Zeal & Ardor balances black metal, negro spirituals, and greater songcraft on Stranger Fruit | Concert Preview | Chicago Reader

Zeal & Ardor balances black metal, negro spirituals, and greater songcraft on Stranger Fruit 

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click to enlarge Zeal & Ardor

Zeal & Ardor

courtesy the artist

“What if American slaves had embraced Satan instead of Jesus?” That’s the question used to describe the style of Zeal & Ardor, an audacious mix of black metal, Negro spirituals, electronic accents, and synth interludes created by Swiss-American singer and multi-instrumentalist Manuel Gagneux. The closest analog might be the soulful, political, gospel-infused postpunk of Algiers, but Zeal & Ardor ratchets up the sonic animosity by an order of magnitude. It’s a genuinely moving amalgamation that channels the darkest chapter of American history while leaving ample opportunity to head-bang. Gagneux wrote and recorded the project’s first LP, 2016’s Devil Is Fine, entirely solo. The album debuted to rave reviews, and for its follow-up, the recent Stranger Fruit (MKVA), Gagneux assembled a full band. Musically, Stranger Fruit is a melange of styles similar to its predecessor, but Gagneux places a greater emphasis on songcraft than before, and the results sound more composed than the somewhat disjointed, mashed-up feel of Devil Is Fine. On lead single “Gravedigger’s Chant,” he strips away nearly all traces of metal to deliver a chilling hymn powered by a simple piano melody, pounding percussion, and a crescendo of layered effects. The rest of the album is considerably heavier and no lighter in subject matter; on closer “Built on Ashes,” he chants, “At the end / When the fields burn / We are bound to die alone.” If you’re looking for one of the most unorthodox live shows of the year, don’t miss Zeal & Ardor tonight at Subterranean, which is part of the band’s first extensive headlining tour.   v

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