by Rich Hobson
The legend of Robert Johnson meeting the devil at the crossroads just might be the most significant event in the history of rock n roll. It has it all; an aspiring underdog, an impending tragedy, the beginning of the devil’s association with guitar music – and a heaping of 1920s racism, in the aspersion that the only way a young black man could suddenly become a proficient musician was through a pact with ol’ goat legs himself. Perhaps most crucially however (particularly in relation to the evolution and predominant thematic elements of rock music as a whole), is the fact that the tale offers a sense of rebellion, of casting off the yoke of poverty and discrimination to attain glory and liberation by any means necessary – even if that means a literal deal with the devil. Now, almost a century on from that crossroads encounter, its themes once again arise in the delta-blues-meets-black-metal of Zeal & Ardor.
Brainchild of Swiss maverick Manuel Gagneux, Zeal & Ardor draw inspiration from the disparate realms of slave music (as recorded by John Lomax) and black metal (as recorded by a disproportionately high number of murderers and racists), envisioning a world where slaves turn to the devil for salvation rather than the god of their oppressors. With a backstory like that, controversy is almost guaranteed but, almost painfully unsurprisingly, the loudest backlash hasn’t come from the ‘moral watchdogs’ of the religious right, but the ‘blacker than thou’ elitists of the black metal ‘kvlt’ underground.
“I wouldn’t say we were welcomed with open arms by the entire black metal community,” Gagneux laughs. “Some people are obviously pissed because we took their baby and bastardised it, but I’m happy with the sacrilege of the sacrilege. Black metal started out as this very fringe, explorative music where you’d eschew tradition and current habits in music; now there’s so many rules that it’s counter-intuitive to the original intention. In that regard, Zeal & Ardor is pretty black metal in attitude.”
Chatting to me amidst a busy schedule of press interviews and radio appearances, Gagneux is remarkably easy-going and friendly for the duration of the call. Where many other one-musician-projects can feel like totalitarian regimes or exercises of the ego, Zeal & Ardor stand out as a curiosity project that has managed to tap in to an unspoken desire within the metal scene. Kvlt-purists aside, Gagneux’s home project has expanded rapidly; since the international release of their ‘official’ debut Devil Is Fine in 2017, Gagneux has managed to pull together a static band (“the only band I’ll play with on this project”, he insists), debut as a live act and then rack up a list of appearances at some of the world’s most illustrious metal festivals. And that’s to say nothing of sold-out headline shows and even support slots alongside the arena-veteran musicians Prophets of Rage. Such feats might seem unthinkable to the average black metal (or even black metal-adjacent) band, but the blues-inspired melodies of Zeal & Ardor lend the band a sense of mainstream appeal that could even threaten to bump them onto rock radio status. But, ever humble, Gagneux doesn’t see the major labels knocking any time soon. “I’m very aware of this hype, but I’m also aware of the short half-life these things enjoy. I give it three more months before everybody figures it all out,” he chuckles.
While the melody of the blues lends the band a mainstream appeal, the band’s true edge has been in their ability to draw from the thematic and sonic well of black metal, particularly in the use of spirits, gods and demons as crucial characters in the narrative of their music. Devil is Fine presented an ideological tug-o-war between god and the devil, seeped in the imagery of denigrating gods and suffering on earth. New record Stranger Fruit takes this one step further, surrounding itself with images of flames and death to produce a sound which is more inherently aggressive as a result. “I have this internal image with all Zeal & Ardor songs of burning cotton fields,” Gagneux explains. “In spirituality, fire has this cleansing or liberating role, which plays well into the slave thing. And death is a very metal cliché, but in certain spirituality schools it has this transcendental and liberating role where you lose the shackles of your corporeal form to become a transcendent spirit.”
Spirits and spirituality are central to the entire narrative of Zeal & Ardor, yet Gagneux himself openly admits to being a ‘devout atheist’, viewing religion and spirituality more as a literary device than as a driving force in his own life. “I have a fascination with it because it plays such a huge role in so many people’s lives, but not mine,” he says. “I guess having not grown up with it, I’m just trying to figure out what the fascination is for other people.”
But that begs the question – why choose the devil as a counterpart to the Christian God and not the slaves’ own native religion (as explored elsewhere by London psych-metal band Vodun)? “I think one aspect of it was the black metal association,” he says, pausing for thought. “The musicians weren’t Satanists per se, but they were anti-Christian, and used that imagery to repel those ideals. In modern Satanism, the devil is actually the ego and you have to pursue the ego to find fulfilment of the self, which also ties in to the civil rights movement for me. I’m personally really into it, from a research point of view.”
Zeal & Ardor’s Stranger Fruit may lack some of the immense contemporary relevance of ‘This Is America’, but its position as a talking point about the treatment (and appropriation) of black culture cannot be overstated. Moreso, tempting as it is to cast a furtive glance across the Atlantic and paint it as an America-only problem, these issues are prevalent on a global scale. This is particularly jarring in the lack of diversity within subsets of the metal scene, considering the genre’s immense debt to the rebellious spirit of the evolving music in the post-slavery period that saw African-American work songs become blues, delta blues, rock n roll and so on. As ever, Gagneux tackles these issues through layers of metaphor and spiritualism, creating something with a message which is timeless whilst still acknowledging the current state of affairs. “In its own way, spirituality plays into identity too,” Gagneux says.
“Black America at the moment is in a revolutionary state, because there was the Civil Rights movement, followed by a phase of… not lethargy, but semi-capitulation. Right now, with all these prolific figures taking a stance, there’s a regaining of identity and I think, for me, spirituality is a reflection of that. In a morbid way, we’re very fortunate to be having these conversations right now and [I’m] happy that we can very much be a part of them.”
Almost a full century has passed since Robert Johnson walked down a country lane to meet the devil. The fact that this image still resonates with music narratives today speaks testament to the enduring legacy of stories like this. And, as Zeal & Ardor move towards the release of their second record, you can’t help but wonder if Gagneux stood at his own crossroads, ready to make the same deal. If these are the fruits one thing’s for sure – Devil is fine.
Stranger Fruit is out on June 8 via MVKA Music. Zeal & Ardor play Download Festival on June 9.