Zeal and Ardor have released the follow up to their hugely popular and successful debut record, Devil is Fine. Released on the 8th of June via Radicalis/MVKA, this is Stranger Fruit and this is phenomenal.
The big question in the build up to this release was how on earth could they top what can only be seen as one of the most impactful debuts of the last decade. Devil is Fine, the album, is far from perfect but there was more than enough on it to suggest these guys were on to something special. Originally just a one man band, the supremely talented Manuel Gagneux, Zeal and Ardor have evolved into a fully fledged 6 piece band while managing to hold on to all the magic that made them so special in the first place.
Zeal bring a unique and intriguing mix of soulful chain gang music mixed with visceral black metal. Elements of jazz, blues and soul music penetrate the mix creating a sound that can only be truly understood if heard. The same can be said for the band in regards to live music. You don’t know Zeal and Ardor until you have seen them live. As good as they sound on an album, it is nothing compared to the raw passion and force of the live environment.
GBHBL were lucky enough to catch Zeal and Ardor recently at a show in London. It was double shot of luckiness too as the band also used the night as an album release night where they played Stranger Fruit in full but mixed with their big hitters from Devil is Fine, like Come On Down. Before the show, and before the release, things were already looking good for the new album with the release of some very strong singles. You can read our thoughts on Gravedigger’s Chant, Waste and Built on Ashes by following the links.
On to Stranger Fruit though and the first thing you will notice is how much fuller an album it is. 16 tracks and 48 minutes in total length. I am in a weird but wonderful position of reviewing an album having heard it all live already. I can tell you that the album sounds amazing live and the recordings mimic that near perfectly. Starting with an intro track called, em, Intro, the scene is set with morose rhythms giving way to powerful black metal before settling back into a sombre melody. The first single, Gravedigger’s Chant follows immediately, with it’s soulful verses and heavily distorted choruses. One of my personal favourites comes next in Servants.
Servants epitomises Zeal and Ardor for me. Booming drums, soulful singing, fuzzy riffs and loads of gospel like backing vocals. When the drum beat hits, you find yourself swept along with it. It is a cracking song that builds into sections of extreme black metal with crashing drums and venomous screams. The extremity of the black metal is one of the real stand out things on Stranger Fruit. There is still plenty of soulful vocals and catchy blues tones but when the metal comes, it is harder and fiercer than anything I have heard from Zeal and Ardor.
The single, Waste, is a frenzied black metal attack. Fire of Motion is vicious and powerful, building from a more soulful intro into something that seems designed to destroy pits. The title track, Stranger Fruit, sees a piano melody start the track off with brilliant harmonised vocals. How good are the backing singers in Zeal and Ardor, by the way? Stranger Fruit switches too heavy with the most visceral of screams as the powerful, pounding drums rattle your brain.
Despite the large amount of almost traditional black metal on show, there are plenty of tracks that lean more on the soul side. The trade off singing between Manuel and the rest of the band on tracks like Don’t You Dare are glorious to listen too. Row Row sounds raw, passionate and fiery. Ship on Fire has tremendous examples of riffing and guitar. There is a real dark and occult like feel to this song in particular. Again, just another splash of concept and creativity on an album chock full of ideas.
We Can’t Be Found is another personal favourite with echoed vocals and vicious screeches before a sudden switch into blues/gospel style singing. You Ain’t Coming Back is a supreme song with evocative singing that hooks you and pulls you upwards before an explosion of metal slams you back to the floor. Fans of Devil is Fine and in particular, Sacrilegium will be pleased as there are versions of those electronic interludes on Stranger Fruit too. Aside from the intro there are four kind of interlude breaks in the tracks with The Hermit coming first.
It is a nice, atmospheric, almost pleasant song with tweeting birds and humming. It sets you up nicely for the storm that follows. Later in the album you get The Fool which is predominantly a synth melody with atmospheric elements but it sounds like a church organ and therefore fits the album perfectly. Despite that, it is probably the second least appealing bit of music on Stranger Fruit. The third one is called Solve and while I think it works within the album concept so much better than Sacrilegium did on Devil is Fine, it is the sort of thing you only have to hear once.
An electronic line that sounds a little like a child’s toy or a merry go round that builds into a 8-bit boss fight. It works as respite from the album but again is the sort of thing that only needs to be heard once. The final instrumental is Coagula but it is more of a track than an interlude and it is brilliant. Dark and sinister choral chants and brooding, satanic tones act almost as the intro to the final track, Built on Ashes. The final single, and an absolute banger.
Stranger Fruit is a near on perfect album and is probably the most unique piece of music I have ever heard. At least since the last most unique piece of music I had heard called Devil is Fine. It is so jam packed full of ideas, so full of brilliance, it makes you think. That fact means it is probably not going to be seen as accessible to everyone. What Stranger Fruit is though is unique. I promise you, you have never heard anything like this. I personally find this band to be a breath of fresh air. A band that are forcing music to newer heights and wonderful places.
I could do without the electronic interlude like Solve but unlike Sacrilegium, they work well on this album, feeling like integral parts of the story. Stranger Fruit is heavy, inspired, exciting, creative, intriguing and portrays their concept perfectly. A masterful piece of music that absolutely must be heard.
Stranger Fruit is out now and can be picked up at all the usual streaming services. You can grab a physical copy on vinyl or cassette from here. You can also pick it up at the Amazon links below. Keep tabs on Zeal and Ardor at their website, on Facebook, Bandcamp, Twitter and Instagram. Be sure to give them a like or follow while you are there.
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Stranger Fruit by Zeal & Ardor (Radicalis/MVKA)
The Final Score - 10/10