Devil Is Fine by Zeal & Ardor (2017)

A project of Swiss-born, African-American multi-instrumentalist Manuel Gagneux, primarily known for his work as Birdmask, Zeal & Ardor actually began as a bit of a joke. Posting anonymously on the notorious 4chan messageboard, Gagneux was seeking out ideas for unusual genre combinations when someone suggested blending “nigger music” and “black metal” together. Rather than take the comment personally, he instead went to work and released a self-titled debut in 2014 which involved merging black metal with blues and spirituals (a predecessor to gospel sung by American slaves), alongside elements of hip hop and electronica.

Despite being poorly executed and largely ignored, Gagneux set out to improve his experiment. Digging deeper into the Lomax recordings he began to draw a connection between slave spirituals and black metal, seeing them both as representing a rebellion against an established order. From there he began to imagine what sort of music American slaves would have made if they had rejected Christianity and embraced Satanism in the same way Scandinavian black metal bands did in the 1990’s.

The cover art featuring Robert Smalls, a slave who gained freedom by commandeering a confederate ship before going on to become a member of the U.S. Congress, with the Sigil of Lucifer superimposed over his face perfectly sums up what Gagneux is trying to achieve on take two of his genre bending experiment. Originally released via Bandcamp in April last year, Devil Is Fine was later pulled from the platform presumably after he was offered a re-release deal via MVKA.

Devil Is Fine is certainly an original and intriguing project, and while there’s little doubt that it’s an improvement on 2014’s debut effort the finished product suffers from being too disjointed. The title-track opener is easily the high-point and arguably among the best songs released in the past 12 months, featuring bluesy call and response lyrics, clinking chains, piano chords, atmospheric guitar and drums perhaps resembling post-rock more than black metal.

The black metal influence is much clearer elsewhere on the album, with combinations of fast tremolo picking, blast beats and generic screams. ‘Come on Down’ is a standout among these tracks featuring bluesy vocals and a soft chorus, while ‘In Ashes’ and ‘Blood In The River’ are also worthy efforts. ‘Children’s Summon’ on the other hand is a frenetic blur of a mess with its DragonForce-esque high-speed riffing, Satanic chanting and a music box-like synth.

You can’t help but feel that if Gagneux had concentrating on the intriguing blend of black metal, blues and spirituals then it would have made for a stronger album overall. However, the inclusion of the three ‘Sacrilegium’ electronic instruments contribute heavily to its disjointed feel. As does the moderately more interesting ‘What Is A Killer Like You Gonna Do Here’ with its baritone vocals, double bass and slightly off-kilter guitar.

Released: 24th February 2017

Label: MVKA

Genres: Black Metal, Blues, Spirituals, Instrumental Hip Hop, Electronica

Rating: Strong 5 to a Light 6

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