Zeal and Ardor: Slave Songs in Black Metal

“Django sacrifices a goat on stage while intimidating slave chants roar and screeching guitar riffs burn in the background. Then the rhythmic chain rattling evoking a satanic summoning makes way for the eerily familiar melodies of Norwegian black metal,” band Zeal and Ardor describe themselves on Bandcamp.  Although this is a succinct summary of their work, there is so much more to Zeal and Ardor

A couple rabid readers by the name of Sophia and Tamara brought the band Zeal and Ardor to my attention. I instantly fell in love with their contemplative, introspective sounds breaking American historical oppression and the way they stand out within the black metal genre. To give a taste of their essence, they use traditional breakbeat drums and repetitive instrumentals characteristic of Norwegian black metal partnered with whips and chains to capture the heavy African diasporan burden. Their first song Devil is Fine – their album of the same name (2017) – resurfaces slavery’s painful past. Before delving further, Sophia included an interview from Metal Injection to get a first glimpse at the origins of the band:

Discography:

  • 2014 Zeal and Ardor
  • 2017 Devil Is Fine

Leader of the band Swiss-American Manuel Gagneux is on vocals, guitars and keyboards, and also has a few friends on board. He first considered Zeal and Ardor a “project”, not anticipating the large response it received. According to Duke TV‘s interview, their logo is the sigil of Lucifer replete with the band’s initials Z and A. Under it is freed slave Robert Smalls, demonstrating the artist’s honest tribute to his ancestors.

Album Devil is Fine:

You can find Zeal and Ardor‘s work on Bandcamp and follow the lyrics on Genius.

Let’s start with their most popular song, Devil is Fine. I would say that alongside Come on Down and Blood in the River it clearly draws from chain gangs in slave times and gandy dancers working on the railroad. The rhythm is driven by chains. The haunting sound of prisoners walking is best evoked in the chorus:

Nobody gonna show you the way now
Nobody gonna hold your hand no
Nobody gonna show you the way now

  Though mention of the Devil may derive from black metal’s frequent allusions towards satanic symbolism, in the case of this song, it might hint at escapism. Slavery spawned the creation of the black church, a place where slaves could illegally gather and experience a temporary moment of “peace”. Toni Morison’s book Beloved alludes to Life and Death as personifications taunting slaves who wished for both yet attained neither. The Devil is liberation. The Devil is “Fine” could either mean he personifies punishment or makes evil attractive. The blurring between Life and Death, Good and Evil, Moral and Immoral are questioned as he sings:

Little one better find your way now
Devil is fine
Little one better find your way out
Devil is kind
Little one better run for your life
Devil is fine
Little one where you going with that knife?
Devil is kind

  Men in chains speak through rhythm. Gagneux sings to a pulse beating in the background. As the riff introduces itself his voice turns into a coarse wail and one-third through the song, the pulse beats faster. All throughout, a consistent beat remains in the background. The chains break at the end, but softly.

Come on Down and Blood in the River begin in a similar way as Devil is Fine, but in contrast, quickly introduce heavy riffs and drums.

One that marked me most seriously was In Ashes. Zeal and Ardor resurface America’s lynching past from the Hell it originated from. “Burn the young boy” immediately projects the image of postcards of young men publicly hanged and burned. In consideration with some of my readership, I decided not to include any graphic images depicting direct burnings. However, a collection of public lynching postcards can be found here.

Gagneux chants:

Burn the young boy, burn him good
Wash the crimson stains from the field

We can easily imagine a crowd surrounding a tree, a lamp-post, a bridge… the field could be any space. The hanged boy is anonymous, no face is needed to represent the hundreds who were set on fire. Zeal and Ardor’s rapid riffs evoke flames consuming the boy at the stake.

There’ll be a god among us to let the young ones burn
There’ll be a god among us to let the young ones burn

The band has alluded to other demons and practices, however this “god among us” is completely ambiguous. We do know, however, that he possesses the merciless traits critics of Christianity associate with God. The lack of protection from the jurisdiction of African Americans permitted these lynchings. The government becomes one of these gods in terms of power, as the prime enabler that “let the young ones burn”.

Gagneux’s vocals accompany a chant with the traits of a black spiritual: clapping, back vocals and humming. The back vocals are made to sound as though they were recorded on an old record, emphasizing Gagneux’s tribute to his ancestors through the illusion of distance. It could be equally argued, of course, that one of the defining points of black metal is poor recording. Still, this would add a new significance to their chant. This spiritual is then reversed. With the same irony present in the band Ghost, we almost get a satanic spiritual. If this were the case, they may be chanting to the government, the local jurisdiction, hate groups such as the Klan – which join other other gods – in an irony commenting on violence against black people.

Note: This is my take on Zeal and Ardor. Thank you Sophia and Tamara for introducing them to me and any readers who may be new to the band! I am eager to hear more if they decide to produce new work.

Stay tuned for the next band feature. Suggestions are currently on hold. You will be updated as soon as they open.

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