Women in Music 2019

Listen to Zeal & Ardor's 'Devil Is Fine' Album: Exclusive

Matthias Willi
Zeal & Ardor

Gospel has roots in the spirituals that North American slaves sang while they toiled on plantations and as they escaped along the Underground Railroad. Although the relationship between Christianity and slavery is complex -- it is documented as having been both denied to captives and foisted upon them, depending on such factors as the U.S. laws that dictated their treatment and a slave owner's preference -- slaves nonetheless drew strength and hope from the faith that teaches such parables as Moses freeing the Hebrews from the pharaoh in Egypt.

After a random conversation on 4chan, Manuel Gagneux — the Swiss-American musician behind gospel/black metal outfit Zeal & Ardor — found himself wondering what it could have sounded like if slaves had sung songs that worshipped a different entity. While Gagneux was working on another music project of his called Birdmask, he would often go to the 4chan bulletin board as a break and “ask for different musical genres to mash into a song in less than an hour," he recalls. One day, two people submitted gospel and black metal (a genre known for Satanic and supernatural lyrics and imagery) for him to combine. "I went to work,” says Gagneux, a longtime black metal fan. “So, strictly speaking, I did not come up with the idea, but I took it from two separate suggestions."

Thus, Zeal & Ardor's debut album, Devil Is Fine, is a quasi-conceptual rendering of what such spirituals might have sounded like if they were sung not in the service of God, but of Satan. The album -- which Gagneux released in 2016 on Bandcamp and is now getting a formal global rollout on Feb. 24 through MVKA -- wields impassioned howls, blast beats and furious guitar together with call-and-response chants and handclaps. The chants’ style and mono audio quality mimic the field recordings collected by folklorist Alan Lomax, which Gagneux, who is African-American, listened to for inspiration.

Billboard has the exclusive stream of the entire Devil Is Fine album. Listen below:

“Those recordings are some of the most unembellished and most emotional pieces of music I’ve heard,” says Gagneux, who recorded all the instruments himself for Devil Is Fine. “It was a process of getting my already terrible microphone to sound more similar to what I heard there. As for the lyrics, I’d basically yell vaguely Satanic chants in my kitchen until I liked something. My neighbors are not fans of this process.”

The results are powerful — and eerie. Jazz, Delta blues, hints of EDM and Bjork-style music box tunes also infiltrate the recording that Gagneux describes in promotional materials as “walking through slave-era America and seeing a chain gang in the woods practicing Satanic rituals.” Asked if he thinks slaves may have been empowered in some way if they had praised Satan instead of the Christian God, Gagneux replies, “Hard to say. The thing is, to embrace Satan, they’d also have to embrace Christianity. The problem, to me, lies in assimilation per se, not in the type of assimilation. It’s also important to notice that the faith, even if adopted, did act as empowering to American slaves in the end.”

Gagneux had an artisan design a branding iron of the triangular symbol that is superimposed over a photo of Robert Smalls, a former slave who later became a politician, that dominates the cover of Devil Is Fine. Gagneux explains his thinking behind the brand as, “It’s a comment on how popular culture is akin to volunteered slavery. The complete submission to a cause one does not completely know. And now we have it as a standing dare ready for anyone foolish enough to take us up on it,” meaning that if a fan asks to be branded, he’ll oblige. “[But] there is no glorification of the brutality and inhumane acts committed to slaves. There is no cosmetic appropriation of a terrible custom. But sure, we want to call attention to the brutality that American slaves endured. I have a feeling that’s more important.”

However, when Zeal & Ardor embarks on an overseas tour that begins in April (it has also booked a one-off date in Las Vegas), Gagneux’s not really expecting someone to take him up on the dare. “The mark itself is about the size of my hand,” he says. “It’s quite the boo-boo.”

Tour dates are as follows:

April 14: Basel, Switzerland @ Czar Fest 

April 19: Paris, France @ Le Glazart

April 20: London, England @ Underworld London

April 21: Tilburg, Netherlands @ Roadburn Festival

April 22: Berlin, Germany @ Urban Spree

April 24: Prague, Czech Republic @ Roxy Prague

April 25: Warsaw, Poland @ Hydrozagadka

May 3: Milan, Italy @ Magnolia

May 4: Geneva, Switzerland @ L’Usine

May 5: Athens, Greece @ Kyttaro

May 18-19: Brighton, England @ The Great Escape Festival Brighton

Aug 20: Las Vegas, NV @ Psycho


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