Apart from the ingenuity of Manuel Gagneux himself, we have a few things to thank for rise of Zeal & Ardor. The principal one being the unlikely source of 4Chan. Gagneux used to post anonymously on its message boards, asking people to come up with bizarre genre combinations which he’d then fuse into a song. Suggestions included “equal temperament R&B” and “vaporwave jazz”. Had Gagneux plumped for one of those, Zeal & Ardor would have turned out very differently. “It got really weird,” he remembers. “I tried them all, but they tended to sound like horseshit.”
When one forum member proposed “black metal” while a second - a racist plonker - went for “n****r music”, it struck a chord with Gagneux who is mixed race with a Swiss father and American mother. He set about crafting a new form of black-metal-blues music which drew inspiration from the historical parallels between western religion being forced on American slaves and the Christianization of Scandinavia, the home of black metal.
The results were unprecedented. It was a bit like if you took Moby’s Alan Lomax-sampling Play and mashed it together with his previous album, the thrashy anomaly Animal Rights which nobody bought. Only much better. If critics were impressed by the freshness of Zeal & Ardor’s 2016 debut, the second album sees Gagneux take his experiments to the next level. Stranger Fruit is longer, bolder, richer, heavier, angrier, better produced and even more rewarding. It offers greater diversity in places and is punchier in others. At the time of writing, it has already attracted a couple of early nine- and ten-out-of-ten album reviews and it’s unfeasible they’ll remain the only ones.
Along with 4Chan’s role in the project’s gestation, we can also, to use the age-old cliché, blame the parents. “My mom’s a jazz singer and my dad is a percussionist for funk and salsa bands,” explains Gagneux. “I had to listen to so much salsa as a kid that I hate their music, I really do. It’s that weird teenage anti- thing. That probably is what drove me towards metal, too much salsa.” For their own part, Gagneux’s parents are supportive if not exactly converted to his heavy aesthetic. “They try their best to pretend they are fans of Zeal & Ardor. They’re not into the hard stuff. That’s understandable. They have been to see us live. They powered through it, bless them. They tried their best to say something nice. They couldn’t really think of all that much, so they didn’t say much. Ha!”
Gagneux’s parents are not the only ones who haven’t quite been won over by Zeal & Ardor. Certain black-metal purists have even taken aggressive objection to the project’s unusual bending of genre conventions. Not that Gagneux is about to lose any sleep over that. Instead, he chooses to see the levity in it all. “To write a death threat on the internet isn’t exactly a huge achievement. They are very protective of their genre, and I can appreciate that. But black metal used to be this most insane, experimental thing and now there are all these rules to adhere to. It’s almost like there’s this huge rulebook you have to read and that’s counter to the original idea. At first, black metal was about eschewing all tradition whereas now there are rules, which is silly. There was one very particular death threat that was funny. It started with the words ‘I kill people for fun...’ Then it told me to come to some venue but didn’t even specify which country or state. It just said, ‘Come to blah, blah, blah’. I don’t really know where to go from there.”
There has been lots of talk of Zeal & Ardor’s black-metal reference points: Mayhem, Burzum, Darkthrone, and so on. Most of us should be able to identify with the fact that there are other skeletons in Gagneux’s record collection. “There was a dark time in my early teens when I was heavily into nu-metal,” he confesses. “I liked the groove aspect of it, I guess. I loved the Deftones, for instance. There’s a nu-metal revival now, right? There are a couple of bands doing it again, which I wholeheartedly welcome. Why not?” One particular guilty pleasure was Limp Bizkit’s ridiculously titled and chart-topping album Chocolate Starfish And The Hot Dog Flavored Water, thanks mainly to the band’s “fucking incredible” guitarist Wes Borland.
The nu-metal respect is reciprocal. Last year, Zeal & Ardor were invited to support Prophets Of Rage, the supergroup consisting of rap-metal pioneers, and Corey Taylor of Slipknot has praised Gagneux’s “really dark, bluesy stuff”. Listen closely and you might even detect a Borlandian flourish in the guitar lick to Stranger Fruit’s fourth track ‘Don’t You Dare’ but if nu-metal has only a subconscious influence on Zeal & Ardor’s output, both have had to field accusations of cultural appropriation; the former for lifting elements from rap and hip-hop and the latter for its splicing of black spirituals with elements of extreme Norwegian metal. Musing on this topic, Gagneux lets out a weary sigh. “If you want to be really anal about it, where does it end? It’s really a question of intent. If you’re out to mock something, that’s a bad thing. But if you are genuinely trying to make something meaningful then I don’t think cultural appropriation applies. The idea that every culture should keep to themselves and there should be no mingling? It’s just childish.”
“Imagine if American slaves had embraced Satan instead of Christianity.” This was one of the theoretical questions that Gagneux asked himself when embarking on Zeal & Ardor. Given that, what does he make of Kanye West’s recent controversy in which the Trump-supporting rap star posited that slavery was a choice? Gagneux thinks this was “just a marketing thing and [West] is trying to turn some heads. Honestly, I don’t think generally that musicians should be political analysts. It doesn’t mean they have a better sense of what’s going on just because they make pretty sounds.”
That being said, while Gagneux may not be offering any expert analysis, his music has potent political pertinence in the way that it sketches links between horrors of times past and the tragic problems of the present. “Stranger Fruit is a reference to the Billie Holiday song where she talks about ‘strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees’ but she’s actually talking about lynched people hanging from the trees. It’s kind of an expansion of that into modern times, I guess, where the fruits are not hanging from the trees but they are bleeding and dead in the streets. [Some people] might take offence but that’s not my intention at all. I just wanted to draw attention to the issues at hand and the political climate in the US. Making the music that I make and not addressing the orange elephant in the room would just be cowardice.”
Zeal & Ardor play Download festival this year, Fri 08 Jun - Sun 10 Jun