Zeal & Ardor – Zeal & Ardor [Things You Might Have Missed 2022]

Zeal & Ardor have always been a band of “buts” (with only one “t”!): individual songs have been great but previous albums haven’t quite coalesced into a consistent whole. The live show is fantastic but the energy is lost in the recording studio (compare the scintillating live performance of “Baphomet”—with its classic “Right hand up! Left hand down!” chorus—to the tame studio version). Their schtick of combining slave gospel with black metal is great but it’s also limited in its options and will become overdone soon. Which meant a great deal rode on their third album, Zeal & Ardor. Was the band going to fulfill its promise, or remain an interesting, if flawed, mishmash? A “but” band, if you will?

The good news is that Zeal & Ardor is, by far, the band’s best album to date. No ifs, ands, or buts. It’s not perfect (I’ll get to that), but it is fiery, eclectic and chock-full of brilliant material. From its industrial opening, it explodes with “Run,” which highlights a key component of what makes this material work: passion. Frontman Marcel Gagneux is absolutely spitting mad at the state of the world right now. His heckles were raised in the aftermath of the BLM protests (inspiring the EP Wake of a Nation), but his fury provides real power to the harsher material. Even on softer tracks like “Golden Fire,” his voice sounds like it intends to overwhelm the microphone with feeling. His emotional performance lights up his live shows and, for the first time, is truly evident on the songs.

The other great thing about Zeal & Ardor is how much better than songs—and the album—hold up on repeat listenings. The black metal is fast and brutal (“Run,” “Götterdämmerung”), the softer moments affecting (“Golden Liar,” the intro to “Church Burns”), the heavy parts crushing (“Hold Your Head Low,” “I Caught You”). Crucially, the eclecticism (gospel, industrial, hints of gothic), which sometimes felt like a crutch on previous albums, now complements the material rather than supporting it. Combine with incendiary lyrics (“Stand tall with the rage of a storm now/ Kill hope for the age ’cause we know how/ Bow down to the American way”) and you have fireworks.

It’s not perfect, however. Gagneux still sometimes seems a bit too casual with his own material, tossing aside great ideas like candy wrappers before fully forming them. He dabbles in blackgaze (“Erasure”), for example, does a surprisingly good job, then never returns. There is so much happening here—a true embarrassment of riches—but some are left slightly underdeveloped.

Nevertheless, Zeal & Ardor is a scorching triumph. It’s the sound of an artist escaping their niche without compromising their vision. It’s angry and sad and beautiful and compelling and it translates wonderfully into his brilliant live shows. There’s a reason fans are responding so viscerally to the material and that’s because it’s so immensely powerful. It’s always cool seeing a band you like hit their mark, and Zeal & Ardor have done so resoundingly here. Essential listening that is going to appear on many year-end lists. Get off your butt and listen to it.

Tracks to Check Out: ”Run,” Golden Liar,” “Church Burns”

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