It is a Monday night. Everyone is tired from a busy weekend. The first day back at work for the week is over. A small crowd of music fans head to Shoreditch for a gig. Zeal & Ardor are going to have to be pretty special to wake this bunch of zombies up. A challenge they rise to and smash to pieces with ease.
The Village Underground isn’t a venue that is normally on the metal rotation in London. Being more of an arts and theatre venue in a part of London renowned as much for it’s hipsters and pop up vegan bars as it is for culture. We manage to find a place that sells beer in advance. In typical Shoreditch fashion this isn’t a pub and is more of a development of old shipping containers converted into pop up shops, restaurants and a few watering holes. A place called Boxpark which is quirky and ultra fashionable. I guess. I am hardly the go to person for what is or isn’t fashionable.
Still, it is nice and near the venue so a few quick drinks of a cool beer like Staropramen (unsurprisingly there is no Stella or Fosters here) and we head off to see The Village Underground for the first time. To say this venue is made for an atmospheric black metal/occult like band is an understatement. A small but wide room, underground, in what looks like converted train tunnels. It is dark, with big, cavernous stone walls and adds a touch of atmosphere without the band playing a single note.
Supporting Zeal & Ardor tonight are popular Swiss occult metallers, Schammasch. Unfortunately we arrive too late to catch them though the sweaty and smiling crowd, barely visible in the gloom of the tunnels, suggests they did a good job of warming the crowd up.
So the big thing about tonight was that it was a one off show with a special secret surprise lined up. The venue and the band have both pushed that concept leaving a lot of us wondering what could be going on? Would it be more of a theatrical performance with a stage show? Would it be as simple as an exclusive showing of the next single from their soon to be released new album, Stranger Fruit?
As Zeal & Ardor take to the stage to rapturous applause and roars of approval, the secret soon becomes obvious. An electronic opening leads straight into a brand new track from Stranger Fruit before they go straight into a second new one. With the new album due to drop in a few days, on the 8th of June, we lucky few are getting to hear it in full. This is essentially an album release party. The bad news about that is that I don’t know the names of all the tracks they played but the important bit is the new album sounds amazing.
To say Stranger Fruit is likely to eclipse the excellent, Devil is Fine, is a massive understatement. It looks likely to completely blow it out of the water. As Zeal play through their new tracks, it becomes very apparent that the new album embraces black metal much more so than their debut. These songs are heavy, really heavy. There are still loads of the blues styled, chain gang vocals mixed in, of course, but the black metal sections are prominent. Cleverly, the band break up the brand new music with the bigger hits from Devil is Fine.
As much as everyone seems to be enjoying the new music, it is really these tracks that everyone knows and gets heads banging and a small mosh pit going. First up comes the amazing, Come On Down, after three new tracks have been played. It sounds immense. The venue design seems to help the sound but the band are on point. Watching them, led by an almost embarrassed looking Manuel Gagneux, is quite awe inspiring. The dark venue makes them often appear as silhouettes against the lighter stage as the band line up across the front with Manuel in the middle with his double mic and guitar. On either side of him he has two singers adding backing, chants and harmony.
On either side of those we have the bassist and second guitarist with the drummer, mostly hidden behind. The hooded silhouettes of the band, the dim lighting, the cavernous surroundings. Mix that with the special, special music and you feel like you are part of something important. Dark, but important. Watching every member of this band on stage is enough to give you goose bumps. They genuinely look like they are living and breathing every single word of what they are singing. Feeling every single note of their music right down to their soul. It is hard not to be sucked in to it all.
Manuel does address the crowd occasionally, something he doesn’t normally do. He comes across grateful, polite and a little awkward but in an endearing way. More tracks from the new album get played and there are some amazing songs on here. really there are. Some of the heaviest, purist approved black metal but also some chanting, more ballad like tracks too. From Devil is Fine we also get In Ashes and Blood in the River mixed in with the new material and of course, sing along of the night, the title track to Devil is Fine.
Playing the whole new album also obviously means we get the singles released so far with Gravedigger’s Chant going down particularly well with the crowd. The drumming on this sing really stands out. I don’t know if it the building or the set up on the drums but they shake the floor each time a drum gets hit making sure you feel the music as well as hear it. Waste manages to sound even heavier live then it does on record and Built on Ashes just carries on the trend of the night which is gobsmacking, jaw dropping metal.
We also get two additional tracks that were more stand alone singles. They could potentially feature on the new album of course. First up is the chant heavy and glorious Baphomet. The gig ends with an intense performance of Don’t You Dare. Once again you see how much this means on the face of Manuel as he lives and breathes every word that comes out of his mouth. As the band end you can clearly see how much this night meant to Zeal & Ardor. The band members embrace each other with the biggest smiles on their face. I love that. This is how much metal means to fans and to see the band feeling it too makes you love them even more.
Manuel thanks the crowd from the bottom of his heart as the fans refuse to stop cheering gratefully. A quick selfie from the stage sees the most amazing of shows come to an end. There isn’t a single person in here not smiling, not feeling pumped or even remembering those Monday blues felt before entry. Zeal & Ardor, we salute you. Amazing!
From a band perspective, from everything Zeal & Ardor put in to this show, this was a 10/10 gig. Maybe the first one ever, or it would have been except for a few small issues related to the venue. Please understand this is in no way a slight on the band. They were amazing but a live show is about the whole experience and The Village Underground has a long way to go before it could be considered a good venue. It is so perfectly designed for the occult side of metal in regards to it’s image but lacks dramatically in it’s layout.
A huge tunnel wall separates the room meaning that you need to get over to the far left of the room to get a full stage view. This makes for an awkward and uncomfortable squeeze as half the room rushes left when the band starts. The toilets are tiny. There are long queues, especially for the ladies, as they seem to struggle to deal with the large crowd. Getting to the bar is a nightmare as everyone is squeezed left but the bar is on the far right. There are no clear paths or walkways bar a small stepped area but that is so full of people, it is difficult to get through.
Take note people. If you want a better view and choose to stand on the stairs, have the decency to move when people try to get passed you. They aren’t the problem. You are. Dicks. One final little comment on the bar, more comical than a complaint but despite having loads of people behind it, they were pretty drunk. One of them so much so she fell over. She then walked into another member of staff and spent ten minutes looking for a beer which was right in front of her. Perhaps ease back on the drinks at work. I must admit it was more comical then irritating at the time though.
I don’t want to leave what was an amazing night on the venues negatives so just to summarise one more time. Zeal & Ardor were amazing. Their performance was emotional and powerful backed by truly majestic, black metal. They were as near to perfect as a band will ever be live and all that despite 80% of the tracks being brand new to the crowd. You may be a fan of Zeal & Ardor. You may love their records but believe me, until you see them live, you don’t know this band. The hype is deserved.
If you haven’t already, you should head here to the band website and preorder Stranger Fruit because it is amazing. You can grab some of their music, including the newer singles and the preorder at the links below. Check out Zeal & Ardor at their website, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for news and info.
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Zeal & Ardor at The Village Underground, Shoreditch (04/06/2018)
The Final Score - 9.5/10