For many people a live album is hardly worth bothering with. The performances can vary from being exact replicas of the studio recordings to blandly and barely played. However, a great live album is a thing of beauty, and any naysayers of the format are hard pressed to deny the electricity that jumps out of one’s speakers or headphones. Think of how enthralling Slipknot’s live material sounds, or how well crafted an Iron Maiden set-list can be and you’ll find the value in live recordings.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll have likely heard of the majestic Zeal & Ardor. For those uninitiated it is the brainchild of Swiss-American mastermind, Manuel Gagneux and one of the first projects in recent years that can be legitimately described as unique. A masterful and enticing blend of Black Metal and nineteenth century Roots Blues, it is something that has to be heard to be believed. Their latest release, Live In London (MKVA) is the perfect starting point for prospective listeners and future fans.
From the electronic throbbing of ‘Sacrilegium I’, the mood of the event is instantly set. A tension of anticipation builds as the band launch into ‘In Ashes’, being welcomed to the stage with fervent applause. From the opening notes of the set, it’s clear as to why Zeal and Ardor felt the need to release a live album; the ferocity with which they perform is positively exhilarating. Gagneux’s snarling reaches new demonic heights on the likes of ‘Servants’ and continues to be explosive and captivating throughout the set.
The set-list itself is gloriously well constructed. Ebbing and flowing between the high velocity riff storms of ‘Fire Of Motion’ and ‘Ship On Fire’ to the more subtle and soulful moments of ‘Stranger Fruit’ and ‘Gravedigger’s Chant’, there’s beauty in the rise and fall of the crescendo the band is able to achieve time and again. The set does heavily lean on latest album, Stranger Fruit (MKVA), understandably, but leaves room for material from Devil Is Fine (MKVA, Reflection Records), the title track of which inspires an almighty sing along from the rapturous audience.
The set also includes some surprises in the shape of new material. ‘We Never Fall’, ‘Hold Your Head Low’, ‘Cut Me’ and Adult Swim single ‘Baphomet’ all sound utterly blissful. There’s an increase in the soulful bluesy aspect of Zeal’s unique sound, but equally the songs find space to be expansive and crushing as the finest Black Metal is wont to be. It is impossible to pick a highlight in these four slender songs, all it does is ramp up the intrinsic need for more material from the band.
The album’s sound is out of this world. So often a live album fails to capture the aforementioned electricity that a show delivers, but Live In London delivers in spades. Every note is delivered with grit and determination, and the album feels alive; you feel the sweat pour from the performers and feel the harshness of guitar strings against raw fingers.
It is unsurprising that the album sounds as thankfully excellent as it does; the band hired master producers Kurt Ballou and Alan Douches to mix the eighty odd minutes into a sonically cohesive landscape.
Every moment is exhilarating. The set list comprised of some of 2018’s best material is undeniable in its brilliance, and performed with an explosive vigor by the Black Metal alchemists. Every note hits with crystalline beauty, and the sound maintains the liveliness necessary to make a great live album. The music itself is devilishly enrapturing and for most of the songs, these will be the quintessential versions. This is a perfect jumping in point for Zeal & Ardor should you have somehow not come across them. It is extraordinary and beautiful.
9 / 10