As the story goes, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Manuel Gagneux probably didn’t intend for Zeal & Ardor to become as big as they are now when he started the project based on a rather rudely worded idea from an internet forum. It’s also likely he didn’t intend for Zeal & Ardor to eventually swing in a political direction like it did a few years later in 2020’s Wake of a Nation — an EP that appropriately responded to the murder of George Floyd with righteous anger towards police brutality and institutional racism. But whatever direction the project has taken, it stands that Zeal & Ardor have been increasingly in the spotlight as one of metal’s most unique and refreshing acts, offering a seamless blend of black metal with Black folk music from debut EP Devil is Fine onwards. That’s not even getting into the fact that it’s still fundamentally a solo project, anchored primarily by Gagneux’s musical range, vision, and perspective as a Black musician in metal.

With all this backstory in mind, the sky is the limit for where Gagneux intends to take the Zeal & Ardor moniker. This brings us to Zeal & Ardor (henceforth Z&A), the band’s fourth release but only their sophomore full length following 2018’s defining LP Stranger Fruit. Let’s get this out of the way early — where Wake of a Nation made its powerful political message clear from the get-go, Z&A returns instead to the spirit of the original genre-meld, featuring myriad references to the occult, churches lit aflame, and many a pagan ritual. And much like the debut EP’s Devil, this is fine: it’s not forever incumbent upon Gagneux to have his music reflect the trauma that anti-Black racism brings. Instead, Z&A purports to be more or less a direct thematic continuation from Stranger Fruit, musical formula and all.

However, an outright sequel to Stranger Fruit it is not. If anything, Z&A willfully diverges a fair bit from its predecessors from a musical perspective. This is evident from minute one: the self-titled intro track has no guitar tracks whatsoever, instead featuring Gagneux singing through gritted teeth over a tense synth beat before his usual bluesy vocal melodies take over. On the heavier side of things, the black metal influence that pervaded most of Stranger Fruit takes a relative backseat for much of Z&A’s runtime, replaced largely (but not entirely) with low-tuned riffs and breakdowns (“Run”, “Erase”, “I Caught You”). While this is admittedly not new territory for the band — see live favourite “Baphomet” for instance — it’s still a change that is still immediately noticeable this time around outside of a handful of tracks. Whether or not it sticks will depend on how attached one was to the black metal aspects of the band’s sound specifically; but no matter how you shake it, the metal side of Z&A may well be Gagneux’s heaviest material yet, albeit at the expense of some of the wintry tremolo-picked chord progressions from releases past.

Then again, this is a Zeal & Ardor record, and that means we have plenty else on deck besides the metal aspects. The frenetic experimentalism on “Emersion” is almost reminiscent of The Dillinger Escape Plan’s “Sick on Sunday” in its abrupt jumps from pleasant synths to screeching and blast beats, and is definitely a welcome surprise early on in the album’s tracklist. Plus, unlike the keyboard work on Stranger Fruit (which was largely confined to separate interludes) Z&A has keys and synths weaving through the songs far more often to brilliant effect — try the verses of “Death of the Holy” or “Bow” on for size — and on repeated listens it’s one of the album’s best selling points. There’s plenty beyond that too: penultimate track “J-M-B” is a driving, borderline alt-rock tune with an unbelievably bouncy motif that’ll be stuck in your head for days on end. I could go on, but there’s genuinely lots to love in the ‘newer’ aspects of the Zeal & Ardor sound here, and it’s very obvious that Gagneux is still actively brewing new ways to expand the band’s palette even further.

That said, not all of these newer ideas feel executed to the best of their potential, due in part to the biggest issue with Z&A: song structuring. See, it feels odd to highlight song structuring as an issue here given how good the songwriting was on Stranger Fruit — but unfortunately, several of the album’s best ideas and moments feel as if they’re abandoned too quickly, while other segments (usually along the heavier side of things) end up feeling overly stretched out by comparison. The brilliant and subtle “Golden Liar” hangs it up right as its tension finally comes to a head, while the aforementioned “J-M-B”, for all its catchiness, doesn’t even reach the two-minute mark — leaving one of the album’s most intriguing moments mostly unexplored. On the flip side, “Erase” features a recurring breakdown with dissonant overdubs that’s interesting the first time it shows up but absolutely overstays its welcome with at least one repeat too many. “I Caught You” is an unfortunate low point on this front, initially presenting some groovy and haunting riffs almost out of Mick Gordon’s playbook but then simply repeating various iterations on the exact same theme to the point of predictability. Gagneux has stretched out simple ideas into full songs before (see Stranger Fruit’s excellent “Don’t You Dare”) but this time around it just doesn’t quite land as well. The individual ideas may be great more often than not, but Z&A as a whole can sometimes feel a bit disjointed of a listen, with few tunes as fully developed structure-wise as, say, the previous album’s “Waste” or the majestic “You Ain’t Coming Back”.

If we’re being honest, though, Gagneux is far too talented an instrumentalist and vocalist alike for any direction Z&A takes to outright end badly. The material on Z&A is still largely very good for what it is, and the standout tracks (”Church Burns”, “Death of the Holy”, and so on) are genuinely excellent expansions upon the project’s winning formula. That’s not to mention album highlight and longtime live staple “Hold Your Head Low”, whose studio recording bears all the hallmarks of a classic Zeal & Ardor track in expertly walking a tightrope between smoky saloon music and a soundtrack to summon Baphomet with, all before a truly spine-chilling climax brings it to a close. The vocal performance throughout the album also bears special mention in being utterly and consistently stunning. Gagneux’s incredible vocal range might be easy to take for granted at first, but look more closely and there it is anchoring every single song: crooning falsettos, raspy Tom Waits-esque shouts, and black metal shrieks all abound in spades across the album’s runtime. There’s a reason the band requires two permanent backing vocalists live, and rest assured the music on Z&A features some of the best vocal work we’ve heard on a Zeal & Ardor release yet.

Gagneux clearly has plenty to explore and express under the Zeal & Ardor name, but as far as the band’s discography goes, Z&A feels more like a stepping stone record: one that explores new ground and strikes gold a fair few times, but doesn’t fully feel like the best possible realization of their sound quite yet. In other words, it’s certainly a good release, but ultimately can feel like it’s a bit more time on the editing floor away from being a great album. Nevertheless, the album is a worthwhile addition to Gagneux’s canon driven by a brilliant genre combination you won’t find anywhere else — meaning that fans new and old will find something to love in the latest offering from one of modern metal’s most fascinating figures.

Zeal & Ardor’s self-titled record was released on February 11th and can be purchased on Bandcamp.