Monday, June 11, 2018

album review: 'stranger fruit' by zeal & ardor

So the honest truth about much of the criticism I create is that it's pretty agnostic when it comes to the intent of the authors... or at least I try to be. As much as I might take issues with the ideology at the core of some work, I try to give everything its fair shake in execution. And sure, while there is something to be said for liking art that affirms your worldview and disliking art that rejects it, that's more amplification rather than a deciding factor - after all, I've heard enough anarcho-punk that while I might like or admire the politics, presentation ultimately pushes me away. 

But all of this comes from the fundamental assumption that the intentions of the artist are sincere, and while you do get your fair share of satires and genre deconstructions, artists that are openly disingenuous in their artistic pursuits and don't really give a shit about the aesthetic or ideas they're promoting can exist as well in a weird space. Now there are not that many acts in this lane - authenticity is a prized commodity from country to metal to punk to hip-hop, and flaunting your disdain for that tends to get you shoved out of a lot of spaces - but when there's a lot of money to be found they tend to pop up. You could make the argument that Limp Bizkit or the very least Fred Durst fell in this space for a time in the late 90s, using nu-metal and rap rock as a openly nihilistic cash grab artistry be damned, but I put that more along the lines of studio creations and reality show artists, where the money is the primary motivation but art can happen along the way. Then you get acts like Lil Dicky, who entered hip-hop to get famous to go on and do other things and to make a point that he could, which is one reason why so much of his music is one-note, nakedly contemptuous of good taste and tends to suck.

And then there's Zeal & Ardor, an act that when I first heard about it I was genuinely excited - following the wake of Algiers to fuse traditionally black spirituals, soul, and blues with black metal, that sounded awesome and indeed my first few listens really sucked me in... until I started seeing interviews where the band's frontman Manuel Gagneux said the band primarily started as a joke and dare on 4chan. And that would be fine - execution can overrule original intent, and I've seen art made for worse reasons - but both black metal and spirituals are two genres and styles that prize authenticity, and co-opting the latter for a cheap Satanic inversion felt in poor taste, especially given the current state of affairs in the world. But then something strange happened: the first Zeal & Ardor record actually got critical traction, and suddenly Gagneux had to expand a concept that he had approached somewhat haphazardly on the debut for something with a little more meat, and I was curious how on earth he could follow it up, especially considering he named the record in a clear reference to the Billie Holiday song. Maybe he'd take on these topics with more gravity, so okay... what did we find on Stranger Fruit?

So okay, let run down the most immediate questions. Is Stranger Fruit by Zeal & Ardor a better record than the debut? Yes, absolutely - there's more meat to the bones, it's heavier and shows at the very least a little more consideration in its construction, showing that Gagneux is at least trying to put in the work. And yet... man, I really need to stop reading interviews from this guy, because when I started doing my research to dig up a full set of lyrics and I found pieces where he was describing the primary transgressive intentions... and if it just stopped there, I'd be more forgiving. Instead, while Stranger Fruit is heading in the right direction, there's an odd sense of hollowness to a lot of these compositions that just do not grip me nearly as much as I want to. It's definitely pretty good, but there's a deeper core of intensity that similar genre-blending acts like Algiers has nailed that Zeal & Ardor just hasn't.

And what's frustrating is that you can tell that on some level, Zeal & Ardor might be on the right path. At the very least Gagneux seems to grasp some of the lyrical content, basically by taking the structure of blues and Negro spirituals and adding a harsher brand of brutal pragmatism, with the ugly implications that there's likely no God waiting to grant you mercy on the other side, dead is dead, and systems both current and past offer no comfort, so why not flip the scales for something more Satanic and transgressive? And on some level that's pretty damn dark, especially with songs like 'Gravedigger's Chant', 'You Ain't Coming Back', and the title track hammering that increasingly bleak worldview, and songs like 'Ship On Fire' speaking for the haunted ghosts of those who died on slave ships during the crossing, with 'Waste', 'Fire Of Motion' and 'We Can't Be Found' doubling down on the Satanic subtext. And on the surface, it makes a certain amount of sense... until you remember how much of what was called Satanic by the Christian churches of the era was simply a rebranding of pagan or foreign religious practices, and the fact that this record doesn't even try to reconnect that dot to undermine the religious structure feels like a real missed opportunity. But that's a statement I'd make about much of the content as a whole - seemingly a lot more concerned with undercooked mantras intended to shock than delving into the implications of religious subversion, and while songs like the title track do sketch out the modern parallels, it's driven off a metaphor Billie Holiday used decades ago and even then there's an odd defeatist feeling to the nihilistic undercurrent. Part of this might not entirely be Gagneux's fault - being Swiss, biracial, and residing in Europe he might not have the cultural experience to add meat to the subversion... until you keep coming back to the frustrating feeling he might be more interested in the act of subversion rather than the implications, and once you get past that the content starts feeling underwritten and thin, lacking that visceral detail and weight.

But you don't have to tell me that black metal as a genre doesn't place as much emphasis on lyrics - even here, where Gagneux's admittedly impressive delivery spans from crooning, roaring shouts, and guttural shrieks and is most often placed at the front of the mix although there are definitely points where it sounds like his screaming is buried. And if you liked the formula of black metal tremolo riffing and blast beats infused with the rattling grooves of spirituals from the debut, this record amps it up on steroids, specifically in the much more aggressive guitar passages and flat out insane drumwork. Now over sixteen songs there are moments where this record can seem to fall towards formula - opening with a rattling guitarline or distant, fuzzed out tremolo passage before the cleaner vocals take the song into crashing black metal segments - but there are moments where it comes together effectively, from the rickety explosion of 'Don't You Dare', the seething whirs and roiling rhythms of 'Waste', and the creepy wells of keyboards that add a lot of texture to both the title track and 'Gravedigger's Chant'. But there are three big problems with a lot of these compositions that really prevent me from embracing them as a whole, and the first comes in the bass lines - oh, they can cut through and gain presence like on 'Servants', but you'd think for a more seamless black metal fusion they'd be allowed to gain more presence in the mix to compliment the percussion - hell, even on the bluesier segments they feel undercooked. But that's more because on a melodic level some of these songs can feel oddly disjointed - yes, the shredding can be impressive on songs like 'We Can't Be Found' and some of the transitions stick, but the shorter track length means that transitions don't always get the space to really pay off, or build to the crescendos to really drive these hooks home. But perhaps the biggest problem overall is that in addition to the transgressive content, Gagneux also feels the urge to push his album into sonic detours that quickly become dead-ends. I tolerated the ambient folk touches behind 'The Hermit', but the second half of this record starts piling up these undercooked passages like 'The Fool' and ''Solve' and 'Coagula' that not only don't fit with anything but utterly cripple the momentum. And they aren't even precisely bad, but they do seem like they're only here to provoke a reaction from the purist black metal set, the sort of transgression for its own sake that is about the last thing you'd want to double down upon if you want folks to buy into the record as a whole.

So as a whole... man, I really wish I could like this more, because in concept the idea of this genre fusion really has a ton of potential... but unlike an act like Algiers who approached their genre fusion with an ethos and the manifestos to back it up, Zeal & Ardor increasingly has the feel of a one-note idea strung along with no clear plan or will to delve deeper, instead coasting on novelty and strong performance chops. And hey, that can be enough for a lot of people... but it doesn't hit that deeper resonance for me, netting a solid 6/10 and a recommendation if you're curious. I'll freely admit I may have overpraised this act initially because of the novelty, and while this is a step towards refining that idea... man, it should be so much better.

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