Zeal & Ardor album review: A perfect fusion of Americana and Black Metal

Zeal & Ardor is the brainchild of Swiss American prodigy Manuel Gagneux. This eponymous album is the band’s third outing. If they cut their teeth on Devil Is Fine (2016) and Stranger Fruit (2018), Zeal & Ardor is arguably the zenith of Gagneux’s dark craft.

Zeal & Ardor fuses blues, country, gospel and other Americana-infused sounds with a hard-driving industrial and electronic backdrop. Describing this music as Black Metal just doesn’t do it justice. Songs that begin with a rich gospel vocal will suddenly pivot into demonic screeching, the contrast between textures surprising and - dare I say it - delighting the listener.

Fuck it. There’s no part of me that wants to play this review cool. Every year, I visit the “Best Of 202x” album lists, and it’s hard to find something to truly get excited about.

This is different. The band almost perfectly balances the more mellow sounds with crushing industrial sections. Gagneux will switch from a rootsy gospel vocal to a rasping demonic vocal with barely a blink, and it all comes off as sublime. Other bands that have a distinctive signature sound struggle to make their songs sound different. Not so here. Zeal & Ardor manipulate their musical palette without becoming over-reliant on any one trick.

I’m not being hyperbolic when I say this is the most exciting metal album I’ve listened to in years.

Just when you think you’ve heard everything that the genre can throw at you, a band comes along and suddenly everything is fresh and new again. The instrumentation is excellent without ever sounding overproduced. The vocals carry you across a spectrum of feeling - paranoia, exhilaration and sublimity.

If the opening track is the appetiser, Run is where the album really hits its stride - starting with a rasping vocal and the snarled instruction to “Flee…coward”, it evokes a paranoid chase to an epic climax with Gagneux’s taunting’ “Where’s your fucking God?”

Death To The Holy kicks off with a deceptive, almost Kings Of Leon-inspired vocal, before taking a left turn into a pummelling metal refrain. What’s good about this is that the band always exercises restraint when they need to. They never overplay their hand or get into ridiculous gimmicks.

Golden Liar retires the heavier sound for clean arpeggios and a countryesque sound punctuated by big drums as the song builds to its conclusion. The vocals are wistful, rich and deep, evoking classic Americana. Bow opts for a stripped back sound - a simple drumbeat overlaid with throbbing electronic buzz. This one has such an anthemic, cinematic quality - you can almost imaging it being used as the theme tune to an HBO series.

Feed The Machine takes us back into the bowls of hell. An almost hip-hop intro quickly flips into a relentless metal onslaught and a banshee vocal that is just exceptional. You’ve got the full range of Manuel’s vocals all on one track. I Caught You follows in the same vein, coming hard with a distortion-driven chorus.

Described by Metal Hammer as a ‘covert activist, subversive satanist and genre-bending genius’, Gagneux writes, performs all the instruments (with the exception of drums). If Zeal & Ardor can keep pushing out music as powerful and brilliantly crafted as this album, there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon for metal and a fresh infusion of new sounds and styles.

Zeal & Ardor Track List

  1. Zeal & Ardor
  2. Run
  3. Death To The Holy
  4. Emersion
  5. Golden Liar
  6. Erase
  7. Bow
  8. Feed The Machine
  9. I Caught You
  10. Church Burns
  11. Götterdämmerung
  12. Hold Your Head Low
  13. J-M-B
  14. A-H-I-L
Gerard McGarry

Gerard McGarry

Gerard is a contributing writer for The Levee Breaks. Liberal, humanist type. Optimist. Lover of life. Tryer of new things.

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