If Robert Johnson , as myth has it, sold his soul to the devil to play the blues, what if more of his enslaved countrymen had followed suit? Struggling through slavery whilst believing in a god that appears to condone and reward the oppressors seems counter-intuitive. What if the repressed had turned to the unholy spirit for solace instead? This very theme is explored by Zeal & Ardor . Now performing with a full band, Manuel Gagneux (the brains behind Zeal & Ardor) has expanded his approach from the “black metal performed by a gospel choir… In an evangelical church… In the deep south… On a Sunday” vibe that made 2016’s breakout hit Devil is Fine seem so fresh. He may well have realised the limitations of this combination potentially falling prey to novelty and being dismissed as such. On Stranger Fruit – referencing a 1930s poem that protested the horrific lynchings of the time and was famously sung by Billie Holiday – rather than simply merging two apparently disparate forms of music, Gagneux has looked for potential crossover and connections. Themes that intertwine these styles.
This train of thought paves the way for 48 minutes of tight, punchy metal in which the drums pop and massage as they roll. This album is at its best when thundering along at a speedometer-straining pace and, of course, the black metal influences are rarely far from hand. On “We Can’t Be Found” this is in full resplendence. Guitars wail over blast beats that slow and tease before launching into a skull-caving stomp. Vocally, Gagneux careers from drained and resigned to anguished throat shredding. And that’s not even mentioning the Satanic chants intoned on “Ship On Fire”. It could be the cohesive gel of performing with a band, or the combination of Zebo Adam (Russkaja) and Kurt Ballou (Converge) coming on board, twiddling knobs at the recording desk, but the upshot is a far more cohesive record than Devil is Fine which flitted through different styles from track to track.
If you’re ready to do so, watch this video to learn “Gravedigger’s Chant”!
There are exceptions to this, of course; “You Ain’t Coming Back” has the slow gait of an R‘n’B number (albeit with a methodically shredded guitar lurking in the corner) and “The Fool” takes a warping synth line from Boards of Canada’s back catalogue and throws some snare snaps over the top, resulting in sounds with a sort of demented carnival feel. As if the clown’s grin has sloped off to one side. The metal on display has also veered away from the purely Nordic influence of BM into other categories including Thrash, Speed, and, on “We Can’t Be Found”, the more angular stutter of math metal. We also get the gentle choral crackle of “The Hermit” which culminates in a flurry of warm, serene, finger picking.
Then with “Fire Of Motion”, its title taken from an Aleister Crowley quote, we get sounds like a demonic beast burning through flaming streets. A Cherufe unleashing a banshee shriek. This is fitting as flames seem to act as an important motif throughout the album. Fire is in motion. It is on a ship. And the all-encompassing finale is “Built On Ashes”. Without that burning rage inside your heart, how do you expect to remain motivated in the face of ominous adversity?
On the other hand, water and water pathways are also intrinsic to understanding this record. “Row Row”, “Ship on Fire” and then on “The Gravedigger’s Chant” we hear the refrain “Wash the dead man’s clothes in the creek now child/Wash the clothes ’til the creek turns red”. Water purifies and cleanses. It also happens to be the method by which many slaves were transported to America. The track “Ship On Fire” seems to be inspired by the scene from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods in which the Ghanaian god Anansi materialises aboard a Dutch slave ship bound for North America and proceeds to inform the desperate worshippers quite how fucked they and all their descendants will be once they arrive on the other side of the Atlantic. This incites those in chains to revolt and burn the ship into watery ash. Any parallels between this speech and Gagneux’s intentions with Stranger Fruit are entirely there for you to draw.
Press play on the “Intro” a be ready for the ride that is Stranger Fruit.
Stranger Fruit, ultimately, is a battle between two sides. One focused on oppressing and exerting a violent power over a subjugated people and the other demanding that the suppressed rise up against God-fearing tyranny. Rather than a simple stylistic flourish it now seems apt that Gagneux has chosen these hyper-aggressive strains of metal as the battleground. After all, was Robert Johnson really the one who sold his soul to the devil?
Stranger FruitTrack Listing:
02. Gravedigger’s Chant
04. Don’t You Dare
05. Fire of Motion
06. The Hermit
07. Row Row
08. Ship On Fire
10. You Ain’t Coming Back
11. The Fool
12. We Can’t Be Found
13. Stranger Fruit
16. Built On Ashes
Run Time: 48 minutes
Release Date: June 8, 2018
Record Label: MVKA Music