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Zeal & Ardor - Stranger Fruit Music Album Reviews

Zeal & Ardor - Stranger Fruit Music Album Reviews
Manuel Gagneux’s latest provocative mix of black metal and black folk music of the South is an absurd union that offers moments of transcendence.

Stranger Fruit, the second album by provocative Swiss-American metallurgist Zeal & Ardor, ends with a perfect piece of black metal for 2018. Above an invocation of roaring guitars, Manuel Gagneux begins to sing, his voice bending forward with the urgency of Sam Cooke’s revolutionary soul. “Like a strange fruit out of season, you are bound to die alone,” he starts, his voice floating in and out of a woeful melisma. “You will swing free in the breeze then/You are bound to die alone.” But Gagneux doesn’t stop with a historical lynching; he briskly pulls that terrible past into the worrisome present, noting the senses of isolation, exploitation, and existential anxiety that come with being black (or any sort of outsider, really) in modern America. “They’re coming closer just to kill us,” he laments as a blast beat collapses into a series of doleful handclaps and foot stomps. A mix of au courant “atmospheric black metal” and gripping Southern soul, the music is itself a time machine. A plea for defiance and another piece of proof that black metal’s evolution remains unfinished, “Built on Ashes” is one of the year’s most powerful songs, a real anthem for our era.

Born in Switzerland to a Swiss father and an African-American mother, Gagneux started Zeal & Ardor four years ago as an online dare. Bored, he proposed a game on 4chan: What two seemingly disconnected genres should he try to blend into one song in thirty minutes? Users suggested he fuse black metal with “black music.” (The bigots didn’t put it so politely). Gagneux defied the insult by accepting the challenge in the most extreme way possible—combining black metal with the lumbering melodies of the slave chants and work songs John and Alan Lomax captured during field recording sojourns in the deepest, most dreadful recesses of the South. The eventual result, 2016’s nine-track Devil Is Fine, became one of metal’s most celebrated and debated recent records, prompting both purity tests and accusations of appropriation. Above all, it was a revelation for how the force of black metal could be used to pose entirely unexpected questions.

Stranger Fruit is Gangneux’s fitful attempt to prove that Devil Is Fine wasn’t a fluke, to show that an absurd union may have actual vitality. And it mostly does. A brilliant prelude poignantly pairs rumbling blastbeats to moaned blues, while “You Ain’t Comin’ Back” links post-rock theatrics, black metal dynamics, and a full-choir with Gangneux’s most powerful singing to date. “Don’t let anybody tell you that you’re safe,” he screams late in the song, his nerves completely on edge. Many of these pieces are exhilarating testaments to Gangneux’s vision and conviction. On occasion, though, you can hear the strain of Gagneux trying to figure out how to make this project matter. Where Devil Is Fine was a breathless 25-minute expression of an idea, Stranger Fruit is an explicit 47-minute attempt to expand it. The effort is sometimes awkward, with artful interludes that nevertheless seem unnecessary or didactic hooks that can occasionally stumble toward Godsmack blunder.

Still, amid the mess that the process sometimes makes, Gagneux takes a critical next step on Stranger Fruit. He expands beyond the work songs and spirituals that were his bedrock, fast-forwarding through a century of American racism and resistance to incorporate gospel, country blues, and funk—music that has foundationally pushed back against brutality. Where the clanging rhythms of his first anthem, “Devil Is Fine,” explicitly invoked the chain gang, its Stranger Fruit counterpart, “Gravedigger’s Chant,” heads first for the Saturday dance party with a hint of stride piano and then to Sunday service through an overdriven Pentecostal organ. During the breakdown of “Row Row,” Gagneux swaggers into handclaps-and-bass funk, which remains the rhythm section even as he adds serrated electric guitar. The song itself considers the twin terror of enslavement and of then trying to break from those bonds, how they are distinct symptoms of the same oppression. The funk frames the promise of freedom, the joy of deliverance. “Don’t You Dare” translates a banjo line to the electric guitar and couples it with a field recording of crickets. “Waste” hits the ecstatic falsetto heights of TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe. These contemporary elements not only bring Zeal & Ardor into the moment but also suggest there’s a lot of room left for Gagneux to explore, more ways for him to create new conversations through heavy metal.

Stranger Fruit also pushes back against the reductive claims of appropriation that Gagneux faced (and smartly answered) with Devil Is Fine. It is clear here that he is not fetishizing or romanticizing the source material or its painful backstory; instead, he is using it to connect the then with the now. In that way, Stranger Fruit recalls Kara Walker’s astounding series, Works from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated). Walker plundered historic black-and-white illustrations of the Civil War published by Harper’s Magazine and affixed monolithic silhouettes onto them, meant to convey the context omitted from the images. Dead black bodies lie in the road as army trains pass. A slave cloaked in Spanish moss looms above a river as a boatload of cotton passes. A slave lifts her hands in exaltation as the Union occupies Alexandria, Virginia. Zeal & Ardor complicates familiar narratives and our sometimes-facile understanding of our history by juxtaposing it with modern ideas, causing us to pause and consider what seemingly disconnected strains have to say about the world at large and what we have in common.

Stranger Fruit is an uneven record. But by mixing genres and squaring them against ancient issues that remain tragically current, these songs grapple with past, present, and the possibility of the future by asking two necessary questions: How can art let us understand the problems we’ve overlooked or misunderstood? And how can we begin to fix them?

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