The Real Story Behind the Spiritual Black Metal Blues of Zeal and Ardor's 'Devil Is Fine'
You'd never be able to tell by listening that one of the year's most intriguing releases started as a joke.
I came across Zeal and Ardor by chance, lured in by a friend at Reflection Records' description of the band as a blend of “African American spirituals, blues, and black metal.” In a world that’s given us the hybridized likes of Panopticon, Dreadlords, and Blood Cult (not to mention the legions of straight-up folk metal bands out there), how could any discerning music fan worth their record hoard not investigate something like that?
Devil Is Fine careens through a litany of genres—icy tremolo and harsh howls lead directly into a melodic death breakdown and blues singing, ritualistic chants butt up against neoclassical shredding, hip-hop beats boom-bap along under swollen strings and ululating vocals. “What is a killer like you gonna do here?” cushions hushed growls under a jazzy, vamping beat; “In Ashes” blends righteous hollering with blastbeats; the three-part “Sacrilegium” suite is all sprightly retrofuturist synth. It’s a glorious mess, and shouldn’t work at all, let alone as well as it does.
Despite the Bandcamp tags, there’s not really much full-on black metal to speak of on Devil Is Fine (save for on the tremolo-speckled “Come on Down," the "melodic death" tag is more accurate). The raw, haunting gospel influence is the most forceful component here, and even amidst the wild array of sounds on offer here, is what I’d surmise to be the biggest draw. There are many, many experimental music—metal, noise, and otherwise—albums out there, but none of them sound quite as human as this one. Only a truly curious, seasoned musician with little regard for tetchy genre constraints could have pulled this off half this well—and that musician’s name is Manuel Gagneux.
The rich, soulful croon that peppers Devil Is Fine and gives it its pseudo-Delta soul has been erroneously attributed to old recordings or samples, but don’t be fooled: that voice is all him, and really, a quick glance at the lyrics should’ve made that apparent from the get-go. He summons demons on the rippling synth-heavy “Children’s Summon,” and sings longingly about going home “to the flames” on the title track. That sigil on the album cover has never graced any priest’s vestments. There’s nothing spiritual about this record at all—unless, of course, you’re sending prayers down south to the Horned One, in which case, this shit is church.
Of course, I had to find out more about this project, especially now that preorders for the vinyl LP version are currently available from Reflections Records. When I called Gagneux, he was back in his native Switzerland, on leave from his adopted home in New York City. Even through a crackling Skype connection, his answers came through clearly and succinctly, his words slightly accented. Also known for his work under the Birdmask moniker, Gagneux told me that he's currently working on putting together a lineup and refining the visual aspects of what will eventually be Zeal and Ardor's live show; he was reluctant to note any kind of timeline, only that he's looking forward to it.
True to his no-bullshit musical approach, Gagneux also wasn’t one to mince words, or shy away from uncomfortable subject matter—even when things took a surprising turn during his explanation of just how Zeal and Ardor came to be.
Noisey: Since there’s so little information out there about the band, I’d love it if you could tell me more about it. How long have you been recording under the Zeal and Ardor name?
Manuel Gagneux: It’s been two years now, I think. It began kind of as a joke, and it was way too fun to just stop.
I listened to your earlier demo and it was very dissimilar to Devil is Fine. How did you make that leap? Did you finally achieve what you wanted to do on this newer record
I’d say it came closer to it but I’m not quite there yet, the first one was kind of loosey goosey and incoherent, whereas the second one is more conceptually coherent.
Did you always have the idea of incorporating these spirituals? Where did that come from?
Actually, that was the first idea and I just kind of sucked it up for a long time until I got there. You know 4Chan, that weird website? I have another project called Birdmask and I post anonymously [on the music board] to get feedback because they’re brutally honest and don’t give a shit about you. I used to make these threads where I would ask people for musical genres; one would post “swing”, and the other would post “hardcore gabber techno” and I’d fuse the two and make a song of it in 30 minutes. One day, someone said “nigger music” and another said “black metal.” I didn’t make the song then, but it stuck with me, and I thought it was an interesting idea.
Sorry, just to make sure I have it down correctly, what were the two genres originally requested? I think I'm mishearing something.
No, that’s right, they said nigger music. It was black metal and nigger music.
Did that bum you out at all?
No, that’s just 4Chan.
So you were basically like, fuck it, I’m going to make black metal blues and see what you guys think. It’s pretty subversive that you’re approaching it this way, because black metal itself can be a white, backward-facing genre.
I think there’s a connection between the two; it’s a form of rebellion. Even if slave music isn’t exactly defiant, it’s still like the triumph of the will of the people. I think there are parallels with, say, Christianity being forced upon both the Norwegians and the American slaves, and I kind of wondered what would’ve happened if slaves would’ve rebelled in a similar fashion to Burzum or Darkthrone.
That’s a really interesting way to look at it. I was reading some reviews of the album, and saw one where the commenters were saying, “Wow, where did he find these samples,” and then you came in on a comment all “That's me singing!”
It was an odd question to ask because I don’t think you can find spirituals with Satanic stuff in them! At, least I didn’t come across any.
Did you draw from any particular source material when making these songs?
Originally I just did it myself, but then I started listening to some old Lomax recordings; he was a guy was obsessed with documenting folk songs, [so] he recorded these prison songs and chain gang chants and stuff like that.
Did you learn anything about the genres while you were working with them, or was it just purely an exercise in sound manipulation?
Not really, I grew up with black metal and listened to it excessively as a teen because it is a very teeny angsts kind of music—this exclusive stuff where you’re not allowed to do this or that because of whatever [reason], so I thought I’d just spice it up I guess.
What does 4Chan think of the album?
They used to dig the idea but since it’s such an incoherent mess over there, I don’t know; I haven’t got back to them in that sense.
Have you gotten any negative reactions in general?
Not yet, I’m sure they’re going to be a ton of them but right now it’s surprisingly supportive.
I've seen a lot of positive feedback. Black metal is so set in its ways and it can be hard to innovate without ruffling feathers or deviating a little too far from the core concept, so it makes sense that open-minded people are responding so well to this album.
Thanks! I think it’s been done before not with this particular genre but what Liturgy did or Deafheaven with Sunbather, which is not exactly black metal. I think it’s maybe a club thing or a pride thing, in that if you want to be part of this you have to play by the rules or adhere to this or that—it’s just kind of confining. I mean, it’s ironic that a culture that prides itself on not giving a fuck gives a tremendous amount of fucks of what other people think of them.
So what’re you going to do with the next record? What do you see as this final form for this black metal-spiritual hybrid?
I’m still honing in on what it can actually do it’s still at an experimental stage—unrefined, I’d say.
Are you going to stick with these two main genres?
For the while yeah, I think there’s a lot to still be found.
Do you think Zeal and Ardor will be a touring entity, or have you thought that far ahead yet?
I have had some booking agents—actually quite renowned booking agents—reach out and said they’d love to book a tour with me, but I can’t just go on tour with me, a laptop and a guitar; that would be super weird to me I think I might go a Ghost-ish route, where it has to be a big spectacle—still very musical, but something to look at and be afraid of.
It makes sense; you’ve already given people this strange thing they’ve never really heard before, so you may as well shock them on every possible sensory level.
Or try, at least!
Are you coming back to New York City anytime soon?
Should be fall this year, but I’m not sure if I’ll do Zeal and Ardor [gig] yet since the show wouldn’t be quite up to snuff, especially for New York.
What brought you here in general when you moved here?
I came to New York in 2012, and came back half a year ago, just to touch base. I was super broke and I decided to put out an album to make a little money—that happened to be the Zeal and Ardor record, which surprisingly people really responded to!
I just kind of wanted to socially isolate myself, because I didn’t do music primarily up until the point until I moved there. I thought if you have a social environment, you tend to fall back into what people expect you to do, and being in a totally strange place in a strange city gave me the ignorance and boldness to do what I wanted to do.
Lastly, what does the name "Zeal and Ardor" mean to you?
It’s not that deep—I just wanted to go with something that doesn’t sound too cult. Black metal has this very strange trueness to it going on, and me being half black doesn’t really blend with that in any sense, so I thought I’d do a vaguely Christian sounding name. And also, you know, having the project's genre tagged as as "spiritual" on Soundcloud and Bandcamp gets a lot of Christian people to listen to it, and that just kind of makes me smile.
Kim Kelly is fine on Twitter.