If Manuel Gagneux was a more overly and overtly sensitive person, we wouldn’t be here. If he was easily riled up by other people’s ignorance and their attempts at being shocking or provocative, then none of this would exist. If he was a so-called social justice warrior-type obsessed with current hot-button topics pertaining to injustice and calling out every instance of such instead of getting on with it, Zeal & Ardor, the avant-garde metal project he masterminds, would never have happened.

He wouldn’t be chatting up his third album (a review of which you can read here). He wouldn’t be in the midst of rehearsals for the summer festival season, including scheduled appearances at Download, the Grasspop Metal Meeting and the prestigious Montreaux Jazz Festival. In fact, if Manuel was at all concerned with political correctness, instead of relaxing at a café and being thrust under the PureGrainAudio microscope as the hustle and bustle of Basel, Switzerland’s rush hour clang around him, chances are he’d be mired in the midst of that hustle and bustle. And after returning home from a soul-sucking day job, he’d only have a couple hours available to work on music in isolation before having to “hit the hay” in order to get up the next morning for another wade through the daily grind. Hell, he might be skulking around the internet, engaging in never-ending battles with faceless online provocateurs.

“To be on 4Chan, that’s just what you get,” he says with a laugh. “In another way, wouldn’t that have been the reaction that that person was trying to incite? He wanted to offend, he wanted to be harsh and brash and I guess the bigger ‘fuck you’ would be to actually make the song and make it sound half-decent. Maybe I’m not a social justice warrior, but I am slightly leftist tinged and think I have a little thicker skin than that. There’s something to be said for having to wear so many gloves that you can’t actually touch anything anymore.”

Check out the band’s video for the single “Gravedigger’s Chant” here.

A History off the Beaten Path:
Zeal & Ardor have a very different history than most other bands. Four or five years ago, Manuel was spending a fair amount of time on the unfiltered universe of imageboard website, 4Chan. Here, where posters revel in anonymity to contribute unfettered content and commentary ranging from the compelling and interesting to the ridiculous and offensive, he began taking up combinatory musical challenges from fellow posters. One night, he was challenged to write an original song that combined “black metal with nigger music.” Being an old-school metalhead, Manuel understood that part of the equation. Instead of lashing out at the anonymous person – a person who, ironically enough, we’re thankful to for planting the seed for Zeal & Ardor – for obvious reasons, Manuel thought about it. The idea gestated and instead of using blues, jazz, funk, hip-hop, world music, zydeco or any number of genres invented and associated with black folks, he gravitated towards the hymnals and chants used by American slaves.

“Terms like cultural appropriation, where I’m not allowed to do or use something because I’m not this or that, or someone from Asia is not allowed to use the circle of fifths because that’s traditionally a western musical thing, is absolute bullshit and super-regressive. At the end of the day, I’m just a fucking musician and I don’t think I should be a political signpost for anyone. I make pretty sounds and that’s not even factual, that’s something that can be debated. There are lots of grains of salt in there.”

The result of this experiment became Zeal & Ardor and the forward motion and popularity of which has exploded beyond anything neither Manuel nor his online challengers could have ever predicted. Manuel has written, recorded and issued three albums of which critics and fans are calling some of the most original extreme music in years, possibly ever. First, was a self-titled album which he slapped up on Bandcamp back in 2014.

“That was what came of that initial 4Chan challenge. I’ve also done my best to scrub that album off the face of the internet, but apparently I’ve failed,” he laughs. “It’s not all that good.”

Stranger Fruit was released on June 8, 2018, via MVKA Music.

Two years later, Manuel posted the album which became the breakthrough for the project, Devil is Fine, online. The second album was more varied, but also a more refined and mature version of the debut. Original reference points were expanded to include a myriad of influences and sounds, including chain gang chants, blues, electronica and avant-garde soundscapes alongside the darkness of atonal black metal. At first, there wasn’t much fanfare surrounding its release, but people began stumbling across it and like that classic Faberge Organics shampoo commercial, “They told two friends, then they told two friends, and so on and so on.” A year later, a deal was squired with eclectic UK label, MVKA and Roadburn started nosing around about the possibility of Manuel cobbling together a lineup for the 2017 edition of the fest.

“I just kind of kept going with it as a side project. I was always doing music and had other projects going parallel to Zeal & Ardor, which became my passion side project thing. I put Devil is Fine on Bandcamp for shits and giggles and that prompted people to ask us to play shows. At that point, it looked like it was going to take me on the road, weirdly enough. That’s why I put the band together. None of this stuff was ever considered because it was a project that I just did for myself and maybe a few of my friends who would get a chuckle out of it. It’s totally been a surprise.”

“[Promoter and artistic director] Walter [Hoeijmakers] from Roadburn was the first guy to ask me about playing shows. I asked some friends if they would be down to help me play five shows because that’s what it was at the time. We would have a fun road trip and that would be it. Seventy shows later, we haven’t had any time to reflect which I think is a good thing because we just kind of went at it full-force thinking that at any point it could be it. We’re still very much of that mindset. We’re perfectly aware of the kind of hype that we’ve been enjoying and the lack of longevity that often comes with these things. We’re just rolling with the punches.”

Careful where you go swimming… there’s “Blood In The River”.

Procreation of the No-So-Wicked:
Manuel Gangeux was born and raised in Basel, Switzerland and has been obsessed with music for as long as he’s been alive. Both of his parents were musicians and he was surrounded by instruments throughout childhood. Growing up, musical instruments were more his toys than the toy fire trucks, footballs and video games most kids had within arm’s reach.

“There was always a piano in our house that I got to tinker around with. I play guitar, piano, a little bit of violin, quite shittily I might add, and saxophone. My parents made me play saxophone and I absolutely hated it. I guess I seriously committed myself to music around the age of fourteen. I think the most important step of me becoming a musician was not having a girlfriend when I was a teen,” he giggles. “So, I kind of compensated for that by playing guitar.”

Like any self-respecting Swiss metalhead, he grew up with Celtic Frost, Hellhammer, Tom Warrior, Martin Ain, Coroner, Samael and even Krokus as heroes, impressed by their recognition and success beyond the nation’s borders. During a good chunk of his teens, he reports listening to “hardly anything besides black metal.” Whenever he would join or put together a band, he found himself slamming into dead ends because he was always the most driven. He was determined to take things to the next level, even if he had no idea what the next level was or how to get there. What was a revelation to Manuel was learning how to use home recording programs and ProTools. Programs like Garageband and Logic allowed him to create at the pace his work ethic demanded, to take control of the entire process and not have to worry about bandmates skipping out on rehearsals and/or writing sessions.

“I was in bands but I got frustrated with them because I’d be more into music than my bandmates, so I’d be forced to do stuff on my own and that’s how I started recording by myself. I think hearing yourself, particularly hearing your voice recorded is such an unpleasant thing and such an honest thing that you kind of have to get better at it so that you don’t get on your own nerves. That’s how that happened; it was out of necessity, boredom, and frustration.”

Devil is Fine was released on April 15, 2016, via MVKA Music.

Coming to Terms with the Iron Grip:
In his late teens and early 20s, Manuel also found himself growing bored with metal’s tendency towards orthodoxy. A sense of adventure drove exposure to broader sounds and the exploration of other musical genres. As his listening interests and habits expanded, so did his writing and performing output. Emerging concurrently with that growing sense of adventure was an attitude of irreverence which grew his creativity and ability to think nothing of blurring the lines between genres and subgenres. Outside of Zeal & Ardor, he’s been involved with proto-metal/stoner rock, folk rock, electronic music and the avant-garde as well as his second-most consuming project, chamber-pop outfit, Birdmask. There’s also a ton of music he’s written that no one aside from friends and family will ever hear.

“I got into metal fairly early on and then into weirder music. Basically, Ipecac Records stuff, Mr. Bungle, Zappa for sure and Les Claypool were all heroes to me; people who were all really skillful and talented, but didn’t take everything so seriously. There’s an air of levity to things and I think that’s fucking brilliant.”

Three albums in and Manuel is still insisting on maintaining a creative stranglehold on Zeal & Ardor. Despite working with a live band that consists of friends and not hired guns, new album Stranger Fruit was still written and performed by Manuel himself.

“I write it all by myself because I enjoy it more and more. And maybe it’s also out of the fear that if I let them contribute it’ll sound so much better than I could do myself,” he laughs.

Check out the riveting video for the “Devil is Fine” single here.

“At first I was stressing out about expectation and looking over my musical shoulder,” he says about writing Stranger Fruit in the shadow of its predecessor, “but then I realized that the appeal of Devil is Fine is that I didn’t do that and didn’t have an audience in mind, that I made music I personally enjoyed. There’s a purity in that. Of course, it’s impossible to drown out all the outside voices. I think I got more used to the elements I use in Zeal & Ardor and used them more efficiently, but there wasn’t an ‘a-ha!’ moment. It was a slow progression of things; I wouldn’t say there was one elevation or big step I took. I was constantly writing, so there was never really a break between the albums, especially after Roadburn asked us to play. [At the time] we only had about twenty minutes for a live set, so I had to write a lot of music in a short period of time. I wanna say 60 percent of that is on Stranger Fruit.”

“I did have more time to record,” he continues, “and had to admit to myself that I’m not the best in the world when it comes to mixing or mastering. So, I sat together with Zebo Adam who co-produced it and is responsible for all the guitar sounds and shit. That was a huge insight and help. The record was mixed by Kurt Ballou who, in his own right, is pretty decent at his job! The biggest leaps in quality aren’t mine, they’re other people’s.”

As is evident, Manuel is quite good-natured, light-hearted and self-deprecating about his creation. Even as the majority of the waves of press concerning Devil is Fine zeroed in on the supposed controversy in combining black metal with anything other than more black metal, let alone gospel, soul, hymnals and slave songs, he refused to be seen as an arbiter for race relations or the future of music. Nothing about Zeal & Ardor is precious except for the freedom to actually do it.

“Philosophically, black metal started as this heavily experimental, very driven and free-form of music,” he says about his spot on the continuum of metal’s sub-genres. “Now, it’s super strict with all these rules in stark contrast to what it used to mean. Of course, the elitists aren’t too fond of my music, but I don’t want to be part of that scene if it means having my hands tied. Reactions have been a mixed bag. There’s been both support and literal hatred. There’s this band Schammasch, who are from my hometown, and they’re really digging it, and so is Nergal from Behemoth, but there are their not-so-open-minded counterparts.”

There’s a “Ship On Fire” with the audio stream below.

As Zeal & Ardor has become a bigger part of his life (“Music is all I do, but I kind of still live the same as I used to. The poor guy in this equation is my manager who was working with me for Birdmask and now has to deal with all this shit”), Manuel has taken a step back to reassess its thematic stance. On Stranger Fruit he has moved towards vocalizing about topics with personal meaning, interest, and importance. As Zeal & Ardor has grown beyond an online joke, it’s become a forum for a substantial chunk of his creative totality.

“I spun the idea a little further to think about what would happen if American slaves hadn’t had Christianity forced upon them and their way of rebellion would have been to incorporate Satan in their spiritual music, in their field hollers and such. It’s an alternate history, I guess. I also wanted to make the lyrics unclear as to whether they’re referencing 1800s-1900s turn of the century America or current America. The song ‘Servants’ could be a call to action on a plantation, but it could also be an appeal to lower and middle-class America. Yeah, I know that does sound douchey…”

Despite Zeal & Ardor consuming much of Manuel’s time and focus, he is keeping inspired and sane by continuing to work on other projects and with other styles. Zeal & Ardor may offer little restriction for his expression, but he constantly lives with the belief that all of this could disappear into obscurity as quickly as it got dragged into the spotlight.

“I still get to do other stuff because I get bored and frustrated really quickly by sameness. The luxury of being able to ping-ping between projects is very important to me. I still write very eclectic stuff and tons of other shit and 80 percent of it will never see the light of day because it’s just for fun. But, there is more of a planned approach to promoting this album. I’ve done promo tours in Paris and London and I’m going to Scandinavia. It’s not as ad hoc as the last album, but there’s no real masterplan or five-year-plan. In the end, I’m not even sure I have so much more to say with this project. If there’s a moment I have to force myself to write a song, it’s not going to be enjoyable for the listener. You notice when someone is phoning something in.”