Zeal & Ardor – Stranger Fruit

It would be fair to say that Zeal & Ardor’s arrival in the conscious of the metal scene in the early part of 2017 was greeted with a combination of surprise, incredulity and excitement. There appeared to be just as many naysayers, dubious of Manuel Gagneaux’s talent (Zeal & Ardor is basically a one-man show) as there were fast adherents to his complex and compelling mix of styles and influences.

The debut album, Devil is Fine, was, if nothing else, startling: the juxtaposition of Black Metal aesthetics and American slave songs made the debut a veritable talking point. Whatever your view of that record (I thought it was terrific, not that it matters) Stranger Fruit (both MVKA) arrives with something of an air of expectation around it.

For the converts, this second album raises obvious questions about how you follow up a debut of such distinction. For the naysayers, perhaps it’s a chance to dive back in again. With Stranger Fruit, both camps are going to be warmly and pleasantly satisfied. Stranger Fruit is a much rounder and more accomplished record than its predecessor; where styles may have jarred on the debut, here the alliances seem much more comfortable and insightful. What some regarded as cleverness to the point of contrived meddling on the debut now sound as if they should have been bedfellows a long time ago.

Devil Is Fine was a heavy record; the actual sound of chains as well as chain gang songs metaphorically ladening the album with heft and weight. By contrast, Stranger Fruit imbues its air of menace and melancholy with birdsong and natural sounds, but don’t be fooled into thinking that Gagneaux has lightened the mood: anything but. The Black Metal ferocity of the debut is still very much in place but here it is much more deliberate and controlled; it’s there to increase the sense of menace and doom, not just to remind you that Gagneaux has a Catholic music taste.

This is a record that is deliberately challenging: the constant eclecticism is not for everyone but the intent here is undeniable. You simply have to marvel at an artist who can, with apparent ease, jump between the accomplished R&B of ‘You Ain’t Coming Back’ to the one-two aural uppercut of ‘Fire of Motion’ without stopping for breath.

Stranger Fruit is long, but don’t assume that this is a case of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. This is a record that you need to spend time with but it is time very well spent. By turns fragile, touching and downright ferocious, Stranger Fruit is proof positive that there is truth in art, however harrowing and uncomfortable that truth might be.