Right before soundcheck, it didn’t seem like anything special for a rock show. In a small club on the outskirts of Detroit, a dozen or so requisite black hoodies strolled around, plugging in various cords and tuning assorted guitars. I did not realize that in just a few hours, this room would host the most spiritual experience I have had in a decade [non-hallucinogenic category].
I was in the temple of Zeal and Ardor, the Swiss via NYC act responsible for 2018’s finest album, Stranger Fruit [MVKA Records]. It’s a jarring mash-up of Scandinavian black metal and African-American slave spirituals that could have only been uniquely conceived in the mind of someone like Manuel Gagneux, a biracial prodigy raised by musicians, born in Central Europe and who later split time in America’s most stimulating mecca.
The distinct hybrid of sounds has propelled the group to esteemed heights in a rapid fashion, sprinting from loose concept to major festival act at a remarkable pace, especially on European soil where they’ve garnered slots typically reserved for much more seasoned artists. Thus far it has been a complete labor of love by Gagneux, who wrote and recorded every note of the project’s output with the exception of drums. It was only in 2017, four years into it’s existence, that he debuted a live lineup including full instrumentation and two backup vocalists, a fact that makes their fierce live performance on their first real US tour all the more impressive.
The live show is transcendent, supplementing the thrashy precision of a metal gig with the raw, haunting ache of the South’s blues forefathers. The members perform as if propelled by the Spirit of Beelzebub himself, and a brooding light show transforms whatever venue they inhabit into a psychedelic sanctuary. The matching black hooded robes don’t hurt the vibe either.
“Things are going really well for the moment, we’ll see where it goes,” Gagneux states modestly, sitting down with me after wrapping up soundcheck. “It’s nice doing these [headlining] shows. With the festivals, we play a lot of indie and pop festivals for whatever reason, so you feel like you have to have to convince people to actually stay. At our shows people already know what they’re in for.”
What they’re ‘in for’ is a cathartic, blasphemous liturgy, a ritual somehow even more dynamic in person than the recorded material it’s based upon. It is a dense melange of double-bass blast-beats and ethereal electronic interludes, all guided by Gagneux’s demonic growl and soaring shriek.
‘Servants! Join Us!’ he bellowed. And we did.
The brief version of the Z&A origin story is that the singer posted in an online forum looking for suggestions of two different genres of music to fuse together for a new project. One combination caught his attention above the rest, a call for a mash-up of ‘black metal’ and a vile, racist term for traditional Negro spiritual songs. Gagneux accepted the challenge almost as a joke, crafting a collection of call-and-response Satanic tributes and effectively creating an entirely new genre almost by accident.
The general approach to the lyrical content revolves around slaves paying tribute to Lucifer, conjuring up an endless field of minions chanting in unison while breaking their backs and sweating in service of Satan. To watch a festival crowd of thousands overtake a field, sweating, moshing and reciting phrases like ‘a good God is a dead one’ and ‘we will face to the East to bring our best to the Beast’ back at their hooded, wild-eyed high priest- well that’s just life imitating art.
But beneath those unholy refrains lies a poignant perspective on the fragility of existence. ‘Don’t let anybody tell you that you’re safe,’ Gagneux growls on ‘You Ain’t Coming Back’, but it’s less a warning than a bleak recognition of reality.
“Once you accept the things that you have no control over, you can focus on the things you actually have,” he explains. “That can be quite liberating but it’s very subjective. It’s quite arrogant of me to expect other people to think the same way, but that’s how I see it. You’re bound to die alone but up to that point you can do anything and everything you want.”
For Gagneux that could mean abandoning this project entirely or drastically changing it’s direction- even if that means going back to the message boards for inspiration.
“I think once this well runs dry I may have to (laughs),” he says. “Right now now we haven’t been writing really, just trying to survive these shows, we still have like forty more shows this year. But after this is over there is definitely going to be a space of time dedicated to just figuring out what the next step is.”
Does that mean that, for the first time, he might relinquish some creative control to his new musical partners?
“I’m not sure because I’m such a control freak when it comes to the songwriting, time will tell. There are as many songs [cut from Stranger Fruit] as there are on the record, they either just weren’t up to snuff or didn’t thematically fit, so I could do the half-assed lazy thing. What I want to prevent doing is just doing the same thing again and again, even though it might be pandering or financially viable, I don’t think that’s interesting for anybody.
“People notice that, people smell bullshit.”
On this night in Michigan, there was nothing but respect shown for band, who charged through a sixteen-song set with barely a pause for a sip of unholy water. All in attendance paid tithing in adulation and perspiration to a band on the cusp of greatness. Seeing a show of this magnitude in a small club was an unholy blessing and everyone seemed to understand that things might not be the same on Zeal and Ardor’s next trip through the Great Lakes region. On the heels of occult bands like Ghost slipping their dark roots into the mainstream and titans like Slayer laying down the sword, Zeal and Ardor are poised to make the leap and their dedicated legions will only continue to grow.
The servants will have their way.