The gospel ac­cord­ing to ZEAL & ARDOR gets a sec­ond chap­ter

Kerrang! (UK) - - Reviews -

When Manuel Gag­neux threw Devil Is Fine up on Band­camp in 2016, it seemed to come out of nowhere. Rather than a Swiss-amer­i­can’s bed­room project, Zeal & Ardor’s de­but sounded like it had been un­earthed from some muddy creek bed, where aeons of dirt, ash and blood min­gled. The band’s in­tro­duc­tion hit with the force of a con­cept fully re­alised: black metal and Delta blues fused to­gether by the idea of plan­ta­tion slaves turn­ing to Satan as a means of per­sonal de­fi­ance of their mas­ters. Its in­sur­rec­tionary spirit was ex­plicit in the cover, the sigil of Lu­cifer laid over the por­trait of Robert Smalls, an en­slaved African-amer­i­can who led a re­bel­lion aboard a Civil War ship and won.

Its uniquely rad­i­cal for­mula sur­prised many. It was more sur­pris­ing to its cre­ator, when it re­ceived wide­spread crit­i­cal ac­claim and pop­u­lar­ity in the metal com­mu­nity. Fol­low­ing it up was al­ways go­ing to be tricky, now the blues cat was out of the black metal bag. And if its bind­ing con­cept is based in re­bel­lion – lib­er­a­tion through the great ad­ver­sary – how do you main­tain such a charged spirit of re­sis­tance when you have be­come ac­cepted?

It is per­haps not so odd, then, that Stranger Fruit sounds like only half a step for­ward, stranger in some places, but fa­mil­iar in oth­ers. That is not to take away from the eye-bulging in­ten­sity on dis­play here, though. Gravedig­ger’s Chant rev­els in fire and brim­stone as a blas­phe­mous choir sways to a drunken pi­ano groove, chords ham­mer­ing home like nails into a cof­fin. The thrash­ing Fire Of Mo­tion, mean­while, is a cru­cible of cleav­ing gui­tars that tem­po­rar­ily burns away all bluesy im­pu­ri­ties.

Yet against these mo­ments of un­holy fer­vour, there are some that merely preach to the con­verted. Ser­vants and Row Row fol­low the estab­lished left-hand path so closely they come across as two-di­men­sional, lack­ing in di­a­bol­i­cal en­ergy, and Stranger Fruit starts to sound like Devil Is Fine 1.5. By con­trast, the un­der­stated menace of the ti­tle-track’s chill­ing vo­cals evoke more dread than a Fri­day The 13th box set. Sim­i­larly, Built On Ashes may re­peat the doomed mantra, ‘You are bound to die alone’, but the glimpse of freedom in its over­whelm­ingly soul­ful melodies shows that there is still un­ex­plored ter­ri­tory for Zeal & Ardor to ex­ploit.

Make no mis­take, though, de­spite the oc­ca­sional rut, Stranger Fruit is a sin­gu­larly rag­ing propo­si­tion, and one that is still wor­thy of the Lu­cife­rian seal that adorns its cover. After all, the Devil al­ways takes care of his own. JAMES MACK­IN­NON

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