There is a gross falsehood proliferated by those whose horizons stretch no further than the end of their nose. The fallacy is that all modern music is simply repetitions of ideas and concepts from yesteryear, that there isn’t a single riff, lick, chord or note that has never been played before. Apart from the fact that this is an incredibly fatuous, narrow-minded view that completely ignores essential components of music such as craft, composition, personality, chemistry, technology, instrumentation, dynamics and tone (to name but a few), it also leads perfectly rationale people to spout nonsense; how many times have we heard the ridiculous notion the The Beatles invented every idea found in modern music and nobody’s come up with a solitary original idea since?
Unless there’s an unreleased album of Black Metal mixed with African-American Slave music by Messrs McCartney, Lennon, Harrison and Starr hiding in a dusty Abbey Road vault, we can probably nip that particular falsity in the bud. Instead, this particular combination of disparate genres can be credited to songwriter Manuel Gagneux, the brainchild behind Zeal & Ardor. If you really do think you’ve heard every trick that modern music has to offer, you might want to listen to the stream of their debut album Devil is Fine above; it’s unlikely you will have heard anything quite like it before.
The genesis for Zeal & Ardor came when Gagneux became frustrated working on a different musical project, his incredibly diverse, difficult to define, alternative chamber pop project Birdmask. Whenever Gagneux would run in to a creative stumbling block, he would go on to 4Chan, an internet bulletin board where anyone can post anonymously on a wide variety of topics, and ask people for two musical genres. He would then combine them and write a song within half an hour, purely as a means to get his creative juices flowing once again. ‘It wasn’t even my idea to mix these two genres’ Gagneux says humbly ‘I totally stole it! The first iteration of this combination was pretty horrible to be honest, but the idea stuck with me and I pursued it’
Gagneux’s enthusiasm for black metal started, as it does for most fans of the genre, as a teenager. ‘I was trying to listen to listen to the most extreme music I could find, you know how teens are. My friend introduced me to Burzum and Darkthrone and told me that they were the most evil people on the planet – of course, I was intrigued! I became so enthralled by black metal because it’s all enveloping sound; it’s very aggressive but even tender in some moments.’
Chain gang music, whilst not something Gagneux listens to on a regular basis, was introduced to him as a child by his Swiss father and American mother. ‘My parents listened to these old Lomax recordings for a while when I was growing up. They were something I’d totally forgotten about but recently re-discovered and I dove into them for this project.’
Mixing genres is all well and good but if the individual strands of the hybrid are no good, you’ll be falling at the first hurdle. Gagneux has efficaciously captured the essence and sentiment of African slave music; the authenticity is so convincing, accusations were made against him, saying he’d stolen old Lomax recordings and sampled them without permission (he didn’t, he just sang loudly into a ‘shit microphone with too much signal’ to get that authentic, lo-fi recording sound of the 30’s and 40’s).
As Gagneux began putting the music together, images began to form in his head of African chain gangs rebelling against their Christian captors by invoking Satanism. He took this idea and ran with it as a thematic thread to pin on to the record. Devil is Fine’s artwork shows signs of the extensive research Gagneux put into the project; the photograph is of a real enslaved African-American, Robert Smalls, who managed to free himself and 17 other slaves during the American Civil War by commandeering a Confederate transport ship stacked with Howitzer guns and several hundred rounds of ammunition. It was a daring escape for such a young man; Smalls was just 22 when he put his perilous plan into action and he lived to the age of 75, very respectable for someone born in the 19th century. Once he was free, Smalls lived a very full life, serving as a civilian pilot and armed transport captain for the military and later got into politics as a member of the US House of Representatives.
Superimposed over the image of Smalls is The Sigil of Lucifer, sometimes referred to as the Seal of Satan. One of the lesser known symbols in modern Satanism, it’s believed to hold connections to a greater, supernatural power, in this case, Satan himself. ‘I think superimposing Lucifer’s sigil over the image of Robert Smalls neatly sums up the intention and theme of this record to me’ says Gagneux. ‘Without trying to sound too corny, it’s meant to represent these African slaves summoning something sinister and liberating themselves through Satan. Imagine if slaves in America had rejected the Christianity that was foisted upon them and embraced Satanism instead. Rather than being forced to accept the ‘will of God’, they choose defiance and rebellion; that’s the world in which this album is rooted. I’m an atheist, I don’t really believe in God, but parts of modern Satanism do gel with me whilst other parts don’t. It’s fiction at the end of the day but it’s well researched; I’ve put an embarrassing amount of time into reading occult books to get this stuff right!’
Whilst the black metal and slave music hybridisation has got the most media attention thus far, there’s actually a large pool of various genre influences that Gagneux is drawing from on Devil is Fine; elements of electronica, cradle songs, spiritual chanting, delta-blues licks and funk are all touched on throughout Devil is Fine’s 25 minutes. Children’s Summon sounds like Dragonforce put through a Watain filter. What’s a Killer Like You Gonna Do Here? evokes a darker, more sinister Tom Waits. Given the somewhat purist attitude of a certain breed of metal fan, Zeal & Ardor have and will continue to provoke strong reactions, both positive and negative.
‘It’s not a primary intention of mine to aggravate those people but it is funny to see some of the reactions’ says Gagneux. ‘Black metal used to be the most extreme music known to man, but now, it’s almost classical. It seems natural to want to evolve it and figure out alternatives and evolutions. There’s been quite a few polarising opinions but actually I really appreciate them because some of them mention things where there might be room for improvement. Zeal & Ardor to me is not done, I’m still trying to figure out how it could be better and some of these negative comments are quite helpful because they point out what I could do better.’
Zeal & Ardor is just the latest in a long line of developments in the world of music, an artform that continues to develop and metamorphose, despite the protestations of those stuck in the past or who fear change. Music is a force that is constantly changing and evolving; the notion that the well will run dry and that everything’s already been done is an idea that says more about the person expressing it than it does about the state of modern music. Some may dismiss Zeal & Ardor as a gimmick but Gagneux is determined to not let that happen. As a live unit, the project will be expanded from just Gagneux to six musicians, including two backing singers. ‘It’s a fine line to walk because I don’t ever want the music to be secondary to the show, but I have a few ideas. The record is only 25 minutes long but if we do a 25 minute set, people will kill us and will have every right to do so! So there’s a few new ideas and songs for people that come to see us live. I’m in the process of distilling the project, making it more extreme in both directions and gelling the two elements together a little more precisely.’
Devil is Fine is released through MVKA on 24th February on vinyl, CD and digitally. Zeal & Ardor commence a European tour in March including a date at The Underworld in Camden, London on 20th April