How I first got to hear about black metallers Zeal & Ardor harks back to a spare half hour I had at Hellfest back in July of this year. Having tried unsuccessfully to get a mate a Baroness T Shirt in the main arena merch tent (they had them on display but no one was actually selling them) and with one eye on the clock before Backyard Babies were due on stage over at the Warzone, I just happened to notice a huge crowd gathered both inside and (with almost as many) outside the Valley stage. What the hell were all these people so interested in? I couldn’t quite make out who the band were already onstage, but there looked like a load of monks up on stage and boy oh boy were they conjuring up some unique sounds.
A quick leaf through my laminated and colour coded weekend planner revealed it was someone called Zeal & Ardor and I have to admit I was intrigued by the mix of soul/blues/rock and umm black metal. With me also wanting Backyard Babies to finally pull their fucking fingers out and deliver a career defining performance playing, as they were, alongside the likes of Gluecifer and The Hellacopters I rather foolishly left the feverish swamp-like atmosphere of the Valley after just a couple of songs and instead watched a once great Scando rock band (now long past their sell by date) dial in yet another lacklustre live show.
Lesson learned I picked up a vinyl copy of the band’s ‘Stranger Fruit’ on my return to the UK and I really started to regret that fateful Sunday Hellfest band selection even more, as with each additional musical twist and turn that the record threw at me I started to imagine how this must have all sounded in front of that enormous Hellfest crowd, better still how it might sound in a club, and that ladies and gentlemen is when (through the power of the interweb) I discovered the band would be back in the UK in November/December playing just such intimate venues and tickets were duly snapped up for what might be the most leftfield gig I’ve been to in quite some time.
Long since sold out I arrive at The Fleece early knowing that you gotta be “in it to win it” when the place is packed to the rafters and I’m glad I made the effort as later on, I get to fully experience the effect of the Zeal & Ardor show complete with their own minimalist lighting rig and stage set up completely devoid of any amplification – Yngwie Mamlsteen this most certainly is not.
Up first though I get to spend half an hour in the company of Blackpool based progressive alt-rockers Blanket and trust me when I say their sounds are every bit as bleak as walking down the North Shore in the pissing rain in late November. The quartet’s largely instrumental set drawn from both new tracks and songs from their ‘How To Let Go’ LP is certainly expertly delivered and with the front five or six rows loving every 6/8 drumbeat driven minute of it, I kind of feel a little bit left out, because I just I don’t get this type of music at all and thankfully I probably never will.
By the time Zeal & Ardor take to the stage at the stupidly early time of 8:45 The Fleece is the fullest I’ve seen it in many a long year, and thankfully at this moment in time the amount of waxed facial hair present is at a very low level, although this is also one of the most diverse crowds I’ve ever seen assembled for what is still essentially a black metal band, and these guys most certainly know the band they’ve come to see singing along and going suitably apeshit in all the right places. I must admit I have never seen a reaction quite like this to any headliner in this venue before and I’ve seen quite a few big names headlining this place over the years I can tell you.
Kicking off with ‘Sacrilegium I’ which with its trip-hop beats pulsing you really do have to pinch yourself to remind you this is not actually at a Tricky show, bathed in red light and dry ice 6 hooded and silhouetted figures take to the stage and off we go on a 75 minute showcase of some of the most exciting and challenging metal music out there right now.
Zeal & Ardor simply let their music do the talking and its not until about halfway into their set just before they launch in ‘Blood In The River’ that frontman Manuel Gagneux takes a breathe and addresses the crowd. Sometimes that really is the right thing to do though as here it helps retain that certain level of mystery about the band, not unlike say Ghost, who at times I must admit Zeal & Ardor do kind of remind me of, even if they sound nothing like them (okay granted ‘Ship On Fire’ may well do in places).
All the favourites (you’ve possibly yet to hear) are played tonight and tracks like ‘Gravediggers Chant’, ‘Servants’, ‘Row Row’ and my personal favourite ‘Don’t You Dare’ don’t so much blend genres as torch the fucking rule book on genres and I’m just waiting for someone to try and label this band as “the next big thing”, because these guys and gal offer so much more than that. I really do fear mainstream attention might just dilute the absolute genius of what Zeal & Ardor are truly all about. I mean remember what happened to Celtic Frost all those years ago?
Finishing their set with a 3 song encore with the mayhemic gospel chant of ‘Baphomet’ the noise the crowd makes in response to what has just gone before must have had the recently moved in dinky flat owners nearby on the phone to Bristol City Council in double quick time fearing a mini earthquake had just taken place, and they wouldn’t have been too far off the mark either as Zeal & Ardor really are a true musical force of nature….GENIUS!!!!!
Author :Johnny Hayward