Zeal & Ardor the spectacular, genre-hopping, third full-length album from Swiss avant-garde metal band Zeal & Ardor dropped today. The most expansive and musically accomplished album of Zeal & Ardor's career, it is an early contender for album of the year honours. Hissing and seeping justifiable rage from every pore - yet not an unrelenting musical battering - the 14-track opus was recorded by Marc Obrist and Manuel Gagneux at Hutch Sounds and mixed & mastered by Will Putney at Graphic Nature Audio. All songs were written and performed (except drums) by the softly spoken, multi-lingual frontman Gagneux, with some German lyrics intermixed with the English.
Long considered an avant-garde metal force to be reckoned with, Gagneux strays far beyond even his own prior off-the-wall releases on Zeal & Ardor embracing an artistic fearlessness and creativity that is unrivalled in any musical scene, not just the sometimes traditionalist realms of metal. The record upon first listen, borders on indescribable, with the blurring of genre lines and the complex musical arrangements somehow managing to service rather than overwhelm or detract for the melodic sensibilities. In that sense Zeal & Ardor continues Gagneux's unspoken mission to redefine metal, in another, it exists outside of something as conventional as genre specification ultimately sounding like nothing other than itself.
For people who spend most of our waking lives listening to, writing about and sharing the music and the message of metal, it was an absolute delight to sit down for a wide-ranging chat with a true innovator, the one the only Manuel Gagneux, and try and unpick exactly the type of mind responsible for something as genuinely unique as Zeal & Ardor.
Manuel, the third Zeal & Ardor album is about to drop, can you give me some insight into the core inspiration for this record?
We had a lot of time to think about this album, for obvious reasons, and I don't think it was like a singular idea. There’s narrative to it a little bit, but it was mostly just asking the question, what can we get away with? While still sounding like Zeal & Ardor?
For a band that’s origins are infamously the product of a Reddit challenge to blend two completely diametric genres together, the scope of what you could ‘get away with’ is pretty wired and that certainly shows on the album!
We're in the lucky situation that people kind of expect us to experiment. And I wasn't intentional, but I'm super happy that that's the case, because I get to fuck around with silly ideas all day.
The structure of Zeal & Ardor is pretty interesting, in the sense that effectively with the exception of the drums, you individually write and record everything yourself and then tour it as a collective unit. Have you ever thought of expanding the membership permanently?
It’s a healthy thing to consider expanding. I’m not bankrupt creatively yet, but you never know what could happen. The reason they don’t play on the album is that if I write everything, then to have them play on the record, I’d have to explain to them what and how to play and that seems one step too many. It would be different if they were involved in the creative process, they’d know exactly what they were doing and it would be much more of a homogenous process. I think I’m going to try out working more collaboratively on the next one.
Sometimes there’s no need to fix what isn’t broken, which leads me to a question regarding the decision to make this a self-titled release. Typically when an artist goes the self-titled route they’re presenting a definitive statement about the sound and the future sound of their art. Do you feel that’s the case with this album?
It’s the best we can do right now. I can say that with a perfect, immaculate conscience. It is what we have been working on previously, distilled to a thick syrup. We also maybe didn’t have that many good album titles flying around, so it’s good that the title fits.
I’m sure that there are a lot of artists out there that can empathise with that predicament, it is a bit of a crazy expectation we all have really thinking that an artist can give a short title to something they’ve invested so much of themselves into creating!
That’s one of the reasons that I can’t have children, I wouldn’t be able to decide on a name!
Well, you may not have any children, but you do have 14 new song babies to focus on, many of which focus on lyrical topics that most other acts in metal never explore. Is there any particular set of lyrics here that you hope people will look into more deeply?
There are little secret seeds everywhere, but for me, it's more important to have a good song, and then you can lay bare your secrets. One that is very bountiful would be ‘Erase’ and also Golden Liar’ and oh, ‘Feed The Machine’, there's a lot of occult stuff in there, a lot of books. There are some deep cuts in there.
I actually live with a witch and yeah, she’s gonna love this song! Now the way that you mix unrelated genres so seamlessly on this album is pretty mindblowing. Is that genre-bending something that’s natural for you to do when you sit down to write music or do you have to think it out and plan it?
At this point, I’m comfortable with it. With ‘Golden Liar’ in particular, I wanted to make an emotionally heavy song, but not necessarily have a blast beat. I wanted to have it potentially be heavy on other merits. There comes a moment in a lot of the songs where there’s an intensity to it and you can either have it stand on its own or support it with other elements. On ‘Golden Liar’ the tremolo picking section serves that purpose, in that it acts almost like a string quartet, so it’s not an all-out assault like Slayer, it’s a supporting layer.
One song I have to ask you about is Church Burns, what inspired you to write a song that seems quite literally to be about a man, burning down churches?
I wanted our most pop-structured song on the album to have the most outlandish lyrics. That was the intention. It's not literally about burning churches, although we do play with that imagery. It's about you know, being out with the old in with the new. Sometimes rebuilding something requires something else to burn down.
Are you being a little vague with the deeper meaning of the metaphor there?
Well, no, I'm just not a great supporter of the church or you know, organized religion.
Well, I don't think a lot of people particularly remain steadfast supporters of organized religion so that’s understandable.
That’s an astute observation.
At Maniacs, we love when your releases come around because you always offer something new and different and this album isn’t just a continuation of that trend, it’s an escalation of it, there are so many new sounds being explored and interwoven into the Zeal & Ardor sonic tapestry, which is brilliant, but it does make me wonder if you’re stressed about figuring out how to make it all work live?
That kept me up for a couple of nights too, but in December we toured with Meshuggah and Opeth and we took the opportunity to try out new songs and it actually worked pretty well. Granted, it's not exactly like it is on the album. Because that's you know, that's impossible. There are so many samples and whatnot. But I think the gist of it, or I think the emotional core of it comes across. It is always more intense when we play live, it's far more aggressive.
There’s a song called ‘Emersion’ on the new one which has, like the intro is basically that YouTube channel ‘chill-out beats to study and relax to’ and then it just goes into blast beats. I cannot see us doing that without having a playback thing. The question is like the intro is quite long, it’s 20 seconds. What the fuck are we gonna do on stage? Are we just going to poke each other or smoke a cigarette?
I always suspected that Ville Valo from H.I.M wrote long intros just to justify his onstage cigarette, so maybe that’s the secret to a long-lasting career, build in mid-set breaks?
Yeah and then he expanded to a Jagermeister fucking grip, so he basically has his break room up there, it’s not bad at all! That’s longevity right there!
I mean you can’t all be Bono and just sing half a chorus, then stick the mic out into the crowd and let them take the rest!
Did you read the article today where he said he’s embarrassed by some of U2’s music?
No! That’s amazing! It does set a new goal for Zeal & Ardor though, don’t be embarrassed by the music you put out, that seems to be something good to aim for?
You know what the weird thing is though, I can kind of relate to him there. When I listen to music that I made say 10 years ago. I fuckin cringe. There's no way around it because I'm like, Oh, really? Did I do that? So, if history is to be believed there will come a time when I will cringe at my music now the question is when though?
Hopefully not halfway through a song on stage?
Yeah, it might just be one specific point in time we're like, oh, fuck, I hate it from that one. From December 22 2037. I'm going to despise my music.
If that turns out to be accurate, I’m considering you the new oracle. So Manuel, the knower of all things to come, outside of music, what is something that you consider yourself to be a bit of a Maniac for?
Video game development and Warhammer.
Who could have guessed the one-man metal project was going to be into Warhammer?
Yeah, fair fuckin’ point. I also like science fiction, speculative fiction in general and cooking.
Cool, any particular favourite dishes to cook?
I make a mean Orange Duck.
If you were a professional wrestler and every time you walked into a room, what song would you want it to be?
Instead of going for something pompous like the John Cena song, I think if you come in with confidence playing Enya, that would fuck up your opponent. So I’m going to go with that! I come in in a silk robe and I take my sweet ass time getting to the ring, just letting the sounds of Enya flow through the arena.
I’m sold! Back in more metal sonic territory, if I asked you to give me five album’s that influenced the musician you came to be, could you name them, if so, can you do that right now?
There’s this German band called Golem they put out an album called ‘Dreamweaver’, Naglfa’s ‘Sheol’, then Tom Waits ‘Rain Dogs’, Portishead ‘Dummy’ and Iron Maiden’s ‘Piece Of Mind’.
Listen to Zeal & Ardor