit comes to a captivating end emotional end with ‘Built on Ashes’, a track that does evoke a lot of feeling with it’s soft piano notes, and that undeniable intensity which is present in all of Zeal and Ardor’s music. Reminiscent of some of my favourite melodic death metal bands, though the music has an underlying darkness and intense lyrical themes, it is still uplifting and holds within a certain sense of hope and encouragement that you need to find under all that distortion and elegant chaos.

There’s not an inkling of doubt that this release is indeed a series of diverse, ominous sounds that will have you hooked right from the start; you never know what to expect but therein lies the sheer beauty and genius of the album and Manuel’s artistry. The album conveys a strong, powerful message through it’s brilliant song writing, instrumentation and Manuel Gagneux’s musicianship. Grim, eerie yet enchanting, it emanates a certain charm and art-horror vibe which is not only captivating but also addictive. What Zeal and Ardor has created here is nothing short of a masterpiece; Stranger Fruit may be strange indeed, but it is the most exquisite kind.

zeal and ardor - stranger fruit

Zeal and Ardor – Stranger Fruit tracklisting

1. Intro
2. Gravedigger’s Chant
3. Servants
4. Don’t You Dare
5. Fire Of Motion
6. The Hermit
7. Row Row
8. Ship On Fire
9. Waste
10. You Ain’t Coming Back
11. The Fool
12. We Can’t Be Found
13. Stranger Fruit
14. Solve
15. Coagula
16. Built On Ashes

Rating: 10/10
Stranger Fruit is Out Now. Grab a copy here
Review by Prarthana Venunathan (@MetalMaami)

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