Zeal and Ardor - Devil is FineIt’s about time we got to this. Since its release in April, Devil is Fine has exploded in popularity and earned accolades and interviews across the web, based on, as far as I can tell, little to no promotion from the artist. It has sold over 1000 copies on Bandcamp. But the album’s worth as a success story is just the beginning and even its contents don’t quite tell the whole tale. I undertake not a hint of exaggeration in saying that Devil is Fine is among the most interesting albums out there.

In a way, Devil is Fine is an exploration of very well-tread ground. The second wave of black metal drew heavily from pagan themes, and ever since then, black metal bands the world over have been incorporating the local music of their little piece of the world into their art. You have the typical Scandinavians like Moonsorrow and their homage to Viking times, and more recently bands like Nechochwen and Panopticon have brought American influences into the mix, often with stunning results. Zeal and Ardor continue the mixing of black metal and American music — but this time, it’s different.

You will never hear an introduction as enthralling and unexpected as the first lines of the album. Gagneux opens with a world-weary cry that soars atop clanking chains, an incredible exercise in total inversion. ‘Little one gotta heed my warning,’ he chants, channeling the tragic devotion of a slave song, ‘Devil is fine.’ It’s the first of many blind-sided attacks on everything anyone holds dear, yet instead of being merely inflammatory, it’s transcendent. Gagneux bastardizes the spiritual through Satanism, yet the style remains beautiful, and his uncanny ability to stir simple rhythms and melodies into a powerful and balanced song somehow bridge the gap between the belted chants and bloodcurdling shrieks.

One might rightly call Devil is Fine uneven. Out of nine tracks, three, the numbered “Sacriligeum” interludes, are electronic experiments, and though they’re often as confrontational in their collage of styles as the rest of the album, they never quite reach the same heights. Yet six excellent songs spread between black metal, blues, spiritual, and R&B styles are more than enough to make up for a few portions of filler. “Blood in the River” goes straight for the throat, proclaiming “A good god/is a dark one, a good god/is the one that brings the fire,” and promising destruction of the holy, backing up the chanted hook with a feral black metal rasp. Earlier in the album, “Come on Down” is folksy and subdued at first, but its excursions into scorching guitar and drum machine are among the album’s most traditionally ‘metal’ moments.

Zeal and Ardor 2016

These songs are built not on guitar riffs but vocal lines; chants, melodies, layered shouts and screams course through Zeal and Ardor‘s compositions. They’re the motivation, the impetus that inspires the metal riffs rather than the story shoehorned into them. The layering of vocals on “Devil is Fine” and “Blood in the River” to emulate a work song creates a beautiful effect, and the ad-libbed feel of the lyrics and their often slurred realization lend the warmth of humanity to the whole affair. Gagneux even emulates the sound of old recordings, a low-fi touch that’s one of a million reasons why this music works so well.

This album is a great success story, coming from basically nowhere and exploding in popularity based on just how much people enjoy the music. It’s frustrating then, that after seeing such a meteoric rise through Bandcamp, Zeal and Ardor‘s music has since been pulled from the site by the label he’s now signed to and is only reappearing slowly. Until it resurfaces, Devil is Fine will be a hard-to-track-down gem for those who were late to the hype train, and a treasure for people who already know and love its distinct new addition to the folk-black saga.

Tracks to Check Out: “Devil is Fine,” “Blood in the River,” and “Come on Down”