How open-minded are you? I mean, really properly open-minded, not just trying to be too-cool-for-school open-minded? I ask the question because this beguiling, genre twisting and highly evocative second album from Zeal & Ardor will certainly put you through your paces.
You may have already read much about the genesis of this project; namely, taking black metal and mashing it up with classic American slave songs. On paper this could, admittedly, sound like someone trying far too hard to be different and unusual. Any anxieties that one might have around the effectiveness of this approach to making music soon evaporate once you actually listen to it. It succeeds on a number of levels: artistic, lyrical and musical.
The opening title track with its haunting, chanting soul rich passages allied to black metal undercurrents is an excellent jumping on point, but is the start of a record that arrives fully formed. It veers from dark Gothic through soulful melancholy and out to brooding atmospherics and back again, scarcely missing a beat but incorporating a rich and often bewildering array of influences and styles but never losing its coherent centre.
The musical brains behind this fine record is Manuel Gagneux, a musician with impeccable taste and serious talent, throwing bluesy tones alongside electronica beats, soul rich spirituals with staccato pickings and heavy riffs supporting fragile whispered melodies. If this sounds like throwing a figurative musical kitchen sink at a wall and seeing what sticks then disavow yourself of this prejudice immediately; what we have here is a treasure trove of musical riches, a cornucopia of ideas that seem to reveal more and more through continued listens.
Devil is Fine (MVKA) is a record that lasts barely half an hour but in that time you get more ideas than many more celebrated bands have offered across their entire careers. What Zeal & Ardor have done, and what we should all be roundly applauding, is the very determined destruction of musical boundaries, the quixotic and fascinating blending of styles to create a record of poetic grace and artistic integrity. If this is what the future of music is going to sound like, then we are all in for a very interesting and provocative journey. At times I thought this was an echo of the Tom Waits‘s gothic masterpiece Swordfishtrombones (Island). If you know that record then you know just how big a compliment that is.