Zeal & Ardor’s ‘Stranger Fruit’ is Gorgeous, Twisted and Virtuosic – Album Review
When Zeal & Ardor mastermind Manuel Gagneux dropped “Devil is Fine” in late 2016, metal’s lush family tree sprouted an entirely new branch. The turbulent concoction of black metal, classic blues and African slave spirituals exploded into metal’s next great conceptual prospect, posing the question, “What if the slaves rebelled against their Christian captors by embracing Satanism? What would their chants in the field sound like?”
The Devil is Fine album brimmed at the edges with limitless potential, comparable to Ghost’s infectious debut, Opus Eponymous, which lit the fuse for the Swedish band’s eventual rise to become the definitive metal act of the 2010s. Like Ghost, Zeal & Ardor forced the metal world to stand at attention, eagerly awaiting what would come next, and Gagneux’s sophomore effort, Stranger Fruit, fleshes out the Swiss musician’s twisted vision with a vast ascent in abstract sophistication.
Despite rave reviews, the biggest grievance against Devil is Fine was its lack of cohesion, sometimes feeling like a mix tape of loosely connected ideas with drastic stylistic changes.
That complaint is impossible to make with Stranger Fruit.
From the album’s onset of “Intro / Gravedigger’s Chant,” it becomes blatantly obvious that Gagneux was primed to expand on ideas presented within Devil is Fine tracks like “Come on Down” and “Blood in the River.”
Gagneux is soulful and malevolent early on with “Servants” and “Don’t You Dare,” as wildly increased production standards cement the Zeal vision as goddamn virtuosic. As a pure singer, Gagneux pulls from his African ancestry to emulate America’s gospel greats and his European homeland for frostbitten screams. “Fire of Motion” is the most vicious cut on Stranger Fruit, eviscerating the listener’s ears with a disgusting distorted bass and sharp vocal attacks.
For those of you who loved Zeal & Ardor’s curious interludes throughout Devil is Fine, don’t you worry. Stranger Fruit is regularly grounded by tranquil, yet creepy, pieces centered around vocal harmonies, piano, electronica and music-box lullabies. Z&A’s unnerving tribal chants are also strewn throughout the album, acting as hellish lynchpins of bangers like “Ship on Fire” and “We Can’t Be Found.”
As familiar as much of Stranger Fruit will sound to Devil is Fine fans, the new album has plenty of experimentation to offer. The opening to “Row Row” is as purely bluesy as Zeal has ever been, while “Stranger Fruit” is masterfully foreboding with a single piano key leading you through a wicked sonicscape.
By the time Stranger Fruit closes with “Built on Ashes,” you’ve been put through the ringer, but Gagneux rewards the listener’s dedication with a vocal performance that can only be described as stunning.
The talent and vision Manuel Gagneux possesses is rarer than the strangest fruit, and it would be a crime to sleep on this magnificent piece of art. Stranger Fruit is Album of the Year material and will surely be celebrated as the record which solidified Zeal & Ardor as irrefutably significant.
See Zeal & Ardor in 2018's Best Metal Albums... So Far