Monday, December 3rd, 2018

Zeal & Ardor – Built on Ashes

Zeal? Ardor? Sounds like Readers’ Week! (Thanks to Mickey for this pick.)


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Alfred Soto: Immune to male sturm und drang, I sat up straighter when I heard how this duo had integrated “Strange Fruit,” and the combination of metal’s forward momentum and Southern rock lilt coheres into a gripping evocation of aloneness without end.
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Vikram Joseph: The band name suggests Christian emo, but “Built On Ashes” is a more unusual proposition. Blues-inspired vocals surf on a murky ocean of dense, shoegaze-metal guitar, with the overall effect being a strange dream in which Mogwai are soundchecking on the stage adjacent to Hozier playing “Take Me To Church” at a festival with particularly challenging sound-bleed issues. It doesn’t want for sound or fury — multi-tracked vocals, dark reconstruction-era Southern-gothic imagery (“you will swing free in the breeze”) and pummelling toms build to a seething cauldron of noise; in the end, it won me over with sheer force of will.
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Joshua Minsoo Kim: While Zeal & Ardor may find its roots in an off-the-cuff 4chan joke that proposed the blending of ostensibly incompatible genres, the seriousness with which Manuel Gagneux tackles the project is admirable. Gagneux notes that this odd confluence of black metal and soul/blues is loosely bound together in how Christianity was forced on to both American slaves and Norwegians. “It’s a form of rebellion,” he says of the music. And indeed, the most incredible thing about “Built on Ashes” — the final track on Stranger Fruit, meant to summarize the album’s themes — is how its two genres work together to effectively capture the “triumph of the will of the people.” These atmospheric black metal riffs create an oppressive wall of sound that’s met with a sobering, emotional lament: “Don’t darling die on me now/We’ll dig the grave close to your home/Don’t you fix your eyes on me now/We never said you’d come back home.” Still, I would readily argue that neither component here is noteworthy on its own, and that “Built on Ashes” is mostly intriguing for its underlying gimmick. Regardless, I’m happy it exists.
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Katie Gill: The ridiculous levels of distortion on this song are obviously an artistic choice. And I respect artists and whatever choices they make! That being said, this doesn’t work for me. What’s fairly polished becomes amateur hour or garage band chic as soon as we hit the minute-thirty mark. Considering how relatively radio-friendly it is compared to other metal or hard rock songs of the type, it’s a downright bizarre choice.
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Nortey Dowuona: The screeching guitars are laid quietly in the back as the hollow, watery piano falls into the nasally, scratched howl of Manuel Gagneux, who carefully leads his band mates to weave full bodied bass strums and rumbling, bubbling drums in a soaring, powerful chant.
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Ian Mathers: As with the relatively rare cases where a song from an album I already loved shows up on TSJ, I’m a little nonplussed by how to approach “Built on Ashes.” If there are ‘singles’ on Stranger Fruit I’m not sure this is one of them, even though it’s absolutely one of my favourite songs on the record. Manuel Gagneux’s blend of overt slavery-era spirituals, blues, etc. with black metal and an alternate history where Black slaves embraced not the Christian church but the Christian Satan and hermetic magic instead risks being so high concept that you wonder if there’s meat on those bones. But Stranger Fruit even more than his debut as Zeal & Ardor succeeds in a very visceral way. “Built on Ashes” is the last song on the album, and one of the more midtempo ones, but in terms of the story Gagneux is telling and the emotions he’s evoking, it is very much the climax, right down to the way “you are bound to die alone” and “we never said you could go back home” call back to several other songs on the album. That doesn’t mean that “Built on Ashes” isn’t a good song in isolation, just that I’m imagining experiencing it without context and being baffled — but intrigued.
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