Zeal & Ardor Stranger Fruit

2018 MVKA

A very strange and bitter crop.

Zeal & Ardor - Stranger Fruit


Zeal & Ardor have always been an interesting proposition. A melding of not only disparate cultures, but also drastically different musical styles which, out of all places, was born from an online response fielded on 4Chan. For it was there the challenge was laid to blend the music of African American culture with the historically Caucasian-led genre of black metal. Admittedly the original suggestion wasn’t voiced that eloquently, but the music that resulted out of that crass reply has grown far beyond what anyone could have ever imagined.

Zeal & Ardor‘s primary combination of the nihilistic retching of black metal with the hopeful soul of African American spirituals that sprung from slavery and oppression is about as an extreme a stretch as it can get. That caustic elements of industrial menace and forlorn blues also frequently rear their head just elevates the level of curiosity. But as “Stranger Fruit” shows, it’s an ambitious amalgam that pays off, thanks to a unifying theme of dark mysticism, death and ever-looming fear.

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Sure there’s shock value to be found, but there’s also an intoxicating honesty to Zeal & Ardor that eventually suspends any initial disbelief. A big part of that is how much “Stranger Fruit” finds the band’s mastermind Manuel Gagneux expanding his range. Much of this album almost feels cinematic in its soulful hymns, bluesy groove and haunting, electronically aided interludes. Underpinning it all is the omnipresent treble heavy crush of black metal driven ferocity.

The twangy guitar and menacing refrains of “Don’t you dare look away boy” found on “Don’t You Dare” paint broad strokes of slavery and oppression, juxtaposing searing black metal with irrepressible spirit. “Ship On Fire” injects apocalyptic chanting into the mix atop a devilishly rigid syncopated riff and thunderous drums. Meanwhile, standout track “Row Row” cleverly builds a handclapped beat into one of the most rollicking black metal laced tracks ever to be created.

In the hands of the less capable the music crafted by Zeal & Ardor would be little more than a shallow novelty act. But there’s an old soul feel and creative heft found in the work of Gagneux. One that allows him to mine some of the bleaker aspects and acts of humanity and forge them into stunning displays of ingenuity and tenacity. Still, the album does ultimately feel a bit too long and a few of the latter tracks can fall in the filler category.

It has been nearly 80 years since Billie Holiday cast a bright light on America’s ugly history of racism with her take on “Strange Fruit“. In its own way “Stranger Fruit” continues that path, offering a sobering look at racism, humanity and death in a way you’ve likely never heard before. It’s musical proof of how far we’ve come culturally and a warning of how much further is still needed to go.

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