Album Review: Zeal & Ardor – Stranger Fruits

No-one could’ve quite anticipated the release of Zeal & Ardor’s debut Devil Is Fine in early 2017. It takes the mind of someone truly creative or truly mad to flip the rules of black metal so remarkably on their head as Devil Is Fine did. Manuel Gagneux is that mind, fusing harsh blackened screams with “black music” (blues and soul) and stumbling on as perfect a pair as any. Still, naysayers remained, writing the project off as a fluke, a gimmick and a one-hit wonder. Now, the prolific release of Stranger Fruits is another nail in the coffin containing those naysayers.

It begins very similarly to its predecessor with a slow, building crescendo complete with a thick, evil overtone hanging above it. From the opening rasped vocals “We’ve all heard the stories to bring you to your knees, and no Lord gonna help you now”, the tone is set and it’s enough to bring chills down your spine. The wonderful thing I find about Zeal & Ardor is how well the blues and soul complement the black metal elements. Manuel clearly has a firm grasp on the concept of “less is more” in that Stranger Fruits is far more terrifying and far more nightmarish than anything that’s come out of the realms of extreme metal this year. It’s far more emotionally ruining too. The lyrical narrative aids this no end. The early placing of “Gravedigger’s Chant” and “Don’t You Dare” are both hauntingly dark, spelling out stories of persecution and oppression in colonialism.

Like the previous record, there are a few instrumental electronic tracks in “The Hermit” and “The Fool”. These weave together within the tracklist to create the bleak, hopeless atmosphere that permeates the run-time. Generally, Stranger Fruits is a mildly different beast from Devil Is Fine in that, while it’s a similarly harsh, jarring listen, there’s noticeably more in the way of traditional song structures and musical conventions. At this time, I would say it’s a more orthodox musical expression while simultaneously being a successful extrapolation of what precisely made the first record so brilliant. It maintains the compelling atmosphere while moving into a more palatable territory.

That being said, this is just as likely to change as Stranger Fruits is such a thick and vastly layered album. Each consecutive listen reveals something that was missing from the previous spin. It’s such a rewarding record in that way in addition to its ability to manipulate its way inside you. At the same rate that the subtler nuances that lace the album make themselves known, they slowly eke themselves deeper and deeper into your subconscious, just as the first record had listeners humming the title track for months on end.

Perhaps the real talking point on Stranger Fruits however is the closing song, “Built On Ashes”. This album is an exhausting, draining listen that manipulates a deep emotional investment and resonance within you that by the time the final track rolls around, it near enough has the capacity to destroy you. The 15 tracks that precede it serve as a continual beating-down of hopelessness and weariness that lead up to its destructive climax. While “Built On Ashes” roams more traditional poppier territory than anything in the band’s back-catalogue, it is without a doubt the most singularly devastating, leveling and humbling track they’ve ever put their name to. The mumbled refrain of “Don’t you fix your eyes on me, you are bound to die alone” will fuck with you on a molecular level. It has such a dangerously profound effect that’ll find it’s way into you somehow.

And that’s the crux of this album. This is not for the faint-hearted. It’s such an intense experience that it falls by the same virtue it lives by. By this I mean that, this a real album album. It’s one that demands your undivided attention and isn’t one that can be dipped in and out of. It’s a mark of true artistry where this is a body of work that is so poignantly honest and effective that its impact will sit in the back of your mind for hours after. It’s haunting, it’s evil and by the end it’s devastating. This must become the benchmark now for music that trades in such raw emotion.

Stranger Fruits is out now

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