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The Fire of Motion: An interview with Zeal & Ardor


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It’s infuriatingly common to hear people state that the modern metal scene as it is today is stagnant: a nostalgia-driven movement that only lives to leech off of the success of names like Metallica and Iron Maiden, with nothing new or original to bring to the table.

Zeal & Ardor

(Photo credit: Matthias Willi)

Those who make such inaccurate statements have clearly never listened to Zeal & Ardor, who stand as one of the most eclectic and continually astounding musical outfits of the 21st century.

Ever since their unassuming origins as the brainchild of founder and frontman Manuel Gagneux, the group have made a name for themselves by fusing two of the most seemingly incompatible musical styles in history: dulcet, African-American spirituals and heavy, fucking metal.

I came to the realisation that people were fond of the uncompromising; of me not thinking about an audience,” Manuel explains. “And I think that’s also something that Death Grips do, or why I gravitate towards their music. They don’t give a shit about their audience and people feel that; they’re fascinated by that. So I tried to keep that with me as much as I could.

The unapologetic and experimental nature of Zeal & Ardor has brought the band monumental success in a shockingly miniscule amount of time. Their debut album, the lauded Devil Is Fine, first blessed ears en masse in February 2017 and, by the end of the year, they had become hailed as bona fide heavy metal heroes: trailblazers transporting the genre to new, uncharted and much-needed places.

“I did this for myself and thought maybe some of my friends would get a chuckle out of it. I just had it as a pet project, until I had some songs and I uploaded it to Bandcamp. Then Rolling Stone followed suit and by then I was in too deep!” laughs Manuel.

Never ones to rest on their laurels, Zeal & Ardor already have a follow-up to Devil Is Fine in the pipeline. Their eagerly anticipated sophomore disc – aptly entitled Stranger Fruit – arrives on shop shelves on 8th June.

The record is a true successor in every sense of the term: not only is it almost twice as long as its predecessor, but it’s also a heavily fine-tuned masterwork, focused entirely on exploring every nook and cranny of Zeal & Ardor’s patented slave-music-meets-metal stylings.

To me, what made the first record work was that I didn’t feel pressure. I wrote the record for myself and didn’t want to cater to anyone. In order to get into that same mind-set, I think that’s what people expected from the second record, also. That was a liberating thought.

So to me it was an imperative not to restrict myself too much and just go crazy because, in the end, that’s what people want from the record. They wanted something they didn’t expect, which is a catch-22 to begin with, but whatever!

The refreshing artistic liberty that Zeal & Ardor clearly enjoy on the unrestrained Stranger Fruit doesn’t just limit itself to the music, either. In the lead-up to the new album, the band stated that its lyrics were “designed to encourage the listener to dig a little bit deeper and find their own meaning in its words.”

Manuel elaborates: “To me, it was important to have a certain level of ambiguity with the lyrics. In the first record, I used those black American music elements and gave little-to-no context for them. Whereas, with this record, I made a point of providing that context. ‘Servants’, for instance, is not abundantly clear if it’s set in the turn of the last century and if it’s about a slave rebellion, or if it’s about current middle-class America struggling.

Their incomparably varied tunes – all of which seamlessly unite heavenly melodies with ominous, echoing dissonance – have deservedly made Zeal & Ardor one of the most inclusive acts in all of extreme music. Manuel’s avant-garde troupe are equally at home in the niche heavy metal world of Download Festival as they are in the mainstream environment of Reading & Leeds, with apparently no one able to resist this band’s unrivalled, alien charm.

We played a show in New York, in the Saint Vitus club, last year – certainly a rebel, black-clad sort of venue – and I was so surprised and so pleased by the audience being so mixed in age, gender, sexual orientation and race. I realised that it was like a weird hippie thing where everyone can relate to it in a weird way.

As Zeal & Ardor stand on the top of the modern heavy metal mountain, their success could very well herald a new era for the genre: one that shies away from cliché and openly embraces aural diversification and experimentation.

Zeal & Ardor’s new album, Stranger Fruit, will be available via MVKA on 8th June.

Zeal & Ardor play the Dogtooth Stage of Download Festival on Sunday, 10th June.

Read more about Zeal & Ardor’s debut album, Devil Is Fine, in my “Best Albums of 2017” list.

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