The roots of Zeal & Ardor lie in an online forum that suggested the mashup of various disparate genres. While such an origin and resulting project could be gimmicky, I’ve always found the act’s music to avoid that categorization for a reason – it seems genuine. Founder/composer Manuel Gagneux has used multi-faceted songs that draw from African-American spirituals, black metal, and electronic music to reflect on racial justice, religion, and politics. Despite some impressive songs (“Devil Is Fine” being a notable favourite), their innovative albums, and meaningful lyrics, I’ve always found Z&A records to be a little inconsistent. As such, with each increasingly promising single I heard teasing the upcoming, self-titled record, I was very curious to hear how the album would sound as a whole.
This album opens with a fittingly self-titled track. The industrial drums, cinematic bass, and stuttering guitar make a haunting, slow, and eerily sensual introduction to the record before “Run” explodes with raw screams and rapid riffage. A theme established on “Run” that pervades the rest of the heavy moments on the album is a relatively newfound affinity for groove-oriented and hooky metalcore inspiration. This is not to say that the act’s black metal tendencies are absent, but there is certainly more variety. While Zeal & Ardor have never used heaviness as an end goal, there is a palpable rage on this track that overflows onto many of the other facets of the record.
However, Zeal & Ardor have never been about rage alone. “Emersion”, for example, opens with dreampop synths that initially made me think of Owl City, before veering into shrieks and pounding drums alongside a triumphant tremolo guitar line. Elsewhere, “Golden Liar” pulls from atmospheric and spaghetti Western soundscapes for a more restrained but haunting performance that equals the eeriness of heavier moments on the record.
Gagneux also demonstrates his mastery for cohesive and contemporary rock on the album, perhaps most notably with “Bow”. Its heavily critical and political messaging is highlighted by a throaty vocal, a hooky wordless refrain, and powerfully minimalist percussion. I regularly get this song stuck in my head, which has been the case since it first dropped. While I am glad that this record runs the gamut from African-American spirituals to metalcore and everything in between, it may just shine brightest in this straightforward rock moment.
I’ve always been intrigued by Zeal & Ardor on a song-by-song basis, but I have been left somewhat wanting by full listens of their previous records. This self-titled album is a notable exception. While some tracks might not reach the heights of others, there’s nary a skippable moment here (even though I’ll admit the album loses a little bit of steam towards its close). Even though Gagneux and co. draw from as broad a range of influences as ever, compositions feel more cohesive and intentional here. And when things soar, like they do on “Bow”, “Run”, or “Feed The Machine”, they make for perhaps the best moments of Zeal & Ardor‘s career. If you want an ambitious, politically minded, yet personal and genuine album from one of the more creative acts in metal and rock, I strongly recommend Zeal & Ardor.