I Think You’re Supposed to Say “African American Metal” Now
When the debut album of, say, a hot young Atlanta rapper or a diverse neo-soul collective opens with an American slave gospel chant and the rhythmic rattle of chains, you instantly know the record’s contents are gonna be a doozy — or at least some kind of sociological examination of the black musical tradition. But for such a thing to kick off the opening track of a metal record? Now that is a very unusual thing indeed. Zeal & Ardor’s Manuel Gagneux even goes the extra mile with an origin story involving the ever-divisive 4chan’s music board and cover portrait of a stern black man who you should probably feel guilty for not recognizing. It’s enough to make us inappropriately quote Calvin Candie, the despicable villain of Django Unchained: “Gentlemen, you had my curiosity. Now you have my attention.”
Alright, let’s get something out of the way: it’s no secret that metal has always been a bit of whiteboy’s club since its inception in Southern England, home to the most melanin-deficient population on this planet of Earth. And since the sounds of heavy metal beckon most temptingly to the kind of white kids who are captivated by morbid subjects like the occult, violent cultural myths and religious persecution, there are innumerable true tales of human suffering woven into the fabric of metal music. For example, there’s plenty of metal about real-life serial killers. There’s metal about the horrors of the Holocaust, and whole concept albums about tours of Vietnam. Hell, even Native Americans get a bit of the spotlight in “Run To The Hills,” but there’s not a whole lot of metal music that explores — or even acknowledges — slavery in America. It’s the opposite of what you’d expect, really, because the haunting sounds of the earliest and most influential heavy metal groups are but a few decibels away from the raw delta blues that inspired the original British Invasion.
As Zeal & Ardor adamantly point over the course of Devil Is Fine, the blues is metal, literally, and not in the adjective-type way in that Vikings are totally “metal.” On any other metal album, the chain gang prayer call of the title track would suddenly give way to thundering, dissonant guitar chords, but Zeal & Ardor forgo the typical iteration of the left-hand path. It’d be redundant — the heaviness is already there.
That’s not to say Devil Is Fine has no loud guitars — but even though “Come On Down” is propped up by a towering wall of delay effects and piercing echoes, the track still has a strange frailness about it, like some sepia-toned photograph that’s so old it feels like it might crumble in your hand. Though listeners and critics will certainly scramble to brand Zeal & Ardor as “black metal” because it is totes the hippest subgenre right now, the tremolo picking and galloping kick drum pattern that carry “In Ashes” ring more truly of melodic death than black metal. In fact, the first real blast beat doesn’t arrive until “Children’s Summoning” and is unfortunately obscured by a synth organ and ghoulish Latin chanting that sounds a bit too much like Ghost and not quite enough like In The Nightside Eclipse. With that said, Zeal & Ardor definitely have the terrifying, murky clamorous aspect of black metal down pat with “Blood in the River.” The key difference is that Gagneux’s dark cloud of noise is made of full-throated gospel choirs and church organs, while trebly guitars and raw-throated death shrieks take a mostly backseat.
Devil Is Fine offers a few complete anomalies, even within the context of melding two seemingly disparate genres. “Sacrilegium I” is an ambient trip-hop instrumental with killswitch-affected samples. There’s also the confounding “What Is A Killer Like You Gonna Do Here,” which sounds like a combination of Tom Waits and Dr. John, two men who were, in turn, ripping off Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters — which must just loop back to the blues? — but damn if it doesn’t sound exactly like “Jockey Full of Bourbon.” The best moments of Devil Is Fine sound like Otis Redding trying to belt out tunes over mid-era Darkthrone…if the two artists didn’t have a chance to ever actually rehearse together and instead some nerdy guitar tech backstage just gave Redding a two-minute verbal synopsis on the history and style of black metal, albeit a fairly detailed one.
Toward the end of the record it does start to get a bit…uh…shticky. As early as the halfway point of Devil Is Fine, it feels like the lyrics are trying to fill some quote on the use of the words “field,” “blood” and “devil.” It’s almost universally true that the lyrics of any “themed” metal band tend to grate over time, whether it’s Alestorm, Korpiklaani, Finntroll or Amon Amarth; and by absolutely no means is that a comparison between the pirates’ and Norse gods’ mythical booze creatures and the subject matter of black tradition — this cannot be stressed enough. Anyway, sometimes the whole ordeal feels a hair too stompy and anthemic, like something out of a clothing commercial, and it calls into question just how sustainable this novel fusion really is. Gagneux has expressed interest in tapping other genres, though he’s certainly starting off on the right foot.
At the end of the day, these are all just nitpicks. We’re getting some original, unusually textured metal, and that is never a bad thing. Gagneux couldn’t have picked a better time to drop a record like this. In this period of ever-escalating racial tensions, NSBM groups are getting more attention than ever, as accusations of Nazism flying are left and right. Even if this whole project is, as Gagneux says, sort of a joke, Zeal & Ardor are a very well thought-out joke. Let’s all thank Black Jesus there are still weird dudes who can find heaviness in places outside of the gain nobs on a Marshall stack.