Devil is Fine by Zeal & Ardor

Release date: February 24, 2017
Label: MVKA

The promotion and reception buzz around this album has understandably circled around the mash-up of African American work songs and gospel shouts with blasts of extreme noise: black spirituals meets black metal. This is certainly one of the interesting features of the album, but its scope reaches far beyond this odd juxtaposition. Zeal & Ardor’s Devil is Fine is a genuinely fascinating recording, whether approached as an idiosyncratic meditation on diverse outposts of the history of popular music and its strange influences and contact points; or simply as an expertly compelling collage of intriguing sounds. Started as a sort of dare or experiment, a version of this album has actually been out already on Reflections Records, while an earlier demo with a more conventional sampling-based hip-hop sound was previously available online before disappearing, presumably at the behest of label MVKA who have signed up Zeal & Ardor, shuffled the track order and put out Devil is Fine again in the wake of the excited response it got first time round.

The record is a much more complicated beast than “black metal + spirituals” as it was billed in some of the hype, as intriguing as that formation is to begin with. In fact, I’d love to hear that record; this isn’t quite it. It’s not so much black metal as a general extreme metal that constitutes the distorted timbres and textures on the record… maybe a more polished kind of death metal really. Many of the tracks have those instrumental timbre elements, though they aren’t quite the defining or dominant characteristics of the sound. The mix is what really distinguishes it from most black metal, which tends to be deliberately muddy, revelling in the charcoal drudge of the demo cassette sound. Here though, the spiritual-style, circular repeating vocals are mostly way out in front, making a stark contrast with the metal stuff, raging as it is, as accompaniment. There are metal style extreme vocals too from the same singer, on some tracks switching between gospel and the screech admirably.

The solo musician responsible, Manuel Gagneux, suggests in the promo stuff that black slaves in America and white teenagers in Norway share an oppositional refashioning of religion: this certainly seems a bit glib and simplistic at first reading, though perhaps he’s making a connection on a more personal/biographical basis. Nevertheless, it’s true that the satanic associations prompted merely by wild riffs and underground metal screams (OK, and the cliché Latin priest incantations on ‘Child’s Summon’) do echo interestingly when associated with the call and response shouts about God and the Devil in the style of the spirituals. A strong point of the choices made here is that the lyrics are genuinely thought-provoking and evocative, providing a further dimension of intrigue where a standard gospel shout would have had the same sonic effect. A demonic-sounding metal croak about Satan and flames and the blood of the saints would be predictably run-of-the-mill; a mournful wail about the same subject, still with a metal backing, does seem weirder and darker.

Of course there’s a history linking black American music to extreme metal in the shadow of religion, but since it’s one that keeps getting forgotten and deliberately hidden its worth reiterating. Work songs and spirituals could be foundations for ambivalent resistance or resource in a context where Christianity was imposed over fragmented African traditions, yet Christianity itself still offered some potentially resistant power in its tales of the righteous overturning slavery to reach freedom in the promised land. This developed into the blues-gospel dialectic where both sides looked over their shoulder at the devil who appeared in various shifting forms: as genuinely feared Christian evil, as structural oppression embodied in the figures of actual white men, or in more sympathetic themes like human nature, or as respected but covert figures of African religion understood as antithesis or counterpoint to imposed white Christianity. The meanings of the devil symbol might shift ambivalently between these themes even in the course of a song, depending on audience and perception, vaguely encoded against dangerous implications. Then this powerful electricity got taken up by Elvis and then the Rolling Stones, and at the beginnings of metal was foundational to Led Zeppelin’s wailing and Black Sabbath’s jazzy grooves– and a fascination with the satanic and occult spirituality resonates all the way through this tradition, sometimes hidden in the more obscure grimoires of music lore, sometimes disguised in plain (but glamorous) sight. Echoes can be heard too in the general shift in devilish imagery in metal over five decades: from oppositional biblical Satan, towards Satan as metaphorical figure of will and power, towards Satan standing in for, then melting back into, pagan imagery and tradition. So black spirituals and black metal are by no means completely foreign to one another (despite what some historically-illiterate agendas might pretend), instead more like distant relatives reintroduced. Or perhaps even better, a half-forgotten ancestor introduced down centuries to a wayward but spirited teenager.

It’s the evasive ambiguity and the shifting places of these themes in popular music that lends power to the rantings in Gagneux’s versions of imagined spirituals. ‘Burn the young boy’ in the first track, ‘burn him good’… with black metal rage fire perhaps, or are we talking actual child sacrifice here? So too with the burnings and martyrdom in songs later on in the album… what gets burnt in extreme metal and black spirituals, and who does the burning? Perhaps witches, churches, victims; rage, desire, faith; slaves, saints, oppressors: each might be found in, around or behind the ritual fires. When ‘Blood in the River’ glorifies the deaths of martyrs and saints, this kind of talk is as likely found in straight ahead Christianity as in a bloodthirsty attack on monotheism, and this is the interesting thing for me in thinking about musical religion, and mysticism in noise: that imagery that either side uses can end up overlapping so closely even when their orientation might appear totally opposed. When playing ambiguously with symbols and signs in sound, how precise is it possible to be anyway? An upside down cross is still a cross…

Of the nine tracks included, five draw on the “satanic metal spiritual” template (‘In Ashes,’ ‘Children’s Summon,’ ‘Blood in the River,’ ‘Come on Down,’ and the title track ‘Devil is Fine’), and these most definitely form the backbone of the album- arguably, they could have been released on their own as a spectacular, focused EP, instead of the slightly messier, more sprawling but still brilliant album that this is. Two of the other tracks (‘Sacrilegium II’ and ‘Sacrilegium III’) are short interludes in a tinkling music box style, maybe reminiscent of Tony Iommi’s medieavalish acoustic instrumentals on Sabbath albums. (A sneaking suspicion occurs that these numbers here, especially with their sacrilegious titles, might be ice-cream-van covers of black metal tracks). In any case, despite the different tones and associations of Burzum and wind-up plinking decorative music boxes, they do actually share a certain relentless cycling determinism.

Actually, while the combination of the two styles of extreme metal and black spirituals has attracted most attention, the album is best understood as a balance between three sounds: the metal, the gospel, and this odd archaic, childlike music box sound. It’s even as if this lullaby style begins to imply that the atavistic/heroic myths of mystic forest mountains in black metal might in fact function as escapist bedtime stories for frightened boys and girls, comforting them and shielding them from realities of modern life. And this reflects back on the ongoing mystery of the spirituals, and indeed any form of music (and religion) that emerges in response to challenging social conditions: is it a way finding social power and sustenance, a resource for resistance in the face of hardship, or instead a safety mechanism which disperses that power, allowing people temporary relief in order to better acclimatise them to their own oppression and reinforce that subjugation?

The other two tracks, ‘Sacrilegium I’ and ‘What’s A Killer Like You Gonna Do Here’ fit less well. ‘Sacrilegium I’ is interesting enough, with a drum and bass influenced remix treatment of a snippet of what sounds like part of a call to prayer (in fact it’s different to the track of the same name on the earlier version of this album- I suspect the original sample wasn’t cleared so Magneux did essentially the same treatment on a similar clip for the new record). Either way, it still seems a bit out of place and I’m not sure what it adds to the whole beyond showing off a different set of skills for producing a different set of sounds, and perhaps hinting at a wider world of sampling, mixing and warping that this album is a mere particular example of. ‘What’s A Killer Like You Gonna Do Here’ is a brooding vocal that both threatens and questions violence over glowering slap bass, not unlike some of Faith No More or Stone Temple Pilots’ dark and sleazy lounge moments with a wonky unsprung guitar solo at the end that might have been stolen from a Captain Beefheart song. But for curiosity, intrigue and musical value, I’d go as far as saying the album would be improved by leaving this one out- it doesn’t add anything and it’s a bit of a sideways step in terms of the aural aesthetic, so it can only dilute the power of the album overall.

‘Devil is Fine’ and ‘Blood in the River’ by contrast are the most powerful examples of where it all comes together, both employing a chain clank sound which might be unsubtle but hits the mark as a reminder of violent history and it’s reformation into powerful sound. The title track has the strongest and most complex vocal, melodically and lyrically, a keening lament falling off at the ends of the lines about forgiveness from the devil who won’t do me no wrong and I’ll see before long. This is then supported harmonically by the guitars rising to a powerful surge under what is an incredibly insistent melodic phrase. ‘Blood in the River’ is similarly intense (and the only track that nudges past 3 minutes 30), where triggered drums run wild underneath heightening rings of layered shouts about the blood of the holy and the dead god.

‘In Ashes’ is great smouldering continuation after the title track, reiterating the basic template for the five key tracks with a shout over stuttering clouds of distortion fuzz ready for ignition. The flood duly comes when the cyclical vocal is joined by a great black metal linear vector, a straight line surge which gathers energy from blasting drums, gradually rising to a powerful rush carrying along the lead vocal line. ‘Come on Down’ feels like something of a centrepiece, as it’s where the three threads for once meet: elsewhere they skirt around each other with one or two present, one or two not, but here all combine, strange wind-up twinkling making repeated entries amidst the field hollers and speeding distortion. Like many of the tracks, it builds up gradually to an overflowing combination where the blast beats meet growl meet thrumming melodic guitars meet distant shouts, and there’s great guitar riffing to harmonically match the vocals in the latter part of the track, with thudding stark drums accentuating the call-response style. ‘Children’s Summon’ in terms of the vocals seems like a slight, distant, opaque version of this track, featuring also the refrain “come on down”. This though is a fading background to the track’s matching up fast circuits of the lullaby plinking and heavy riff rotations.

The kid-xylophone melodies are a key to one of the ways this album becomes more than goofy mash-up or snarky irony about an unexpected juxtaposition: distortion. Obviously one of the unmistakable foundations of any metal sound, sounds can be distorted in a number of ways, leading to a whole range of potential effects. Here, there’s classic metal uses, such as in the powerful aggressive wildness in punchy power chord distortion best heard on ‘Come on Down,’ and the slightly more kvlt fuzzed out smear at the beginning of ‘In Ashes’. But there are all kinds of other ways of distorting sounds used across the album, all of which seem really carefully placed to enhance the sound in interesting ways. This is true for the vocals, where there’s a kind of crooning microphone over radio snow at one point, or elsewhere a cracked voice as a reminder of the roots of distortion, the basic instance of the output of a signal exceeding the channel’s capacity to contain it, which can be heard in the hoarseness of a strained human voice. Other distortions are present, tempering or rusting or rounding off the edges of the sound:  a soft, staticky pins and needles here; a thin old magnetic tape overstretching there; somewhere else the bleary effect of half-asleep airplane landing disorientation in clouded ears. And maybe the most evocative is the tinny, Hendrix-hinting ice cream van promise in the slightly warped harmonics that waver around the delicate mechanical cylinder sounds.

It’s not really black metal, but in its alternate and unpredictable weaving of three currents it’s a brilliantly provocative album, sort of about black metal as well as about the music of the black Atlantic and its reverberating influence across decades and continents of popular music. Regarding the sacred cows and myths of extreme metal, as the circling shouts keep repeating: a good god is a dead one, and the devil is just fine.

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