What started as a “fuck you” response to a racist troll on 4chan has become one of the more divisive acts in music today. For anyone that hasn’t had their ear to the ground for the past couple years, Zeal & Ardor is the project of Swiss-American musician Manuel Gagneux that (now infamously) mixes slave chants and negro spiritual music with black metal. Their 2016 debut studio album Devil is Fine caused such a stir in the underground that it quickly bubbled up and erupted into the critical acclaim of the mainstream, proving not only that it was one of the most avant-garde concepts in the past few years, but also that it worked. It worked damn well.
Devil is Fine wasn’t without flaws, however, and suffered from some questionable execution choices that had nowhere to hide in the album’s 25 minute runtime. But here we are two years later with Stranger Fruit, an album nearly double the length of their previous album and arguably triple the quality. Stranger Fruit may very well end up being considered the band’s true debut.
The first thing I tell people who are skeptical of this new album is that everything good about Devil is Fine has been cranked up to 11. The odd merging of black metal and spiritual songs no longer feels just like an interesting idea, but as if it were destined to be. The most surprising factor of the album is how truly ferocious it is while also maintaining a solemn sense of beauty. It’s within this contrast that Gagneux really comes into his own. There’s a terrifying new intensity to his clean singing, with no better example than tracks such as “Don’t You Dare” and “Ship On Fire.” The black metal sections now include Gagneux screaming actual lyrical passages, something that Devil is Fine lacked. Songs like “Row Row” and “We Can’t Be Found” offer some of the albums most punchy, blackened sections, and the track “Waste” features an atmosphere-inducing blast beat and a piercing howl that should please even the kvltiest of black metal pvrists.
For those of you that remember the odd electronic interludes that took up nearly 50% of Devil is Fine and recoil at the sight of Stranger Fruit’s 16 song tracklist, relax. There are a few interludes, but in the overall scheme of the 47 minute runtime, they work beautifully to enhance the atmosphere. The entire album actually has a great flow, with only the closing track reaching over 4 minutes. Each song is bite-sized, making the album refreshingly digestible. The production on Stranger Fruit really leaves nothing to complain about from beginning to end, at least from this lowly writer’s opinion.
I watched a video recently where Manuel Gagneux talked about the Tom Waits album Swordfishtrombones and how each song can transport you to the world that Waits paints. In explaining that concept further, Gagneux says “It’s not really like storytelling, but set dressing. And that’s something that I wanted to do with Stranger Fruit as much as possible.” Not only is that an incredible way to describe all of Waits’s music, but something that Zeal & Ardor absolutely were able to accomplish with this new album. Stranger Fruit is a frighteningly immersive masterpiece of avant-garde contrasts and one of the best albums of the year. Metalheads and non-metalheads alike can both get their fill with Stranger Fruit, but a word of caution to the latter – it is not for the faint of heart.