Zeal & Ardor continues the band’s streak of novel genre blending, even if their deficiencies of meaningful innovation are clearer than ever.
Metal outfit Zeal & Ardor, they of many influences, just released their self-titled record, their third studio album, and it explores just as many different sounds and modes as their previous efforts. As a genre, metal can often evince too much homogeneity, often becoming rote and predictable in the wrong hands; Zeal & Ardor make no such missteps, adding some flair by mixing in flecks of folk music, jazz, soul, and just a dash of pop. But while the group continues to tread new territory as a band, cutting new swaths of exploration with each successive LP, that doesn’t always translate to treading new territory sonically, broadly speaking.
The premise of Zeal & Ardor is simple enough. Manuel Gagneux (lead singer) has been quoted as suggesting that the record follows the narrative of American slaves turning to satan instead of God. Indeed, this has been the band’s overarching premise since their inception, the concept borne from a particularly racist 4chan suggestion a decade ago. After releasing two records to plenty of scene acclaim, and following those up with a pro-BLM EP in 2020, the band, as they sit in 2022, seem uniquely poised to pull from their unusual creation/conception story to produce something truly singular. It’s unfortunate that the seemingly at-odds nature — at least as far as personas go — of their Internet edgelord origins and their activist messaging isn’t quite a concept that the band is willing to explore lyrically, but the impressionistic blend of gospel harmonies and ripping hot guitar solos does invoke imagery (and a certain emotional resonance) from both sides of their history.
This time, they also skew a little more industrial, with drum machines and synthesizers backing their already heavy sound. This further melding of sonic textures is admittedly nice to listen to, and does offer considerable differentiation from the music being produced by other groups working in these respective genres and modes. But it’s significant that Zeal & Ardor does not subtly pull from either of these touchstone genres, but rather offers something closer to mimicry of their specific sounds and styles. That’s not to deny the novelty of this particular symbiosis and the superficial appeal that it holds, but it does mean that a vein of familiarity is sometimes discernible throughout the project, more than you would hope for from a new(ish), ostensibly boundary-breaking band. In other words, the effect can occasionally feel more scrapbook than collage, and it’s in this that Zeal & Ardor lose footing on this record.
Still, not every metal band can count ZZ Top, Ministry, Ennio Morricone, and Richard Wagner as primary influences on their sound, and if these incorporations feel more like affectation than any more meaningful synthesis, the result remains distinctly fun. As long as Zeal & Ardor are the only ones doing this, their uniqueness will continue to qualify them as one of the most interesting metal bands working, even if they aren’t the most innovative.
Published as part of Album Roundup — February 2022 | Part 2.