Swiss-American Zeal & Ardor began as an experiment in combining disparate musical styles, specifically black metal and African-American spirituals. The experiment has since escaped the petri dish, sprouted limbs, and is now walking, talking, and pushing boundaries. Founder and sole songwriter, Manuel Gagneux, made the decision to self-title this third studio full-length, saying it’s a more focused expression of what Zeal & Ardor is about. This is certainly the case, as this album showcases both the maturation of their signature style and their continued drive to play with new sounds and influences.
While 2016’s “Devil is Fine” was proof of concept and 2018’s “Stranger Fruit” expanded on those ideas and influences, “Zeal & Ardor” shows that Gagneux’s composition has really developed into something special. Transitions between elements are less abrupt (except where they are artfully jarring), and in sections where multiple influences are happening concurrently the blend is a lot smoother than previously. It’s the musical equivalent of stew – once it’s cooked it’s fine to eat and all the ingredients are present, but letting it simmer for a while allows the flavours to develop, making for a more complex and pleasant experience.
Also worth mentioning is the “Wake of a Nation” EP, released in late 2020. The tracks featured there were originally intended for this album, but events in the United States prompted Gagneux to separate the relevant songs and release them earlier. Citing his anxieties over the safety of American family members, he has discussed feeling a need to be more direct about explicitly political matters. Both releases are undoubtedly stronger for this separation, serving different purposes without muddying or diluting each other.
With the overtly political aspects distilled into “Wake of a Nation,” “Zeal & Ardor” is allowed to breathe, becoming more pensive and evocative, and ultimately more cohesive. There are still through-lines of the conceptual alt-history (where black slaves turned to Satanism to fuel rebellion) that has been an underlying theme of Zeal & Ardor projects thus far, but lyrically matters are left vague. This was intentional on Gagneux’s part, as he wanted to let people create their own meaning. In his words, “when I dictate which song has what meaning, I feel like I’m closing the window for them to relate to a song or making it smaller.”
Zeal & Ardor’s signature sound forms the core of the album, from the huge, ominous opening chords of “Zeal & Ardor” to the bluesy “Hold Your Head Low”. “Run” and “Golden Liar” round out different corners of this style, while “Death to the Holy” and final single “Church Burns” exemplify it, a kind of Zeal & Ardor 101. These definitive tracks combine call-and-answer chanted refrains in gospel and soul styles with lingering distorted guitar and intense, almost desperate harsh vocals.
While classic Zeal & Ardor style tracks are the meat, heavier songs are the bones, giving this album more of a spine. Fans of their heavier side (“Tuskegee” for example) won’t be disappointed. While there are many headbang-worthy moments earlier, “Feed the Machine” is the first truly heavy track, alternating groovy blues with blast beats and screaming. “I Caught You” follows, sounding at first like a throwback to “What Is A Killer Like You Gonna Do Here?” but accelerating into a riff-heavy piece with excellent drum work. “Götterdämmerung” rounds out the trifecta by leaning further into straight-up black metal influences than any of their work thus far, featuring very fun harsh vocals – the kind that hover between a growl and a scream, raw, but also rich with texture and rolled Rs.
Of course, Zeal & Ardor is widely regarded as an avant-garde band, so the album wouldn’t be complete without some odd tracks and outliers. “Emersion” starts this off by blending chill electronic influences with high, raw, post-black-metal style screams in an oddly intimate way. Any fans of Mesarthim will enjoy “Emersion” specifically. “Erase” is a haphazard grab-bag of influences that somehow end up working well together, from jangly discordant guitar to soft chanted vocals. Meanwhile, “Bow” takes off in yet another direction, a catchy track tinged around the edges with a bit of hip-hop influence. The penultimate “J-M-B” is different again, with more of a proggy alt-rock vibe despite the presence of harsh vocals. “A-H-I-L” caps the album off as an effects-heavy, textured instrumental piece. Aside from the stylistically experimental tracks, the album is sprinkled with interesting tidbits, such as marching feet sped up to sound like clapping, or the use of a theremin.
Gagneux’s abilities as a songwriter, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist really shine on “Zeal & Ardor”. Compositionally, writing successfully in a number of styles is an accomplishment on its own, and to do all that and then combine them is an achievement. While Zeal & Ardor has had a full band lineup since 2016, all performances on the album aside from drums are Gagneux. Not only does he handle all other instruments and both clean and harsh vocals, but multiple styles of each with aplomb.
Overall, this album is a masterpiece. Zeal & Ardor have defined their sound clearly without closing any doors to further growth and experimentation. There is still obviously a joy in playing with new elements and combinations, and a hunger to try new things. Zeal & Ardor is easily one of the most exciting bands working today in terms of pushing what metal (and metal in conjunction with folk styles) can be. You should absolutely check out “Zeal & Ardor”, if nothing else, you will not be bored.
For a crash course in Zeal & Ardor, check out “Death to the Holy” and “Church Burns”. That said, my personal favourites are “Emersion” because it’s pretty, “Götterdämmerung” because it’s heavy, and “Erase” because it’s weird.
Release Date: 11/02/2022
Written by: Astrid
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