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The devil and the music: a pairing that has appeared again and again since the beginning of the era of popular music, whether it is merely attributed by negative critics in order to destroy any chance of commercial success, or even by the superior form of government, or the great ideology-forming organ. In the Middle Ages it was the church that accused musicians of heresy and conspiracy with the horned one because of the use of the tritone, the dissonant triad also known as "Diabolus in Musica." Today it is other instances that decide what is morally right and wrong. Ergo, there are and always have been restrictive forces from outside that severely interfere with—and in some cases outright sabotage—the unfiltered creative outpouring of any artist.
At this point the attention should be drawn to the Swiss formation Zeal & Ardor—what was originally the solo project of the American-Swiss Manuel Gagneux has now grown into a proper collective. Founded in 2013 and started as an equally crazy, as well as ingenious thought experiment—one which assumes that the exploited, enslaved black population in an alternative history spiritually resisted the occupiers by not accepting the "white man's religion," but turned to his dark adversary and paid him worship and reverence instead of God. All of this is found in the form of musical fusion between gospel and black metal. Without further ado, this ungodly action turned into a serious project, which was set to cause an international sensation only a few years later.
The special thing about this musical output is Gagneux's ability to combine two superficially completely different styles in a coherent and complementary way. Even vocally, he manages to switch delicately between two worlds: On the one hand, his soulful, powerful voice touches from the first notes and directly transports the inherent suffering of an entire culture to the listener, and on the other hand, he masters the technique of inhumanly high, hateful screeching, which is one of the typical characteristics of black metal. In addition, there are minimalist, mantra-like lyrics, which reflect the hymns of the church, this time only equipped with an occult Western flair, while simultaneously, reflect the conscious, deliberate repetition lyrically, which is inherent as a characteristic feature of black metal and aims to generate a hypnotic, even trance-like state as possible when listening.
Moreover, it is significant to establish the context that these two musical worlds are representative of the past and the future, because the influences of gospel represent the beginnings of rock music, as on its basis all other genres formed over time, and the elements of extreme metal represent the creative culmination of the rock and roll movement. Interestingly, since black metal is considered an advocate for Satanism, in that very Satanism rituals such as the black mass take place, which mainly serve to further mock the dominant religion of Christianity, copying integral parts of Christian masses into an inversion of the sacred, which is clearly found in the music of Zeal & Ardor.
The debut "Devil Is Fine" from 2017 captivates right from the start with an interesting sound, which was previously in no form associated with the harsh expression of black metal. Rattling chain beats, which remind us of the beginnings of rock music, namely the so-called "chain gangs," when African-American slaves were chained together by the feet and forced to perform dehumanizing labor. The only consolation was their laments, born of hardship, which in the end founded the beginnings of modern rock music, because from this resulted the gospel, which in turn shaped the rhythm and blues, and this ultimately allowed rock'n'roll to flourish.
Equally striking are the frequently used "Call & Response" passages, which are taken directly from the book of the Gospel and constitute integral parts of U.S. church music. Gagneux passes these on to his band-internal three-part choir with a satanic twist to further bring the irony forward, in which the occupying religion is skilfully mocked with its own means. Inspired enough the 2017 debut sounds, however, a short playing time of just under 25 minutes and a few experiments that didn't quite work out yet, such as the discordant instrumental interludes, which somewhat diminish the overall impression. The gospel and metal elements, however, should continue to flourish on future releases.
These diminishing elements were completely eliminated on the successor "Stranger Fruit," released the following year. Each of the songs is distinguished by clear independent characteristics, which give them each a distinct signature, but in turn also underline and seamlessly weave the whole concept of the cohesive album. This marks a clear indication of competent, inspired songwriting, where each song represents a cog in the machinery, which is wound more and more precisely after each run. In short, a gracefully flowing album that never bores from the first to the last second and excellently showcases the seething fervor of the collective.
Later the lyrical theme became more and more present. The EP "Wake of A Nation" from 2020 clarifies this obviously, with clear quotations of powerful phrases, which went around the world within the year and point to still continuing ethnic grievances within the American population. The best examples of this would be the instrumental track "I Can't Breathe," which clearly refers to the tragic last words of George Floyd, or the track "Tuskegee", which deals with the inhumane syphilis experiments on the selected black population in the city of the same name in the 1970s. Never defeatist and always fervently antagonistic to the prevailing hegemony, the insane combination of gospel and extreme guitar music reflects a blazing hope for a better future.
According to the band, the album "Zeal and Ardor," which was just released on 11.02., should reflect the artistic vision of Manuel Gagneux and bring it acoustically to the point, hence the decision to let it speak for itself as a self-titled album. Third albums are often important landmarks for many different performers throughout music history, just as in magical circles, three itself is seen and interpreted as a magic number. On this third album there is an enormous quantum leap upwards compared to the previous two albums, just in terms of production and arrangements, even the formerly immature electronic parts fit more organically into the whole, and that the formula, which Gagneux and consorts have carefully established and cultivated over time, always seems more natural and could now mature into something completely independent.
Eerily beautiful melodies that haunt the listener while listening, are accompanied by a proper surge of pent-up rage at society. This is discharged in the even more pronounced riffs, and it is precisely this fine line that manages to provide a complex listening pleasure, that will retrospectively reward further runs of the album, in which once again fire and zeal, coupled with melancholic to infernal paean, are unleashed to start a call that wants to shake the musical world in its foundations. The following line of text from the new album clearly sums up the core message of the musical work:
Deus Magnus Niger Quoniam = God is a great black man.
If there are people among you who are touched by the music of "Zeal & Ardor" and feel the need to exchange ideas with like-minded people about this topic or similar topics, then take the opportunity and visit mukken, because this platform offers a diverse arsenal of different networking opportunities for musicians, possibly resulting in new forward-thinking soundsmiths who will cause a sensation in the world of music like Gagneux and Co. If this sounds like too astronomical an ambition, feel free to linger on the blog, there are new posts coming regularly on a wide variety of topics, but especially features on artists who more than deserve the additional media attention. No matter which path you choose, here on mukken all music enthusiasts are welcome!
Originally published on January 25, 2023, updated on January 25, 2023