Zeal & Ardor – Zeal & Ardor (Album Review)

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Let’s start with me saying this: I thought that I was going into this album with the most open of minds, ready to experience anything. However, I wasn’t prepared in the least for what I was provided with. Zeal & Ardor’s self-titled record is a powerful display of what happens when intelligent people with incredible musical minds throw the word ‘genre’ into the bin. Ranging from black metal, to gospel, to country and blues and even electro, “Zeal & Ardor” dives deep into music at its sub-atomic level. Things that you would never expect to go together, fit as seamlessly as any track out there.

I must say I had a hard time convincing my friends to check out some of their tracks, as it went a little like this: “so, it’s a mixture of black metal, and, well, country, and sometimes there’s this cool gospel bit. It’s put together really well.” Whether or not I was successful in getting friends to check out the tracks, Zeal & Ardor’s self-titled release is certainly something that needs to be listened to multiple times, to really become immersed in everything that is happening, and that’s exactly what I did.

It was an unusual thought, but as I plunged into this album, I began to feel that song structure was just as malleable for Zeal & Ardor as genre. I began to recognize sections and sequences not as verses or choruses, but something more like locations. If the listener allows it, the album will take them on a journey through soundscapes and sonic imagery that feels much more than just music.

The 14-track offering begins with a huge burst of power, brooding and swelling in front of the listener. Aptly named “Zeal & Ardor”, this controlled heaviness is just pulsing, eager to be unleashed on the world. Emmanuel Gagneaux, the mastermind behind the band, originally a solo project, exhibits a range of vocal styles across this one track, going from gravelly mumbles all the way up to forceful chesty roars that ring out across the soundscape. It’s pretty easy as a listener to feel that you’re in for something pretty huge…

Run” immediately picks up the pace, dropping the listener into a metal onslaught that really shows off the personality of this album’s production. It’s raw, it’s messy and in your face but you can still point out everything that’s happening. The big black metal sequences in this album show off that dirty production style perfectly, and when the layers strip back, there is a focused and clear vision before the listener. It’s a unique sound and approach to production, and it’s seriously refreshing.

On top of refreshing, Zeal & Ardor are well versed in the technique of pacing and track placement in an album. From “Run”, the listener is thrown into “Death To The Holy”, pushing a gospel-like feel that quickly descends into blistering metal sequences. This song ebbs and flows from these two genres, and once again it’s so well done, so smooth even when there exists no transition from one style to the other. During the heavier moments of this song, the listener can really feel the oppressive wall of sound that has been created, the breakdowns in this track exploding and crushing everything that came before.

Emersion” follows, and opens up with this gorgeous shimmering electro section, an almost sun-drenched feel that would do well as a Petit Biscuit track. Don’t get too comfortable, however, as you’ll quickly be smashed with a banshee-like scream and huge build up into what sounds like a blast beat destined for stadiums. Despite the very little use of lyrics, there is still a huge outburst of emotion, glistening and massive in its atmosphere that will surely leave listeners in a state of awe, or inspiration, or at least enjoyment.

Golden Liar”, a sure highlight of the self-titled LP, is a brooding bluesy performance. It holds a dark and swirling atmosphere in which Gagneaux croons, also employing that low and gravelly vocal style that immediately brings about thoughts of Tom Waits. The droning guitar melody that floats through the whole tracks acts as a foreboding foundation on which the rest of the track builds and builds. Marco Von Allmen expertly grows the percussive performance from gentle and reserved to larger than life, and this is mimicked by all members of the band. Despite its apparently simple nature compared to the rest of the album, it’s one of the more memorable tracks, and also a fantastic and catchy way to give the listener some sense of stability in an otherwise unpredictable and rollercoaster-like album.

There is a lot of trickery in this album, also. The listener will be led to believe a gentle track plays out before them, but it’s not long before a slamming metal sequence hits hard out of nowhere. There is certainly a sense of bravery and confidence in one’s craft that is required to pull off such a drastic change in musical style during a track, let alone in one album. “Erase” goes from having gentle melodies trickle into your ears, to having huge breakdown patterns topped off with dissonant guitars. Going from banshee-like screams down to almost inaudible mumbling clean melodies, Gagneaux’s voice is as much an instrument as anything else on this record.
In “Bow”, his voice becomes a siren, like a preacher to a crowd. It’s a huge, anthemic track that could be used to rouse any rebellion. It has this ritualistic feeling to it. It’s straightforward and one of the shorter tracks on the album, but it says what it needs to say, and ends. Just like “Golden Liar”, it’s a direct and deliberate track that doesn’t surprise the listener. It gives the listener one flavor to savor, and the flavor is damn tasty.

Feed the Machine” is surely a track that will get anyone’s energy peaking. Going from gospel-like choruses to searingly quick metal sequences, it viciously pulls you to multiple locations in just under 3 minutes. Whilst the metal performance on this track is a highlight, full of high-speed double kicks and striking rhythms between guitar and percussion, it’s the main vocal line that has been stuck in my head for a while now. The simplicity is powerful whilst it’s surrounded by complex composition.

With a length of 4 and a half minutes, “I Caught You” is the second longest song on the album, and it spends some of that time in the same attitude as the opening track, holding itself back yet bursting at the seams. There is so much pent-up energy that the listener is just waiting for an explosion to happen, and it does in spectacular fashion.
The breakdown halfway through the track is a nice tempo change that is only signified by an alarm sound being set off; one could call this the “something’s about to go down” alarm. The drumming on this track, specifically in the heavier sections, is definitely one of the more entertaining performances from Von Allmen.

Once again, Gagneaux’s voice is just so powerful, but in “Church Burns” that power is emphasized as he graduates from fragile melodies to huge bellowing affirmations over pianos and full rock sequences. That vivid imagery of a church burning with the bluesy overtones of the track immediately took me back to one of the reasons for Zeal & Ardor’s existence, the question of “what if the American slaves began worshipping Satan, instead of Jesus?”

By the time the listener reaches “Götterdämmerung”, the 11th track of this LP, there is already so much to digest. Now is not the time, however, to get off this metal-blues rollercoaster. “Götterdämmerung” is a straight-up metal lashing that wields the power needed to instigate an apocalypse. I thought that the only songs that would be straightforward in terms of style were the ones that focused more on the blues and folk side of things. As I moved to this track, I happily realized I was wrong. Dear listener, revel in the chaos as you move through this savage offering.

Let it be known that “Hold Your Head Low” holds a special place in my heart. It’s a highlight track just as it is, but the bluesy personality of the track deserves a track of its own, just as the heavy side does. The call and response between Gagneaux and the backing vocalists Denis Wager and Marc Obrist is carried along by Von Allmen‘s modest yet assertive rhythm. As the metal sequence comes in, Gagneaux lets out a shriek that acts a hellish ceiling, constantly scratched at by the incredible metal symphony playing with a beautiful ferocity. The ‘bridge’ leaves the listener feeling weightless, but is quickly and stylishly brought back to a final climactic anarchy.

The last full-band track off the album comes to us in the form of “J-M-B”, and what a bloody fun track to end on. The keys are consistently tapping away some steady notes but bend in microtonal shifts, so it’s almost as if everything in the song is almost right, like a crooked smile. The major chord progressions in the melodic sections are gently contested by Gagneaux’s minor notes and this is a super enjoyable element. The guitar melody in the second verse is a great little performance, also, playfully dancing along the melodic progression while there is space in the soundscape to do so.

Finally, we come to “A-H-I-L”. This slow and large electronic track is an interesting end to an album that had so much to say, and so much musical diversity. At first, I considered the track to be an unfortunate use of a last number, but then came to appreciate it as a blank canvas for the listener to reflect on what they had just heard, and it immediately engaged me more. It’s not necessarily a stand-out track, but just a fitting way to end an album that was so unpredictable and forward thinking. It’s like a nice relaxing bath after you’ve been to a festival and seen many bands from different styles and genres. Time for a lie-down.

If you hadn’t heard of this band before, you’d be excused for thinking that their chosen combination of different musical styles was out there; a novelty idea. It’s painfully clear through Zeal & Ardor’s self-titled album that these styles, when put together, are in safe hands. The listener is carried across a multitude of various sonic planes for nearly 50 minutes, being invited to listen to the lyrics and decipher the themes within, or sit back and merely take in the sounds as they come. Every song has a place on this album, not a single track being skippable, and it is most definitely an album that deserves to be put on repeat. There is no way that one could take everything in and absorb the material in just one listen. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go about my day humming the intro to “Bow”.

Released On: February 11th2022
Released By: MKVA
Genre: Black Metal / Blues / Folk / Avant Garde

Musicians:

  • Emmanuel Gagneaux / Vocals/Lead Guitar/Programming
  • Denis Wager / Backing Vocals
  • Marc Obrist / Backing Vocals
  • Tiziano Volante / Rhythm Guitar
  • Lukas Kurmann / Bass
  • Marco Von Allmen / Drums

“Zeal & Ardor” Track-list:

  1. Zeal & Ardor
  2. Run
  3. Death To The Holy
  4. Emersion
  5. Golden Liar
  6. Erase
  7. Bow
  8. Feed The Machine
  9. I Caught You
  10. Church Burns
  11. Götterdämmerun
  12. Hold Your Head Low
  13. J-M-B
  14. A-H-I-L
9.3 Excellent

Zeal & Ardor are ahead of the curve when it comes to creating music that knows no boundaries. The eccentric yet wildly intelligent mix of black metal, blues, soul and electro is something that will leave listeners surprised and most certainly entertained. If this is the way music is going, removing genre as a foundation and using it more as a temporary element, then the future is incredibly bright.

  • Songwriting 9.5
  • Musicianship 9.5
  • Originality 9
  • Production 9
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