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Album Reviews : Zeal & Ardor – Stranger Fruit

By on May 25, 2018

In one of the most intriguing projects to emerge from genre-blending experimentation, one-man creative force Miguel Gagneux has brought together the sonic otherworldliness of black metal and the dark resonance of gospel/spiritual in a musical hybrid that is fraught with knife-edge tension yet simultaneously harmonious. Zeal & Ardor is a unique project that invokes the imagery of the profound and sublime and flirts with the occult and spiritual underworld.

Stranger Fruit is the follow up to the debut Devil Is Fine, and has crafted the Zeal & Ardor sound with ever-evolving skill. It is heavier, fuller, darker, more haunting. Thematically, Stranger Fruit begins at death, and as the album unfolds the complexities of the conceptual frame deepen. The alliance of stormy blues with bleak atmospheric metal riffs and rolling double kicks is immediately apparent in the Intro, as we are seduced into the unnerving realm of Zeal & Ardor duality with the Gravediggers Chant.

There are some apparent conceptual stand-offs between the tracks, such as between the swelling chants of Servants and the threatening menace of Don’t You Dare that pull in different directions of surrender and defiance. Similarly, the motif of boats – harking to the ‘crossing over’ overarching album theme – is presented in the track pairing of gospel-inspired Row Row and lyrically heavy Ship On Fire as respectively an empowered embrace of animate spirituality and subtle references to powerlessness, human sacrifice and goetia. ‘Dark’ and ‘Light’ form another dichotomy; the chaotic satanic ode Fire Of Motion with its strong black metal influence and pounding bass runs precedes the meditative twittering birds and spacey instrumental serenity of The Hermit.

How one links these ideas together is left open to individual interpretation. A number of tracks on Stranger Fruit are lyrically enigmatic, intriguingly poetic, suggesting deeper meaning or significance but not offering immediate cues. One of the heavier tracks, Waste, is an example of this, as is the sparse but thought-provoking title track. While most of the tracks on Stranger Fruit could stand alone, the album is most meaningfully interpreted as a whole. This is one way to contextualise the electronic/ambient instrumentals such as The Hermit, The Fool, and Solve, that are dotted through the latter half of album. Dualisms are the character of Stranger Fruit; its holds the voice of suffering, yet also the voice of strength, at once melancholic and deviant. It is the death we live in, the life that is transient. The final track Built On Ashes is a sermonic deliverance, preaching a calm, yet foreboding memento mori.

Gagneux’s vocal work is impressively diverse, from gritty soul to seething screams, husky whispers and entrancing chants. The song structuring is eclectic and ambitious but overall it works. Gagneux has hit upon an intoxicating middle ground musically and conceptually between normally disparate genres. It is most effective in the melding of soulful chants with dissonant guitars to create an eerie instability in the sound. This formula is not, however, the only hybridisation on Stranger Fruit, and it breaks down a bit towards the end, with increasing experimentation, but this is what Zeal & Ardor is: challenging boundaries between the living and the dead, and between forms of musical expression.

Band: Zeal & Ardor
Album: Stranger Fruit
Year: 2018
Genre: Avant-garde Metal
Label: MVKA/ADA
Origin: Switerland