“It started off as a joke of sorts, the idea of a second record seemed funny to me at the time.” A joke. A game. An internet experiment. Once upon a time on a website notorious for meme-making, one man band Manuel Gagneux made songs in thirty minutes based on the genre choices of random forum readers. Unsuspectingly, Gagneux never imagined that the mixing of spirituals and black metal would ever become anything more than another half hour of his life lost to the internet, and yet after a slew of well-received demos, Manuel Gagneux became Zeal & Ardor.
Now, a year on from the global release of his gospel blues for occultists debut album ‘Devil Is Fine’, Gagneux is walking through the bustling streets of Switzerland, high-fiving friends as he tells Upset all about the second effort he never thought he’d make.
‘Stranger Fruit’, unlike its predecessor ‘Devil Is Fine’, expands upon the projects routes, exploring thematically and sonically the sounds of spirituals such as gospel, blues, and soul while on the other hand, taking the elements of black metal past the occult and into a harsher territory of sound.
While ‘Stranger Fruit’ ties together the sonic palette of a painter under the influence of something undeniably hallucinatory across its sixteen tracks, it wasn’t always clear to Manuel why this sound was as acclaimed across the globe as it has been.
“Initially, it was really bizarre, but the more I’ve played live, the more I’ve understood what people appreciate about it. There’s an emotional catharsis to both elements that gets people at different points, so in hindsight, it makes perfect sense, where it never did before.”
Manuel is a light-hearted spirit, a musician who thinks as much as he laughs, and it seems that often or not, his doubt towards the initial future of Zeal & Ardor has always been down to a crisis of confidence, the worry that such a concept couldn’t be pulled off. Yet, with a debut and several tours under their belts, it’s a living, breathing, machine.
“I think the first record was a proof of concept more than anything else. I had more time to think about what I wanted to say, and I explored more of the negro music side of things as well as the metal side of things, it allowed me to have more fun with it too.”
While Zeal & Ardor has grown from the brainchild of an internet game at the hands of a pondering one-man-band into a fully-fledged touring act, the man behind the madness is still very much the same man, even going as far to write the record exactly the way the original was written.
“It’s still me in little more than my underpants in a basement trying to make music,” but, as he adds, it’s an ever-evolving experience nonetheless. “The main difference was having the experience of already making a record, so I got to be more specific about my intentions, but the process was still fucking similar. I did the demos by myself, and I did it in the same basement as I wrote the first record, and so I got that ‘Oh, we’re back here again’ feel, so it all fitted together.”
Two singles prelude ‘Stranger Fruit’ – ‘Gravedigger’s Chant’ and ‘Waste’ – the former, a straight-up blues number that bubbles and builds hauntingly, the latter proving to be Zeal & Ardor’s first dabble in the aesthetics of Norwegian black metal, brutalist blast beats and distorted riffs providing a plain for shrieking howls, much like a modern-day interpretation of ‘Emperor’.
It seems strange then, that the album would be introduced by its opposites, or is it?
“The thing about ‘Gravedigger’s Chant’ being the first single is that the expectation was that we did a metal thing, and it was harsher than the previous album, so we wanted to really challenge the listener with a pure blues song, as if it was a joke.”
It may have been a joke at first, but the contrasting elements that make up Zeal & Ardor’s bizarre DNA on ‘Stranger Fruit’ comes from a methodical strain of thinking.
“If you follow something harsh with something softer, it’s going to sound even harsher, which is something I stole from System Of A Down. They were the first time I heard such a thing, of having something so soft and melodic precede something so aggressive and harsh, so much so it elevated that harsh part, and I wanted to do that with ‘Stranger Fruits’.”
‘Stranger Fruits’ implodes Zeal & Ardor’s thematic trajectory, stripping back its dedication to understanding the theory of alternative history and instead opting for a more ambiguous set of songs.
“It was important not to have the whole thing set in one time, and to leave it to be ambiguous. Take the song ‘Servant’, for example, it could be a slave rebellion call to arms but at the same time it could be interpreted as an assessment of the American middle class, and of American Black people now, but that vagueness is important, I’m not a fan of music that’s too obvious.”
Alternative history is still very much a thought pattern for Zeal & Ardor, only this time around it’s infused with the world around him, a symbiotic relationship between similar events in differing timelines.
“Although it’s always been an alternative history thing, it just irked me. I don’t need to address the orange elephant in the room, but the whole affair just got me. Making the music that I do and not acknowledging all of that would just be weird, so I tried to incorporate it as subtly as possible, but it still appears, it’s all there.”
The world may be a dark place, but for Manuel and Zeal & Ardor, it is a world of possibilities, that they’re not afraid of making the most of while it lasts.
“If there’s one thing that I’ve figured out in the course of the last year, it’s that I have no idea how things will develop, so now is probably not the best time to set specific goals. I’m fully aware of how lucky we are, and how rare this all is, so I’m not betting on this going on forever, so we are just reacting to it, rather than acting to it.”
In fact, if the hype was ever to die down, Manuel isn’t afraid of starting from square one again.
“It’s absolutely possible, because when the moment comes when I completely strain myself, or worse a song doesn’t become enjoyable anymore, for me or the listener, that’ll be the time to give it up and start again.”
As jovial as ever, Manuel departs our conversation revealing his next grandiose idea, yet another contrast in the life and times of Zeal & Ardor.
“Maybe I should make the next record a tango-trance thing. The more I think about it; it’s a terrible idea! Oh, think of the possibilities!”