It takes a lot to excite and intrigue jaded metalheads like me. As our recent expose demonstrated, we here at Angry Metal Guy Hype-Deflating Industries LTD. have become harder and harder to impress over the years, to the point where we keep our superlatives locked in a gun safe1 which requires written permission to be opened. Nevertheless, Zeal and Ardor‘s debut, Devil is Fine piqued quite a few of us with its bizarre split personality and penchant for hooks. The follow-up to that Bandcamp smash-hit, Stranger Fruit has been anxiously anticipated here, where in our best hopes we imagined an album just as catchy and eclectic but more focused and complex.
Stranger Fruit coagluates in humid menace, heaving and sweating. “Gravediggers Chant” projects a big-band piano line through post-metal stripped down into just a few chords and a howling lead guitar. While unmistakably of the same inspiration that created Devil is Fine, it feels more mature and relies on admixture rather than juxtaposition. The album’s best songs amplify this voice, and in its most emotional moments Stranger Fruit turns to gospel music for inspiration; “You Ain’t Coming Back” and “Built On Ashes” make odd bedfellows of the musical styles of black bible-belters and pale Cascadians. Though gospel’s rich vocal harmony and the belak tremolo lines of bands like Agalloch and Wolves in the Throne Room are a far cry from each other musically, they both exist for the same reason – a sense of the spiritual and majestic that these songs beautifully evoke.
The bluesier songs here stomp and steam like any of the brimstone-reeking cuts form the band’s debut, and lovers of the more occult pairings of that record will not be disappointed by tracks like “Gravedigger’s Chant,” “Don’t You Dare,” “Row, Row,” “and “Ship On Fire.” The latter of the three turns on some of the album’s strongest vocal interplay and most satisfying black metal, while “Row, Row” splashes its blasphemy over a Caribbean pop beat. Yet not all of the album’s heavy tracks are so successful. “Waste” might be the most extreme of the bunch, but its rhythmic approach is too simplistic for the song to hold much attention. It’s a complaint I have about many of the songs here; though they have distinct sounds and personalities, they pick one riff, rhythm, or chord progression and stick with it, failing to develop further than a simple verse-chorus format. Once you’ve got the atmosphere and rhythmic background of the song figured out, mot much will surprise you for the next two minutes.
The Zeal and Ardor formula produces some extremely powerful and satisfying songs – “Gravedigger’s Chant” and “Built on Ashes” bookend the album with opposing yet equally effective highs. Outside of this familiar structure, however, the songs begin to falter. The album’s more experimental B-side takes a crack at variety with a few faltering death-thrash riffs in “We Can’t Be Found,” but spends even more time on the sort of instrumental filler tracks that spaced out the great songs in Devil is Fine. Quite frankly, I would have cut everything between “You Ain’t Coming Back” and “Built on Ashes” from the album to pare it down to an effective, if unchallenging, thirty-five minutes. The songs of the back half, like “Stranger Fruit” and “We Can’t be Found,” just don’t work and Gagneux seems unsure of how to transcend the simple pop structures that underly songs from the first half of the LP. Ultimately, Zeal and Ardor‘s success – in the estimation of most metal listeners, at least – depends on his ability to do so.
American bands have been innovators, provocatueurs, and heavyweights in metal since the beginning, but until recently there has been a conspicuous lack of metal that sounds American in tone. Sure, death metal can sound like it’s from New York or Florida scenes, thrash might mirror the scruffiness of the East Bay and sludge can reek of its Louisianan originators; but none of these feel geographically and sonically tied to their place of origin rather than the scene that happened to flourish there. It’s tough to make metal that sounds culturally tied to the US. Austin Lunn showed us one way to do it, and Manuel Gagneux2 has now proven his take equally compelling, if not equally sophisticated. Stranger Fruit demonstrates Gagneux’s commitment to the style, but not his ability to expand upon it, and until he does, Zeal and Ardor will remain a more of a catchy gimmick than the fascinating fusion that the band’s fans want it to be.