Zeal & Ardor
Electric Ballroom, London
2nd December 2018
Review & Photography
Thomas James Henry Saunders
Zeal & Ardor, or rather the man himself Manuel Gagneux, has been busy of late.
He released the much applauded “Stranger Fruit” album, various singles and all whilst touring for much of the year, including a previous show in London’s Village Underground in June. His signature mixture of blues and black metal with its distinctive misanthropic overtures and crushing aggression has earned Manuel much controversy and respect alike from the extreme metal scenes, and the wider music industry as a whole.
He bases his entire band around a central theme of an alternate history where African slaves found salvation in Satanism. The subsequent uprising against their captors is one that is wholly original in it’s undertaking and in its brutal realisation, where Manuel never flinches in his emotionally charged lyrics and compositions.
The night is cool in Camden Town as a large crowd of metal-heads descend upon the Electric Ballroom, many already sporting the iconic satanic emblem of Zeal & Ardor upon their shirts. Once through the doors, the venue is already packed out in waiting for Manuel Gagneux and company to take to the stage. The multiple bars of the Electric Ballroom are busily handing out pints as the crowd gather ever closer to the large stage in the back of the venue in unguarded excitement.
A special mention must be made here, of the Merchandise stall. Most bands, small and huge alike, will display only the albums, shirts, hoodies, pins, patches and other items for sale upon the table. Here, however, the tables have been decked out rather differently, with melted candles adorning the edges and items that recall the harsh realities of the slave trade, mixed in among the merchandise for sale, such as an iron brand in the shape of the band’s logo.
This, then, is certainly a band that take very seriously their thematic origins, in every conceivable way. Even the pre-band music playing out across the speakers is not the normal fare for a metal concert, instead swapped out for blues classics that ring eerily throughout the venue. But as they finally fade, the lights dim, a fine mist engulfs the stage, and the crowd roar as Zeal & Ardor take their places upon the stage.
They appear as stark black figures, all in black sweaters and with Manuel himself hooded and staring out bleakly across the stage. As the backing track of “Sacrilegium I” comes to its close, they go straight in the first song of the evening with “Ashes” from the 2017 debut album, “Devil Is Fine”.
With its droning guitar and ominous chanting, “Ashes” sends a pronounced chill out through the audience, which is then pierced by Manuel’s screech and the blast-beats pummelling the crowd with great power. As opening tracks go, this one set the bar high indeed for the show to come.
The entire set of the night is an hour and a half of the entire breadth of what Zeal & Ardor can accomplish, with tracks like “Servants” and “Row Row” being great chant-along tracks that the crowd get fully behind, spitting out every lyric along with the three vocalists on stage. This is something that at first seemed off-putting, hearing other vocalists standing in for the multi-layered vocals that Manuel uses in recordings, although in practice this actually allows him to shine more so as he takes command in the stand-out vocals sections and deliver his full range of aggravated tones.
Although the sound was near perfect, there were some minor issues throughout the set. For the first few songs the mix felt a little uncomfortable, with the vocals of Manuel not being pronounced enough; this was soon fixed, however.
Otherwise there were only minor performance slip ups, such as in the beginning of “We Can’t be Found”, where a couple of cues were missed and the guitar came out flat in the mix. This only lasted for the first minute of the song though, still allowing the haunting track to shine in its blackened glory.
The chillingly sobering track “You Ain’t Coming Back” rings out as the 6th track of the night, with Manuel contorting in pain as he delivers his pristine vocal prowess. As a presence he is very minimal yet powerful in his execution, letting his facial expressions read out a flurry of emotional weight whilst hammering away at his guitar or stomping away in the thick fog that lies about the stage.
Throughout the entire set Manuel Gagneux only addresses the crowd a total of three times, firstly to simply call out “I won’t be saying much tonight, I hope that’s okay”, while a wicked grin plays out across his features. Then towards the end of the set, after the crushing “Ship on Fire” he once again smiles and quietly comments, “Alright, this is pretty cool for a Sunday night guys”. The band themselves do a great job creating Manuel’s throbbing soundscapes and eerie atmosphere, with the backing vocalists and guitarists creating a wall of uncompromising noise.
The crowd went suitably wild for Zeal & Ardor, creating a number of mosh-pits and singing along to each track with full emotional weight. The overall atmosphere created by this was tear-inducing, none more so than during the closing track “Gravediggers Chant”, with Manuel screaming out in contemptuous sorrow.
After a brief break, during which the crowd collectively stomp and chant out Zeal & Ardor’s name, Manuel paces back out from the fog and laughs at his own fame. Thanking the audience profusely, he then simply states, “Alright, let’s make some more noise”. The title track to the debut album, “Devil Is Fine”, is delivered in a powerful performance on stage which has the entire crowd chanting along in unison. Although, for the live edition on this song, the band made the decision to make it a lot heavier than on record, with pronounced guitar and a more pummelling backing drum beat. A decision that was well received, although questionable to some.
For the finale of the night, Zeal & Ardor end on their single, “Baphomet”, which goes down a huge storm here at the Electric Ballroom, with the mosh-pit doubling in size and ferocity as the powerful lyrics are shouted out between Manuel and his adoring fans.
As they draw to a final close, Manuel along with the rest of the band take their bows in unison, as the entire crowd cry out in thanks for what had been a wholly special and electric performance.
This is a band that is only going to rise from here, with their grateful fans eager to follow their ascent. Till next time.
Zeal & Ardor Setlist:
1. Sacrilegium I
2. In Ashes
4. Come On Down
5. Row Row
6. Blood in the River
7. You Ain’t Coming Back
8. Stranger Fruit
9. Fire of Motion
10. Ship on Fire
12. Don’t You Dare
13. Gravedigger’s Chant
Zeal & Ardor