Zeal & Ardor began as a joke. Swiss-American musician Manuel Gagneux had been fusing genres in response to throwaway 4Chan comments for a little while before responding to an offensively-phrased request to combine black metal and old spirituals. He ended up with a demo—a little incoherent, but promising nonetheless—that fused dissociatively heavy guitars with old spirituals. But he took a leap on his debut LP, Devil Is Fine, one of Noisey's favorite records of 2016, an album that tore down the boundaries between two seemingly opposed styles, worlds, and histories. Above all, when Devil Is Fine hit the mark, it reduced everything to such fine rubble that the original structures were invisible. "I think there’s a connection between the two," he said at the time. "It’s a form of rebellion."
Two years on and Gagneux has turned Zeal & Ardor into a full band, touring the world, working his seemingly disparate influences together with more precision. He's preparing to release his second LP, Stranger Fruit, out June 8 and this morning, he put out the record's first single, "Gravediggers Chant." It rules so hard. His voice is a perfectly controlled howl, crackling through the overloaded mix, rising and falling with the steady piano chords and crashing, half-paced drums. Lyrically, it's about as sunny as its title suggests. "Bring the dead down low / Bring the dead body down to the graveyard, son," he yells. "You can't run, you can't hide."
The video for the song, which you can watch at the top of the page, is no sunnier, with terrified young people fleeing a pistol-wielding man in black. It's a heavy watch.
But Gagneux's approach to everything here is so brutal that the song ends up pushing past misery. When he brings the gospel vocals to the top of the mix—the title track to Devil Is Fine is a good analog—it becomes impossible to completely terrify the listener. Instead, he draws you in, invites listeners inside the harshness rather than pushing them away. And aside from all that he has an incredible knack for dramatic drops. Here's a sentence I didn't expect to type three years ago: Try not bopping along to this gospel-heavy black metal song.
"The gravedigger's chant is the song sung by the people who lay your body to rest" Gagneux said in a statement. "These people don't care where you were, but they know what you did and who loved you. All they know is what lies before them. So they sing this song, since you can no longer breathe a note."
"Our intent is both to familiarize as well as alienate. The video of 'Gravedigger's Chant' subverts roles: People find themselves in situations untypical for their ilk, tools become weapons, weapons turn into tools, and fingers meant for sensing make themselves felt."
Watch the video for "Gravedigger's Chant" at the top of the page and watch out for Stranger Fruit, out June 8 on Radicalis.
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