Lots of things make perfect sense when put together. Fish and chips, salt and vinegar. Some things seem totally incongruous, like cats and dogs, Trump and the Presidency. And there are other things you would just never even consider pairing up. Cheese and chocolate, PlanetMosh and boy bands. The new album Devil is Fine from Zeal & Ardor falls into the final category, combining as it does African American slave music and black metal. As is so often the case however, the two most disparate elements you could possibly think of actually work quite well when put together.
Zeal & Ardor is a project put together by musician Manuel Gagneux. While working on another project he found he could overcome difficulties in his creativity by using online bulletin board 4Chan, and asking people to give him two different genres of music, which he would then turn into a song. He was given slave music and black metal and combining those random genres soon became a project in itself. Gagneux has immersed himself in these genres, having been a black metal fan since his teens, and been aware of chain gang music via his parents during his childhood. He revisited the recordings they listened to for this project and rediscovered his interest. The idea developed of slave chain gangs embracing the idea of Satanism as a way of rebelling against their Christian owners. This became the thread that brought the two elements together throughout the record. It is reflected in the artwork, which shows a portrait of real life slave Robert Smalls, who managed to liberate himself and others during the American Civil War and went on to live a long, successful and free life. The portrait is overlaid with the Sigil of Lucifer, a sixteenth century symbol also known as the Seal of Satan. The symbol is used as a visual representation of Satan. Gagneux became interested in the idea of slaves embracing Satanism as a way of liberating themselves and the motif works very well when combined with the black metal elements of the music. At only twenty five minutes long it’s a very short album but is also completely engrossing in terms of it’s absolute creative originality. Whatever your preferred musical choice, however eclectic you may consider yourself I can almost guarantee you won’t have heard anything quite like this before.
The album opens with the title track, Devil is Fine, in which the chain gang element is so convincing Gagneux was at one point accused of sampling original recordings. In fact he says he used a “shit microphone with too much signal,” to create the original lo-fi sound he was looking for. In Ashes continues the sound, with some hugely evocative lyrics. “Burn the young boy, burn him good. Wash the crimson stains from the field.” The horror of slavery is never far from the surface. Come on Down begins with a lo-fi, crackly voice, like an old gramophone record, but soon bursts into a scream and some typically fast black metal drums. I’ve listened a few times now and I’d still say I wouldn’t think it would work, but it does.
Children’s Summon uses probably the most eclectic range of musical influences ever to appear in the same song, from religious chanting reminiscent of Ghost, through black metal guitars and drums to electronica that sounds exactly like a kids music box on double speed. Somehow it all comes together. Whether the black metal purists will appreciate it remains to be seen but the effect is quite intriguing nonetheless.
Sacrilegium, the theft of sacred things, appears as a song title in three separate parts throughout the piece. Part I is very electronic, with only a distorted voice. Part II, immediately following Children’s Summon continues the music box sound, slowed down to regular speed. I’ve always found the metallic sound of a music box quite creepy anyway, but when it appears on an album of slave music the effect is magnified. Blood in the River takes things to another level, even using the sound effect of clanking chains, as a metal scream is overlaid with the chain gang lyric about rivers running red with the blood of the saints and the holy. This album never holds back and the effect is at times almost visual. The album closes with Sacrilegium III. It’s an instrumental piece, again with elements of electronica that can be quite jarring, but then the whole idea of the album is jarring anyway, so it seems to fit.
Devil is Fine is hard to put in a box. It’s not any particular genre. It doesn’t conform to the styles we recognise. It makes us think about things we find abhorrent. But it’s also utterly original, intriguing, captivating and well worth repeated listens.
- Devil is Fine
- In Ashes
- Sacrilegium I
- Come on Down
- Children’s Summon
- Sacrilegium II
- Blood in the River
- What is a Killer like you gonna do here?
- Sacrilegium III