“The difficult I will do right now. The impossible will take a little while.” – Billie Holiday.
This statement from Eleanora Fagan, better known as Billie Holiday, would arguably be one of her most powerful and pertinent quotations that echoes in deafening volumes in what can only be described as a “timeless manner”. A songstress who defined the combination of pop singing with jazz tempo in an artistic triumph of originality; but more importantly, became an immeasurably significant voice in the exposure and fight against racial vilification. Her history (“herstory”) is one that is riddled with difficulty and distinction – in reference to the latter, a track entitled: ‘Strange Fruit’ recorded in 1939 (written and composed by poet Abel Meeropol in 1937) would in all likelihood be her triumph about tragedy; a protest song about the lynchings of Black Americans which in turn would spark immense controversy, but more consequentially, ignite the injustices to a new stratosphere inciting “the beginning of the civil rights movement” as per the New York Times. The anthem has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in 2002 amongst many other accolades.
Fast forward nearly eight decades and the mastermind behind avant-garde metal outfit Zeal & Ardor, Manuel Gagneux released an album entitled Stranger Fruit in 2018, an abstract combination of traditional Rhythm And Blues with Black Metal. Realistically, the impact of this LP did not quite have the permanent tidal wave effect of Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’; however, it had a shockwave so profound due to its Post Black Metal and Soul music recipe that it went beyond the “critically acclaimed” entitlement, it charted throughout Europe, the UK and even the US.
A notable nod of respect to Manuel’s cultural identity, his father is Swiss and his mother African American, the miraculous merging of these two musical genres is undoubtedly genius, although as Mr Gagneux describes, this creation was far more organic than calculated.
“I mean, my mum is a jazz singer.” He clarifies – “So there was always like Motown playing in the house. There was, I think we had a record ,like a low max record with all these old field recordings and I got heavily into that in like 2014 in preparation for this. Yeah, that’s pretty much it, because that’s like the rawest form you can get.”
The other prominent musical persuasion apparent in Zeal & Ardor’s formula is that of the Black Metal genre; while Switzerland is a neighbouring country of the Scandinavian realm, it isn’t essentially within the confines of where this unique metal formula was spawned. Nevertheless it would have been near impossible to avoid and in Manuel’s case, admire.
“I think if I had to name my favourite Black Metal band, it would be Darkthrone, they are definitely up there.” He admits – “There’s also Paysage d’Hiver, who are a Swiss black metal band from the 90s. That’s it for now. I think, you know, that’s the things I’m willing to say without getting, well you get me (laughs).”
This mutual understanding that Manuel Gagneux briefly brushes upon at the end of his answer is another story in itself. Without diving into the complexities, there is a “purist” and “superiority” element in the Black Metal genre which is far from upheld by the majority of acts and fans out there, it is a minuscule gathering at best. However, similar to many extreme scenarios, even in art, there can be difficulties (see: Myrkur for a very disturbing example). Regardless, Manuel’s father’s musical passion is quite different to what anyone would expect on a completely different tangent matter-of-factly.
“Well my dad, he is the white one (laughing), he is into Salsa music. I’m not going to lie, I hate Salsa music and it’s just because there’s no such thing as subtle Salsa, even if you can get it way down.” He elaborates by miming quiet trumpet playing in hysterics – “I guess like, you know, normally you get into your parents music as a teenager and you just despise it, but later you warm up to it. That has not happened with Salsa music, I am not on speaking terms with it haha!”
Putting aside the musical taste of one parent’s fondness, Manuel released an outstanding and upstanding Zeal & Ardor EP in 2020 entitled Wake Of A Nation embracing his and his mother’s ancestry and heritage as well as the Black Lives Matter ( #BlackLivesMatter ) movement which had respectably become a global phenomenon at the time, but as aforementioned in this article, has been a topic for an unfathomable amount of time. Aligning with Billie Holiday’s miraculous motif, this collection of songs proved to be the most difficult for Mr Gagneux to craft, record and unleash due to the sensitive nature of the background and what modern event had transpired.
“Actually ‘Vigil’ the opening track on the EP – it started as a song about Eric Garner, this was before George Floyd. I intended to put those songs on this record actually. But then the whole thing happened in 2020. And I got into a really bad headspace. I had panic attacks, I couldn’t sleep and like shoot up from sleeping, not drugs. And I was really worried about my family over in America. ” He pauses in reflection – “And it felt like nothing, you know, is given. This was basically therapy for me. And we didn’t let you know about the release with media. We didn’t put it out on the big label. We didn’t do any press for it because it felt like it had that tinge of exploiting tragedy. And yeah, we didn’t want like: ‘Something shitty happened, buy my album’ idea behind it. We didn’t want to do that.”
In retrospect, this EP was more about urgency to release these compelling tracks in reflection of such a traumatic time instead of the scheduling; so the subject obviously surpassed all matter in hindsight?
“Definitely. Also like lyrically, it’s so clear. There’s no level of abstraction to it. I don’t really enjoy writing like that. But yeah, in that particular case, I think it was kind of necessary. I’m glad we did it like we did. Because even, well including those songs on this record would feel kind of out of place in my opinion.”
The release Manuel is discussing is in fact the long awaited third studio full-length from Zeal & Ardor (our review here) and has been self-titled VERY honourably. A delightfully discordant venture of 14 tracks that expands from the previously discussed Jazz, original Rhythm & Blues and Black Metal amalgamation into new territories of electronic nuances and even Nu-Metal flirtations – considering the eponymous title, this flawlessly reflects their identity and growth since their inception. Furthermore, as conversed prior, what is written is often topical in nature and one such exemplary example is the brilliant composition and latest single ‘Church Burns’.
“Yeah obviously it is about that ‘wave’ of Black Metal. And it’s also about, well basically, nothing is holy. And something has to come down in order for something to be built, it is often the case. I just wanted to make this is kind of strange combination; the song has a pop structure; it’s basically a pop song. There’s a little bit of guitar in it. And I wanted the most commercial sounding one to be lyrically the most questionable one, and I think we kind of nailed it.” He giggles in near uncertainty (from this scribe’s perspective, this track is beyond a victory, it is a marvel). “We’re getting really like, a bizarre amount of support for this single. If you’re going to open Apple Music, it’s amazingly gonna be in the new music daily play. I don’t know what they’re smoking but apparently, that’s fine (chuckling).”
As intense as the subject matter might become, Manuel is wholeheartedly a gentleman – filled with euphoria and liveliness. A question this writer found necessary to ask was one which inspired the whole project that reads: “What if American slaves had embraced Satan instead of Jesus?” And whether Mr Gagneux had an answer?
“I think I’d still have a question. I that’s kind of like the seed of my alternate history project. And I think there’s so many potential scenarios and how it could go. You know, one being it would be totally snuffed out. The other being there was like this subculture or even took over. Kanye’s (West) music would sound different I think.” He enlightens amusingly.
Undoubtedly with slightly Stranger Fruit, Manuel and Zeal & Ardor have accomplished beyond the “difficult” in the Wake Of A Nation, they have unquestionably aroused the world. “The impossible may take a little while” which cannot be denied, however: “There’s a storm out there” that Zeal & Ardor have again, supplied.
Zeal & Ardor is out Friday via MVKA.
Zeal & Ardor – Zeal & Ardor tracklisting:
1. Zeal & Ardor
3. Death To The Holy
5. Golden Liar
8. Feed The Machine
9. I Caught You
10. Church Burns
12.Hold Your Head Low