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Zeal & Ardor make bold statements in their debut album

Ben McKone

Contributing Writer

The first track on Zeal & Ardor’s debut album begins with the simple and dreadful rattle of chains, instantly conjuring images of blazing Southern sun, droning insects, white authority and forced black servitude. 

Manuel Gagneux’s unpolished voice rises above the sounds of labor. “Little one, gotta heed my warnin” *clank, a chorus of voices* — all Gagneux’s call out in response. “Devil is kind!” “He come in early mornin!” *clank* “Devil is fine!”

The listener has been taken around an unexpected corner. This seemingly pious Deep South hymn holds as its object not Jesus Christ or the Christian God, but Lucifer himself, for such is the central question of the Zeal & Ardor project. Manuel Gagneux, the African-American/Swiss multi-instrumentalist who founded the group, wondered what the effect on history would be if enslaved African-Americans had not embraced the faith of their oppressors, but had instead chosen Satan. To explore this, he combined two musical genres that would seem diametrically opposed to most: vintage African-American work songs of the South, such as those collected in the recordings of Allen Lomax, and traditional Scandinavian black metal, influenced by seminal bands like Bathory and Darkthrone.

It’s a combination that will put many listeners on their back foot. Gagneux knows this and is more than happy to indulge in the more shocking aspects of his black metal heritage; Zeal & Ardor’s tracks contain samples of Anton LaVey, Alesteir Crowley’s Gnostic Mass and lyrics like “The river bed will run red with the blood of the saints and the blood of the holy.”

This blasphemy, while always enjoyable, can be found in any black metal release. What sets Zeal & Ardor apart, however, is how skillfully Gagneux uses the unlikely combination of spiritual sorrow and metallic fury to create a deep undercurrent of melancholy and betrayal. The sound is at once furious and mournful, revolutionary and resigned. They are the perfect anthems for our troubled times. 

“They’re coming closer just to kill us,” Gagneux laments bitterly in the track “Built on Ashes,” with the line “You know they’re never gonna help us.”  Other lyrics, such as “Nobody waitin’ on you, you better run, son,” or “Don’t you dare look away, boy” evoke deep memories of racial terror in the United States, a cultural heritage much older than rock and roll. To listen to Zeal & Ardor is to be brought on a tour of a nightmarish antebellum South, a reminder of the true evil greater than any occultism could pretend to be — that has been the rule, not the exception, in the Land of the Free. As Gagneux put it in an interview with Billboard, spirituals come from “a viciously, grotesquely dark place… There might be an upbeat melody, but there’s this immense sadness being conveyed.” The chants are the surface; the screaming, raging black metal lies beneath. So too, this nation. On the surface are lofty ideals of pride, liberty and equality; beneath lies centuries of oppression and destruction. 

Seen in this light, Gagneux’s Satanic affectations gain a new power. As with most occult-themed musical acts, there is no literal “devil” being worshipped. Rather, what is being expressed is the fury of the oppressed. The sign of the cross has for countless centuries hung over fields of forced labor and been wielded by agents of tyranny, particularly in the United States. Zeal & Ardor forces us to take an honest look on the “Christian” history of this country. Looking at such a sight, one can only say to themselves that, perhaps, the devil is fine. 

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