Album Review: Stranger Fruit by Zeal & Ardor
By Trevor Crocker (DJ Grilt Cheez)
June 19th is Juneteenth, which serves to commemorate the emancipation of African Americans that were enslaved, and is also frequently used to celebrate African American culture. While it is an important holiday to recognize and celebrate, many people don’t realize or acknowledge that it recognizes a very solemn and serious topic. Here at WUSC, we celebrate and acknowledge the emancipation from slavery and look to the progress that still needs to be made.
In honor of this significant day, I wanted to highlight a specific album by a project who provides a contemplative and scathing musical take on the historical events of the Atlantic Slave Trade.
Stranger Fruit is the second full-length album by the Swiss avant-garde/black metal/neo-soul fusion project Zeal & Ardor, and the first album featuring a whole band rather than just frontman Manuel Gagneux.
Zeal & Ardor rose to prominence with their first album Devil Is Fine. Gagneux says inspiration for this album and the title track came from pondering the trend of Christianity being imposed on people that were enslaved in the United States and wondering “What if American slaves had embraced Satan instead of Jesus?” With this perspective, Gagneux creates the intriguing and haunting concept of Satanic spirituals.
They carried the same lyrical themes and conceptual ideas into their second album Stranger Fruit, stating that “Devil Is Fine was life in slavery, and Stranger Fruit was the escape, the breaking out,” In this album, they embrace the African American soul, gospel, funk, and blues influences, combining them with black metal and even industrial at times. This album also aims to draw connections between the United States’ horrific history of enslavement and mistreatment of African Americans to current events going on in the country. The name of the album, Stranger Fruit, is even a reference to the fight for African American rights by referencing Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit,” which is a dark and grisly song about the lynching and murder of numerous African American individuals in the United States.
In a wild turn of events, during the promotion of Stranger Fruit in 2018, Zeal & Ardor offered free merchandise to any fans that branded the band’s logo into their skin, which was an offer that 8 people took the band up on, leading Gagneux to call anyone who did it an “idiot who is following, not thinking for yourself.”
Now, I’m going to walk you through each of the 16 tracks on this album and my personal take on them.
Disclaimer: These interpretations are my own and may or may not be the intended messages and themes.
The slow thudding drums and the gospel harmonizing at the beginning of this song foreshadow the rest of the album and set the tone for the songs to come. The song only has 3 lines of lyrics, but already it starts with lyrical themes of religious nihilism and anti-deistic sentiment. The music rises in tempo as the song progresses, but only slightly, peaking with blackgaze-y guitars and black metal style drums, before returning back to the slow thudding drums and gospel harmonizing to close out the song.
This song immediately changes tempo from the aptly named “Intro,” offering a catchy song with an upbeat piano riff contrasting with the extremely dark and depressing lyrics. It’s musically focused more heavily on the blues and gospel music side of Zeal & Ardor than on metal. The lyrics are centered around death, evoking a sense of hopelessness and religious apathy. Circling back to the lyrical rejection of Christianity is likely a reference to Gagneux’s frequently repeated theme of rebelling against Christianity that was imposed on African Americans that were enslaved. This song is especially bleak in its repetition of the line “lord don’t have mercy for you,” which for me created a sense of hopelessness in the notion that God would provide any form of respite or saving from the suffering that many African Americans that were enslaved faced. This line in particular points to broken promises of salvation and comfort in the faith forced upon them as individuals that were enslaved arrived in the United States.
The overall heaviness and return to black metal style tremolo guitars and blast beats of this song create a dramatic and more wrathful vibe than the previous songs on the album so far. This track is an especially powerful song written about an uprising among individuals who were enslaved and serving as a call to action. Alternately, Zeal & Ardor refer to their fanbase as “Servants,” so this song could possibly have a double meaning as a call to action for their fans to fight against modern-day oppression. Both lyrically and musically, this song creates a sense of anger and rebellion against discrimination and mistreatment by those in power. This song does a great job of keeping with the album’s overarching theme of breaking out of and resisting slavery and oppression, and also adds a theme of solidarity amongst a movement.
“Don’t You Dare”
The first true metal track on the album, and easily the heaviest song on the album so far, “Don’t You Dare” incorporates even heavier distorted guitar and some crushing blast beats. This song also features expertly juxtaposed black metal-style shrieks and growls and clean gospel-style melodically sung vocals. This song returns lyrically to the theme of hopelessness with the line “morning might never come around these parts, sun never gonna come up,” likely referencing the lament of oppressed African Americans that were enslaved. This song doesn’t just focus solely on feelings of hopelessness though, as it also invokes themes of resistance and never giving up the fight to live. The audio sample from Anton Lavey, the founder of the Church of Satan, and the shrieked references to Satan and occult magic really hits home the concept of embracing rebellion against Christianity. This theme is a constant throughout the album and seeks to continuously reject the white American values imposed on African Americans since the time of slavery.
“Fire Of Motion”
This track continues the heavy momentum from “Don’t You Dare,” with raw black metal guitar riffs and blast beats straight from the beginning. The shrieked vocals are very reminiscent of the 90s Norweigan black metal scene, but mixes in droning clean vocals as well. The inspiration drawn from 90s Norweigan black metal is no coincidence, as both the modern Zeal & Ardor style of black metal as well as the classic 90s Norweigan style of black metal both placed a heavy emphasis on Satanism as a form of revolution. With Norweigan black metal, it was revolting against organized religion and traditional values, but with Zeal & Ardor, it is a revolution against the values imposed on African Americans that were enslaved by white slave owners. Another compelling double reference is the use of the “East.” both as a reference to Satan, as reinforced by the sample from famous occultist, Aleister Crowley, and also as a reference to Africa as opposed to the Western world. Slave ships came from the West to America and Gagneux’s reference to the East is a likely nod to their homeland and heritage.
A very sharp change of pace from the previous heavy tracks, “The Hermit” shifts to an ambient and atmospheric instrumental, featuring both a piano and harp being used. I thought it was a slow and pleasant interlude track with soothing vocal harmonizing throughout, but it did leave me questioning its relevance to the album as a whole and its inclusion as a track.
Starting with gospel and soul-style sung lyrics and rhythmic clapping, “Row Row” quickly intensifies with its first black metal shriek kicking off an intense tremolo guitar riff and powerful blast beats. This one is an especially deep song that’s full of symbolism, first referring to the “shapeless forms you didn’t even know” being taken to hell, an apparent reference to how African Americans that were enslaved were dehumanized and taken to a place where they were subjected to torture and enslavement. The lyrics “take my name, and take my life” also appear to support this in a reference to the tradition of white slave-owners giving new Christian names to African Americans that were enslaved in an attempt to erase their history and culture upon their arrival to the United States, as well as being one of this album’s many references to the lynching and murder of African Americans. “Row Row” is a powerful song that emphasizes the struggles and suffering inflicted on African Americans by slavery.
“Ship On Fire”
Zeal & Ardor returned to the sound of their first album with this song, combining occultist Latin chants overlaid with soulful and bluesy lyrics. “Ship On Fire” is another harrowing song about the struggles and suffering forced on African Americans, with the premise of the song centered around African Americans that were enslaved being brought to the United States on slave ships “to the seas you call your home” highlighting that they are being taken from their home and forcibly brought to the home of their captors. This is also a song of resistance though, as it includes several direct references to occult worship, Satanic rituals, and black magic, in defiance of the Christianity that was forced on African Americans that were enslaved by white slave-owners. This imagined alternate history of people that were enslaved practicing Satanism as an act of rebellion against their Christian captors is an idea that is explored extensively throughout the album.
A very extreme metal song, incorporating raw anguished screams, the heaviest guitar riffs of the entire album, and crushingly heavy drums. This song embraces a dissonant sound from the beginning and contrasts it well with melodic harmonies. It’s also a very lyrically dark song, furthering themes of hopelessness and violence and setting a vengeful and religiously mocking tone for this track. The overall darkness is seemingly in an attempt to address the horror and helplessness felt by someone who was being enslaved and tortured.
“You Ain’t Coming Back”
This one is another disturbing and dark song focused on the lynching and murder of African Americans. It changes pace from the black metal sound of the previous songs and seems to take a more serious gospel-like tone with entirely clean sung vocals. The lyrics of this track are from the perspective of someone warning an African American individual to not ever let their guard down and saying “don’t let anybody tell you that you’re safe” because the narrator has seen lynchings of African Americans and has had to bury them. This song is meant to serve as a cautionary warning that African Americans have never been safe living in the United States and highlights the fact that even today African Americans are subjected to discriminatory acts of racist violence. This just furthers the theme of continuing racism that African Americans have to face every day.
Another interesting instrumental interlude, like “The Hermit,” this song is a melodic atmospheric track, but this one incorporates elements of electronica. The synth-y upbeat sound of this track is a confusing addition to the album, as it really doesn’t fit with the rest of the album. It’s calming and enjoyable, but it is a very dramatic change of pace, that like “The Hermit” made me question its addition to the album.
“We Can’t Be Found”
This song is unique in its country-like gospel sound that transitions into more vicious black metal style shrieks and almost thrash metal style riffs and drums. This song ends with a very impressively technical djent style, mathcore-esque breakdown. It is extremely impressive how they took influences and sounds from so many distinct genres and subgenres and turned them into a cohesive song. Lyrically, this song returns to the theme of the occult. Like “Ship On Fire,” this song features Latin occultist chants, but what is unique about this song is that it features lyrics in German. Much of this song is focused on occult magic and blood rituals, circling back yet again to the Satanic imagery present throughout the album.
The title track of the album, and named after the song “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday, a protest song written against the lynching of African Americans. This one is probably the most unsettling and dark song on the entire album, as the title track should be for Zeal & Ardor. Its discordant piano riff continuing for the entire length of the song paired with the soft harmonious humming in the background is enough to unsettle anyone on its own, but the real horror of this song is in its lyrics. The lyrics refer to African Americans hanging from trees after being lynched as “stranger fruit” and contain imagery of how “this tree won’t fall” hinting at how America has always been this way and how he has no hope that things will change. The song ends on a terrifying note with “ain’t no shelter for us, they’re out looking for ya.” These lines are repeated multiple times through the end of the song and are meant to emphasize that there’s nowhere that African Americans can go to escape the racial violence that they are faced with and that there are always people that are looking to commit these acts of violence. Gagneux has stated that due to the disturbing nature of its lyrical content, he can’t even listen to this song.
Another atmospheric interlude track, very reminiscent of “The Fool” in its electronica and synth elements. I suppose it was a welcome change of pace from the dark and heavy subject matter of the previous song. It’s an uplifting instrumental, but it’s the last taste of positivity for the entire album.
Like many others, this track is intriguing, in this case, because its only lyrics are the Latin words “solve coagula”, chanted repeatedly throughout the entire song. The instrumentals of this song are heavy and menacing, while also dissonant at times, creating a dramatic and malevolent vibe for the song. This song is another reference to Satanism and occult practices, as “solve coagula” means solution and coagulation. These words are written on the arms of Baphomet, an occult symbol, and are meant to symbolize a challenge to Christian beliefs. This song wraps up the theme of occultism and Satanism for the album, with the last song not making any mention of these themes.
“Built On Ashes”
The final track on the album is a very emotional one. With uplifting blackgaze style guitars and drums, the soft background piano, and the clean soulful vocals, but still dark lyrics, this is a song full of passion and meaning. As Gagneux puts it, he wanted to make it “a bittersweet thing.” The lyrics reference back to “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday again, to symbolize the lynching of African Americans. The lyrics “you are bound to die alone” create a sense of the inevitability of injustice and racist violence, whether the kidnappings of people from Africa that were enslaved, the lynchings of African Americans, or modern-day racist violence. At the same time though, this is the first and only song that creates any sense of hope or positivity, perhaps suggesting that things can maybe change for the better someday.
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