By Rich Hobson
Make no mistake about it: Devil Is Fine – the debut album by Zeal & Ardor – is a thoroughbred oddity. When a band professes to be equally as rooted in the spirituality of gospel music as they are in the decidedly secular anti-religious sentiment of black metal, they’re going to raise a few quizzical eyebrows. But this ideological clash is only the tip of the Zeal & Ardor iceberg of otherness: the album also dives variously into genres as eclectic as blues and dark-wave. All of this on a run-time on par with your average episode of Friends.
Far from the eight-minute plus grandiose epics you might be used to in the black metal game, nearly all of Zeal & Ardor’s songs fit into a consumer-friendly package, wrapped up neatly in four minutes or less. Decidedly less consumer-friendly is the album’s lyrical content, which draws upon themes of slavery and spirituality to evoke a sense of weight considerably even darker than the usual metal fare can achieve.
Genre fluidity might currently be the hottest trend in the metal world, but nobody approaches it like Zeal & Ardor. Musicians like Mike Patton, John Zorn and Frank Zappa are renowned for experimenting with genre throughout their careers; in their work, there is a sense that the music could completely spiral off anywhere at any given moment, leaving the original song behind. But Zeal & Ardor take a different approach. The black metal/blues mash-up they seem to favour punishes such formlessness, instead nailing an iron spine to each song that cements it and creates the sense that no matter where it goes, the song will still have an inherent sense of order.
Order is a key ingredient throughout Devil Is Fine, each song meticulously placed and structured by Manuel Gagneuxin, the man behind the music. Gagneuxin’s soulful wail tears its way through the album’s title track in a way not unlike the soul and motown greats – proud, with a brash abrasiveness that comes from singing as hard as you can right from the heart. Before you can mistake this for dewy-eyed nostalgia, the track clatters with the telltale clink of chains and minor key piano notes that tell you all you need to know; this is not an album celebrating the “good old days”.
“Crossover appeal” is often the go-to phrase now when judging a rock, metal or punk band. It’s a phrase that says ‘sure, they can make it in that world, but what about the general population?’ Attempts at crossover appeal have taken many forms in the past few years, from Metallica bringing in guest vocals from Lady Gaga at the Grammys (good) to Linkin Park replacing their guitars with pianos (very bad). Yet, nobody seems to do it with such (ahem) zeal, as Zeal & Ardor manage on Devil Is Fine.
Opener ‘Devil Is Fine’ sets the scene; a powerful vocal married to a gradual build, ending in a huge dramatic crescendo; if the metal genre is usually a horror movie, Devil is Fine is its Oscar-bait counterpart.
Given the bells and whistles of an enormous metal production but restrained enough to keep just the right level of humanity to its sound, the album is careful not to betray its metal leanings until the audience is already invested in the narrative. The black metal background to ‘In Ashes’ is kept carefully blurred in the background, our attention drawn to a thunderous vocal so as not to offend the sensibilities of the listener early on.
By teasing the audience with heaviness before fully unleashing, Gagneuxin ensures that when the screeches and dancing guitar work of metal finally do kick in on ‘Come On Down’, the resultant crescendo is a howl of metallic triumph.
Yet even at their heaviest, Zeal & Ardor don’t overplay their hand. By playing up the genre’s most virtuoso elements and downplaying its more visceral edges, Gagneuxin is able to portray the metal genre at its most impressive. He then fuses this to some genuinely impressive vocal performances that could be culled from popular music’s greatest moments (just hear his boom on ‘Blood In The River’ or spine-tingling sinister mutter on ‘What Is A Killer Like You Gonna Do Here?’).
The end result is an album that could achieve acclaim both sides of the musical fence. Whilst definitely not a pop album, this album won’t sit pretty as an exemplary metal release either. Instead, it lives in between the two worlds, an oddity of one whose unabashed individuality harkens all the way back to the primordial roots of rock n roll.