The Unexpected Rise of Zeal & Ardor's Spiritual Black Metal Blues
Sin isn't exactly a struggle for the Swiss-American musician behind one of metal's most fascinating, controversial bands.
Photo by Levan TK
The line to get into Zeal & Ardor's sold-out performance at Het Patronaat, the old stone church that once served the faithful of Tilburg, Netherlands, stretched further than my wine-fuzzed eyes could see. It snaked back from the old parish church doors through the cobblestoned thoroughfare that separates the festival's various venues, the line bulging in parts where people drew in friends or drinking buddies to share their excitement. Many in that narrow field of bodies were left out in the cold, but some of us—the lucky ones—made it inside. We didn't know then that we'd be witnessing something extraordinary, and earning the right to say afterwards, I was there.
Every April, the metal masses descend upon Het Patronaat, now Roadburn Festival's most prized venue, in hopes of finding absolution. I've seen many a mind-blowing set in that room—Doom in 2012, Terra Tenebrosa in 2014, the Úlfsmessa in 2016, and many others—but Zeal & Ardor's performance wasn't just exceptional: It felt downright historic. And it almost didn't happen.
The sound blew out twice during the 50 minutes Zeal & Ardor was allotted, leaving Swiss-American bandleader Manuel Gagneux and his backing musicians to troubleshoot as best they could on a silent stage facing hundreds of expectant faces (no pressure, right?). As frustrating as the experience must have been for the musicians and stage crew, I didn't hear a single heckler during those prolonged silences. Rather, shouts of encouragement hung in the air, and the crowd roared in approval each time they succeeded and launched back into their set.
After the PA had sputtered out for the second time, Gagneux turned to the audience, his slight frame and clouds of black hair silhouetted against the blue lights and mounds of gear, an apologetic grin upon his face. He seemed flustered, and a little discouraged. My heart went out to him—but then, up from the crowd, came a ragged handful of voices, singing the chorus to the chills-inducing title track for his breakout album in unison: "Devil is fine."
He blinked, and his grin spread wider. He leaned forward, and answered them—"Little one better heed my warning"—in that booming, bluesy voice of his, and the audience finished the couplet for him. He sang back the next line, and back came the thunderous chorus, rising from several hundred throats.
That call-and-response only lasted a few seconds, but its impact reverberated through the rest of the festival. Word of mouth is crucial for a band like Zeal & Ardor—a bedroom project-turned-juggernaut that rose to hyped-up prominence in a matter of months and is sustained by fan interest instead of major label machinery—and those 50 minutes in that church cemented the band's reputation as The Next Big Thing in Metal.
His approach to songwriting now isn't quite as unorthodox as it was in the beginning, when he was idly whipping up joke songs to appease his fellow music nerds (and to mess with trolls) on online cesspool 4Chan's music board. Thanks to a racist comment, he stumbled onto a winning combination: a purposefully unholy conflagration of African-American spirituals, chain gangs songs, the blues, and Satanic black metal that drew lines between Scandinavia and the Delta, summoning both the blasphemous evils of the North and the bloodstained history of the South. Reflections Records in Switzerland offered to release the project's debut full-length, Devil Is Fine, in 2016, and things snowballed from there. (Noisey placed it at number 6 on our list of the top 100 albums of 2016).
"I think there's a connection between the two [genres]; it's a form of rebellion," he told me the first time I interviewed him, back in July 2016. "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."
Gagneux is well aware that all eyes are on him. "It is a lot," he admitted as we sat in a small cafe in Tilburg's quiet city center earlier that day. "My goal was just making music, and that's what I did, and it far, far exceeded anything I could have dreamt of. Sin isn't exactly a struggle."
Before the gig, I didn't really know what to expect, and neither did the others who'd lined up for a chance to find out. How was he planning to recreate the singular magic and diabolical atmosphere of Devil Is Fine onstage? Could he pull it off? I was especially curious because, when we spoke earlier, Gagneux had warned me that the band—hurriedly recruited from around the Swiss music scene—was still finding its footing as a live entity.
"We suck," he said, matter-of-factly. "We're still fairly stiff on stage because we don't want to fuck up the songs. There's certain things we can't rehearse. It won't be our best gig ever, but we're aware of that. This is our fourth gig ever, and we're playing Roadburn at 11pm in the fucking church!"
For so many bands, especially those based in the States or in other non-European areas, the idea of playing a festival like Roadburn is the goal to end all goals: something to yearn for and daydream about with little expectation of actually making it there. Those who make it often do so after years of toil and sacrifice. For others, the ride's been quite a bit smoother. It only took Zeal & Ardor a year to get there, a fact Gagneux readily acknowledges .
"I think I owe it to those kind of people to not suck," Gagneux tells me earnestly. "I know so many bands that are trying and really deserve success. It's just taught me that it's random to a certain degree. It's luck."
Luck, sure, but he's also selling himself a bit short—lest we forget, Gagneux possesses an incredibly powerful, versatile voice, as well as a thoroughly original sound and the chops to pull it all together seamlessly. Hype aside, Zeal & Ardor is the kind of rare talent that Roadburn has always proven itself to be admirably adept at incubating and showcasing, and the band's presence in Tilburg—at the festival's most sonically diverse lineup to date—made perfect sense. At the main event, despite all the setbacks and pre-show jitters, Gagneux and his crew did just fine. And really it shouldn't have come as any big surprise.
After all, he's got the Devil on his side.
Like nearly everything else about Zeal & Ardor, Gagneux's discovery of his remarkable vocal style was a happy accident—a product of late-night debauchery in New York City, and a departure from his earlier musical endeavors.
"The first thing I sang in that style is 'Devil is Fine," he told me. "I was hungover. I'd smoked a lot of cigarettes and drank a lot of whiskey. At noon the next day, I decided to record something. It was all fucked up, and I just pushed it, and that's how it all began."
"So, you're just trying to sound like you're dying."
"Pretty much," he said with a laugh. "That's what evokes an emotion, so why not just go for the jugular?"
"How did you recreate that when you were recording the whole thing?"
"At first, I got hoarse," he replied, making a hacking noise to illustrate the state of his whiskey-ravaged throat. "It was a nightmare. I think I just powered through it. Now after playing three shows consecutively, I noticed that this is not going to work out for a month or so.
"You're going to have to start drinking tea and get a voice coach."
"No, nooooo!" he cried in mock horror, before dissolving into laughter.
Before he got wrapped up in Zeal & Ardor, Gagneux's main focus was on his experimental pop project, Birdmask, which he started shortly after leaving Zurich and arriving in New York City as a teenager. On Birdmask's recordings, his sweet, light vocals will sound alien to his new batch of fans, but they both lack his faint Swiss accent, and there's enough surreal weirdness mixed in to strike a familiar chord, especially when he lets loose and howls on tunes like "Fire Dance." His arrival in New York was a bit more dramatic than the stock "kid grows up and moves to the big city" narrative. Rather, he was on the run from the Swiss Army.
Once they turn 19, all able-bodied male Swiss citizens are required to complete about a year of military or civil service; Gagneux followed the order to enlist, but as he explained, he didn't fare well, and then, "kind of just deserted to New York.
"I wanted to study physics and go into the nuclear defense lab," he said ruefully. "I just wanted to learn, but they give you a gun on the first day. That's why Switzerland has one of the highest suicide rates—'cause guns be available!"
"My dad did [military service] and his dad before him," he continued. "It's regressive. It's silly. It's this neutral country that's buying fighter jets, like five of them. If any of our neighboring countries decides to say hello, we're fucked!"
Now that he's back in Switzerland, the self-described "leftist" is paying off his debt to society—but doing so well outside the military industrial complex. He hasn't exactly gotten off scot-free, either; he still owes a debt to Swiss society that he's working his way through. "I have to do civil service helping old people and kids, which is awesome, but I still have to pay for some bills. [The Swiss government] is not happy," he said with a quick snicker.
He seems relieved to have put that part of his long, strange journey behind him, and it's easy to see why; Gagneux is obviously far more comfortable holding a guitar than a gun, and has used that propensity to make a positive impact far beyond the Swiss border.
Since the release of his breakthrough album, Devil Is Fine, he has been the subject of much attention in the metal world, ranging from fawning praise to damning grumbles about trends and "fake" metal (he'd previously self-released another demo under the Zeal & Ardor name, but took it out of circulation because, as he told me, he thought it was "kind of crap"). As a biracial Swiss-American—born to a white Swiss father and black American mother—he falls so far outside the narrow profile of a stereotypical black metal musician that he's even been accused of "appropriating" black metal, which is even funnier when one considers where all heavy metal and rock 'n' roll came from in the first goddamn place: black musicians. Gagneux finds this extremely amusing.
"There was this one guy at the Paris gig who was not into this. He was in the fourth row, actively hating the music for the entire set, just crossed arms—'No, no, no.' It was hilarious," he told me with a grin. "That's a dedication to hate. This guy literally said, 'You stole our music,' and I'm like, Ehhh?"
The past few months have been a whirlwind for Gagneux and his band, with invitations to play massive festivals like Reading and Leeds colliding with offers to open for Prophets of Rage and Marilyn Manson. He's assembled a crack music industry team of high-octane publicists and booking agents who coordinate with his manager and record label, Reflections Records back in Switzerland, who have helped guide him through the pitfalls of unexpected stardom. Zeal & Ardor make its debut North American appearance at Psycho Las Vegas, with a short run of tour dates tacked on, including a sold-out NYC date at Saint Vitus on August 23.
We met up a few weeks ago when he was in New York City for rehearsals, and he explained how, since his usual backing band members had been stymied by visa issues, he'd had to pull together a touring lineup on the fly. Luckily for him, he'd ended up with some of the most talented metal musicians in New York—drummer Lev Weinstein, guitarist Nick Palmirotto, bassist Dana Schechter, vocalist Charlie Looker, and vocalist Emilio Zef China—who are now all tasked with bringing Zeal & Ardor to life on American soil.
With eyes like saucers, he also mentioned that he'd been invited to have dinner with Slash in Paris the following week; they're both big sci-fi fans, and their shared booking agent had put them in touch. Apparently the two of them got on like a house on fire, and when Gagneux and I texted later that week, he was prepping to go and meet Slash at some fancy restaurant.
With everything he's currently juggling, it's a mystery how Gagneux has had time to get down to the business of recording his next album—but he's already a few songs deep into the writing process (and has been playing several new tunes live), so things seem to be moving right along. There's the added benefit of having sole control over the music itself, too; his backing band are paid musicians. Instead, Gagneux often reaches out to trusted friends to gain perspective on what he's doing.
"I try not to have an audience in my head, because I think that's what made the first record mean something," he said. He prefers to rely on feedback from his many musician friends, who give him what he describes as "vibe information." He explained that to mean, "No real specific things. They say, 'This kind of makes me feel angry. This kind of makes me feel sad. I would like to feel this and this on a record,' and kind of nudge me to do something. Honestly, there's not much I can do but just try to ride the wave.'"
From what I heard at Roadburn, the new songs are very much in the same vein as Devil Is Fine, but more focused and aggressive. To ensure that the spiritual aspect of the music remained a focal point, he drew inspiration from the occult, studying grimoires like The Lesser Key of Solomon and The Book of Abramelin in order to add weight to his words. "Even though I might not even believe in it and I'm not a spiritual person, other people are," he explained. "Just to steal [occult concepts at random], it's not smart, is it? I'd rather have something that means something appear."
When I asked him about how his approach to songwriting has changed since the last album came out and the 4Chan joke became a musical phenomenon, he was cautious with his response. "It's hard to say, because it's not a very long time ago [that Devil Is Fine came out], and it's hard to be objective about it," he said. "Maybe it flows a little better. I'm still not there yet. I think there's still room for improvement. At first I kind of stressed out about it, [but] I noticed that all I can do is do what is asked of me or what I actually physically can. That's where I have to be."
I can see why someone who feels he owes so much to luck would want to avoid jinxing himself with hubris, but his self-awareness certainly is refreshing. Though he hates the word "responsibility," now that his work is so well-known, he's been forced to reexamine it through a different prism, and to understand how it fits into the conversations about race and culture and metal and how they all intersect that Devil Is Fine sparked. "It's not a bad outcome," he mused. "I'll put it this way: if this had happened five years ago, I don't think I would have had the experience to approach it the right way. [Now], if that's what I get to do, I should do it, but I have to do it in the right way. That's why I have to think about what I stand for."
While it seems like he's still figuring that part out, he's frank about the pressure he feels to do it right.
"I can't afford to fuck up," he explained. "People actually listen to me now. I don't want to say stupid things or make people think stupid things. It's all really aggressive music, but it's kind of a hippie thing if you think about it. I'm not really black or white, but I'm stealing from both cultures and it's this new thing. It's kind of a 'we can do it together' thing."
I'm touched by the idea, and point out that black metal—with its fixation on hatred and elitism—doesn't have a very solid reputation when it comes to that kind of sentiment.
"Black metal is very protective of their culture, because it used to be a dear and secretive thing," he said, a faint smile curling his lip. "Now it's in the open to a certain degree. It used to be the most aggressive and extreme thing, [but] it isn't anymore. It has to evolve—and I don't know how exactly—but we should fucking try at least."
That commitment to change is something, at least—a glimmer of light in a world that so often intentionally plunges itself into darkness.
Kim Kelly is an editor at Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.