It’s barely been a year since the lauded upstarts Zeal & Ardor released their full-length debut, Devil Is Fine.
An album so good that it cracked the list of my favourite albums of 2017, Devil Is Fine was a genre-bending masterwork, which singlehandedly united two seemingly incompatible genres: extreme metal and African-American spiritual music. The end result was a 25-minute game-changer which stunned again and again as it juxtaposed ominous, harmonised melodies and lamenting soul with Satanic yelps and dissonant guitar shredding.
Living up to both its title and its modus operandi of “encourag[ing] the listener to dig a little deeper and find their own meaning”, Stranger Fruit is a successor that is bigger, better, more cohesive, more driven, more diverse, more evil, more enigmatic and more melodic than its creators’ unhallowed debut. On their sophomore disc, Zeal & Ardor expand upon the seemingly unexpandable, injecting every moment with a tight-knit yet adventurous ferocity.
Notable instantly is Zeal & Ardor’s addition of a complete backing band to its ranks for Stranger Fruit, while Devil Is Fine was a firm one-man project. As a result, this record truly leaps off of the vinyl that it was printed onto with a rigorous fire and expansive tone that captivates both the ear and the spirit. The sheer precision and deep-knit layering present on such songs as ‘Row, Row’ and ‘You Ain’t Coming Back’ is wondrous, packing each entry with a plethora of heavenly undercurrents that continually beckon the listener to give Stranger Fruit just one more spin, out of fear that they may have missed a subliminal slice of instrumental brilliance.
And while the instrumentation feels unrestrained by the addition of a complete line-up to Zeal & Ardor’s ranks, so too does frontman, founder and singer Manuel Gagneux, whose range includes maniacal screams on entries like ‘Don’t You Dare’ and John Legend-like enchantment on ‘Built on Ashes’. Whether it’s humming a dulcet lullaby, roaring like the Devil himself or unsettlingly chanting for the impending rise of the underworld, Gagneux’s pipes can perform it all on this disc, without any fault to speak of.
Alongside the sheer skill on display, equally magnificent to behold is Zeal & Ardor’s writing, as they expertly refine their own sound and showcase an ability to streamline their delivery, while also finding new ways to be addictively eclectic. For example, moments like the electronic interludes of Devil Is Fine’s ‘Sacrilegium’ trilogy have disappeared, leaving Stranger Fruit as a ride that firmly spends its entire length running the gamut between the poles of brutal metal and slave-inspired American melancholy, with no distractions. However, in that reduction, Stranger Fruit explores its component parts much more confidently and proficiently: it may be a terrible cliché, but the metal is truly heavier and the harmonies are truly more harmonic. It’s amazing to witness ‘We Can’t Be Found’ transport Zeal & Ardor’s manic guitar-work to Dethklok levels of punishment, only to – two songs down the line – have ‘Solve’ dance with the innocence of a fully-fledged and uninterrupted piano movement.
Furthermore, with Stranger Fruit’s increased length of nearly fifty minutes (as opposed to Devil Is Fine’s 25), those differences feel much more organic and fluid, ebbing and flowing with a grace not quite fully mastered by its more abrupt and jolting predecessor.
It’s difficult to not continually sing Stranger Fruits praises while discussing it, because it truly feels like every single aspect of it is truly awe-inspiring. While the initial concept of a Zeal & Ardor record being twice as long as what lies within their comfort zone is a just reason for a bit of apprehension from die-hard fans, in the end that only makes Stranger Fruit feel even bigger and more bombastic.
This is modern metal’s Terminator 2; its Empire Strikes Back; its Dark Knight – a sequel so well-executed that it surprisingly but undeniably leaves a fantastic original in its dust.
Stranger Fruit will be available via MVKA on 8th June.