THIS MONTH IN METAL No. 14: Zeal & Ardor’s “Stranger Fruit”

The Legacy

TMIM works typically celebrate anniversaries in increments of five years, but this one makes a major exception.  While today only marks the second year of Zeal & Ardor’s sophomore album Stranger Fruit’s existence, the nature of its subject is ripe for today’s social and political climate.  If there’s one subgenre that has sprouted the most controversy, it’s black metal without a doubt.  Although many fans do not cling to the problematic ideals surrounding it, black metal’s origins have attracted plenty of hate groups over the years.  Some choose move past the volatility in efforts to not muddy the value of the music, and some use it to boost their ever-compensating nature to be part of a club.  Very few artists, however, actually dissect and repurpose black metal to the level that Zeal & Ardor has.  Improving further on 2016’s Devil Is Fine, Z&A mastermind Manuel Gagneux faces the horror of racism and spiritual suffocation head-on with the soul-infused-avant-garde-post-black metal masterpiece Stranger Fruit.

“Stranger Fruit” cover design by Marco Von Allmen // Photo: Genius

The origins of black metal (second wave for you know-it-alls) as we understand it today took the pagan and satanic route to fight against the christianization of Scandanavian culture.  Whether or not black metal musicians are actually satanists tends to be arbitrary, rather using Satan as a symbol of rebellion.  Gagneux takes a similar narrative, but sets a different stage of oppression that is still painfully prominent today: racism.  Z&A ties racism and spiritual oppression as one in the same, referring back to when American slave owners abused and forced Christianity upon slaves practicing African religions.  Of course, due to their intolerance of other cultures they pegged such faiths as Satanic, an image which Z&A adopts as an example of racial and spiritual injustice.  Stranger Fruit leans into the horror of racism, interpreting the title from Billie Holiday’s haunting song Strange Fruit about lynching, even including a terrifying cover track.  

Manuel Gagneux with Zeal & Ardor sigil brand // Photo: Overdrive

To highlight the horror isn’t to submit to it, however.  The fusion of soul and black metal is perhaps the greatest weapon of all.  Gagneux proves that two polarizing forces can come together as one to fight rigidity and intolerance.  Innovation becomes confrontation as a sonic wall is torn down.  The record proves that racial injustice cannot be tolerated, and stands as a glowing glimpse into the beauty that lies beyond its ruin.  Who ever thought Billie and Burzum could come together? Zeal & Ardor did, so suck it Varg.  Stranger Fruit is thus one of the most important albums of not only the 10’s, but the 21st century.  

Pulling the Weeds

2nd anniversary tribute artwork

Pulling the Weeds
Zeal & Ardor – “Stranger Fruit” 2nd anniversary

This was not the album planned for this month.  In fact, I was halfway through a tribute to Darkthrone’s Panzerfaust for its 25th anniversary.  Of course, things escalated in the States as a revolution against racial injustice was kicked off by the killing of George Floyd, speaking to years of police brutality against black people.  I therefore decided to shelve Panzerfaust completely and find something topical to use as a fighting sigil against racism.  Zeal & Ardor’s Stranger Fruit gave me a tribute opportunity to do so, and here it is.  Gagneaux uses beat-up, rotting fruit as an image in allegory to the lynching metaphor in Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit.  The fruits represent black bodies mutilated by racist bigots, an image I chose to incorporate for the same purpose. If black people are the fruit, something which provides positive nourishment but are nevertheless destroyed by malevolent hate crimes, then the racists are the weeds.  The weeds have weak roots but spread quickly to ruin flourishing gardens.  Represented by just one of many examples as the Klan hood, a black spirit with all-encompassing wings tears out the roots with raw power.  Charred crosses rot away as the humid air softens their once rigid stature.  We must follow in suit and pull the weeds.  All of them.

See more heavy hitters in the MONTHLY METAL GALLERY

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BLACK LIVES MATTER.

–NCM