As music journalists, it’s our job to conduct ourselves as consummate professionals, reporting the facts and bringing you the latest news on the best and brightest artists of today’s metal scene. What people sometimes forget however is that we are also music fans ourselves, and can occasionally become star struck when faced with one of their favorite performers. In the spirit of what Zeal & Ardor vocalist Manuel Gagneux would call “no bullshit,” I must confess, this interview was one that I was both anxiously and nervously awaiting. After all, Zeal & Ardor are not only one of the fastest rising bands in black metal, but they are incredibly talented, glaringly brilliant, and truly something unique. It is that exceptional authenticity that sets the band apart, and makes them moderately indescribable. Blending sacrilegious hymnals sung to the tune of African American slave anthems with synth, blues, metal and xylophones (yeah, you read that right), this is one band that is breaking down musical barriers by beautifully blending genres. Their debut album ‘Devil Is Fine,’ is making everyone’s must listen lists, with a variety of songs that teeter between delicate and demonic. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Gagneux himself, who seemed happy to chat about the band’s sudden success, staying true to the art, and what he’s currently being inspired by.
Despite the front man’s confident onstage presence when performing, Gagneux insists that fame and success are something he’s trying to adjust to. “It’s weird. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it,” he tells Chimera Magazine. “You know, you finish (the set), and you have people coming over to you and it can be strange and overwhelming, but it’s great. I think I’m more comfortable after a drink though,” he says with a chuckle. This response is understandable, considering the singer wasn’t even sure the album would reach store shelves. “I thought my mom might buy a copy, but that’s about it!” Gagneux jokes. While I’m sure his mom did in fact buy a copy, the album has been flying off shelves both in the U.S. and abroad, racking up high profile fans such as Marilyn Manson as well as metal phenoms Gojira. “It is surreal,” the singer states. “Amazing and surreal.”
Speaking of surreal, if there was one thing I could not wait to dive into, it was Gagneux’s eclectic musical influences. “I love the weird shit!” Gagneux says with a chuckle. “Music, movies, car jingles, I can be inspired by anything, but I especially love the weird shit!” I had been dying to see if this included eccentric icon Tom Waits, whose song “Jockey Full of Bourbon” seemed to be at least a partial inspiration for the Zeal track “What’s a Killer Like You Gonna Do Here?” “Absolutely!” Gagneux exclaimed. “I love Tom Waits. ‘Rain Dogs’ is probably my favorite of his, but yeah, I would definitely consider Tom Waits to be an inspiration. He’s a great storyteller.” Right now however, the singer says he’s listening to “a lot of Bjork. Her music is always good to go back to. And classical! There are so many great artists out there, both old and new, to become inspired by.” Gagneux’s affinity for classical can be heard in the band’s three instrumental tracks, which the singer says hold their own hidden message. “Sacreligium I is the sermon. Sacreligium II has a hidden tri-solo, and is Anti-god. The third is the synth track, which is sacrilegious in itself, to include electronic music on a metal album. So they are all very rebellious, but in their own way.” When told that my interpretation of Sacreligium III was as a pallet cleanser to process the insanity that preceded it, Gagneux laughs heartily, “Yeah, yeah I guess it kind of is!”
While tracks like “Sacreligium III” may serve to have a calming effect on the fans, Gagneux insists that rebellion and liberation are the defining message that ultimately resonate with listeners. “The music, it has to be honest. No bullshit.” Part of that philosophy includes saying what he wants, how he wants, regardless of what others, even in the metal community, may think. “We have gotten some criticism for not being what is traditionally considered ‘black metal,’” the singer tells us. “For me, it’s about freedom of expression. Everyone is so worried about cultural appropriation these days, but if we aren’t learning from each other, if we aren’t incorporating those parts of others that we admire, how will we ever evolve? How will things ever change?”
It’s this viewpoint that has thrilled fans like me. Fans who are begging for something new in a world where people are often afraid to be themselves, for fear of what others may or may not think of them. In fact, I’m reminded of what Tool’s own vocalist Maynard said just the other night at their show in Rochester. “We are a nation divided by fear. “ I would actually take that a step further and say that we’re a world filled with fear. We need artists like Maynard, and Manuel Gagneux, to carry the torch of truth, and to remind us that not only is the world constantly evolving, but we are as well. We should not shut ourselves off to inspiration, or be afraid to speak our truths. In fact, when asked if he would be conscious of possible criticism when writing their next album, Gagneux tells Chimera, he will continue to make music that speaks to his soul, because that is where you find fulfillment. “I’ve written a lot already for the new album,” Gagneux says contently, taking a drag from his cigarette. “For me, music is about freedom. Zeal & Ardor is not for everyone, but an artist’s job is to provoke and to challenge.” So whether they’re challenging critics, challenging black metal fans, or even challenging themselves, one thing is certain: Zeal & Ardor is a bold, brilliant band with a bright future…and that is no bullshit.