Zeal & Ardor

Stranger Fruit

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The sophomore studio effort from the Swiss-American avant-garde metal ensemble led by Manuel Gagneux, Stranger Fruit delivers on the promise of Zeal & Ardor's 2016 debut via a vital amalgam of blues, black metal, and African American spirituals. An unholy union of Alan Lomax, Algiers, and Burzum, the 16-track set is downright biblical in its spleen, with Gagneux spreading the inverted gospel -- what if the slaves of the Antebellum South had pledged their allegiance to Satan instead of Jesus? -- against a commanding backdrop of field hollers and blastbeats. A pickaxe kicks up dirt and a solemn hymn is hummed on the table-setting "Intro," which rests on the lyric "Ain't no lord gonna help you now" before launching itself into the gaping maw of night via a seismic blast of double-kick drum and sepulchral distortion. "Gravedigger's Chant" adopts a more theatrical tone, pairing Burlesque drama with bluesy, barroom swagger, a recipe that's used again on the blistering "Row Row" and the blazing "Ship's on Fire" -- Gagneux's soulful wail reaches Tom Waits-ian levels of carny bellicosity on the latter cut. Stranger Fruit's two most affecting offerings, "You Ain't Coming Back" and "Built on Ashes," use straight gospel blues as a sonic blueprint, but there's no salvation or hope to be unearthed, only discord, fury, and decibels. That the Norwegian-style black metal elements that find their way into each never sound like a contrivance is a small miracle, and a testament to Gagneux's unwavering commitment to honor both genres equally.

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