Review: “Stranger Fruit” by Zeal & Ardor

Here’s the thing. “Never judge a book by it’s cover” is phrase everyone knows and often rings true. We’ve all heard albums that have been universally panned and thought that they aren’t anywhere near as bad as some critics have said. So when we were asked for a review of the New York, New York’s Zeal & Ardor album “Stranger Fruit” having not heard anything by them but having read this, frankly bizarre article about some of their live show antics, we initially laughed it off. But the requests kept coming. So here you are, by popular demand.

Starting with an uplifting bluesy number in “Intro” with a warm hum that builds into a surprisingly driven drum pattern with plenty of footwork on show and alternative rock guitars, it seems like a nice place to start or finish. It doesn’t really do anything for setting a tone as such, but does leave you wonder what is coming further on down the road of the release. First song proper is “Gravedigger’s Chant” which fuses soul and gospel sounds in the blues with a pounding bass drum kick and piano. Vocally and lyrically for the most part, it wouldn’t be out of place in a church in the American Deep South and evokes a warmth with a vague hint at some guitars that disappear before they’ve begun. Next up comes “Servants” which sees some sweeping guitars coming through that soul sound alongside the pound drum work as the layers are built up. There is a great attention to detail throughout, the lyrical storytelling works well within the style and the guitars sound out like a siren call. “Don’t You Dare” then does something completely unexpected. After a build up in the previously used style, the guitars burst into something more akin to a Norwegian Black Metal styling and are accompanied by some impressive uncleans. The song flows between the two styles effortlessly and the song is as unexpected as it is a joy. “Fire Of Motion” uses the alarm call guitar work of “Servants” and builds it into a continuation of the “Don’t You Dare” sound with screamed vocals through the verses and dark lyrical choruses. A buried radio audio sample is heard as the whirlwind of guitars and drums close out the track and you wonder after the first five are down what this band are actually about.

“The Hermit” is a strange instrumental palette cleanser with some birdsong and vocal harmonies before some gentle piano and mandolins. It’s something that belongs on a film score for some art house picture that is critically acclaimed but next to no-one sees. The second part of the album then kicks into life with “Row Row” which is a big sing-a-long number during the simple and straightforward chorus. More Norwegian Black Metal inspired guitars cross what would be the verse section accompanied by screams and whirlwind drum patterns before the return to the chorus. It’s catchy and infectious while also being arena big. “Ship On Fire”, has plenty soul while building alt. rock guitars through the verse. It’s almost religious incantation section is as strange as it is interesting and as it intertwines with the soulful verse you again find yourself wondering where this is all going. Then “Waste” comes to life with it’s seemingly religious story inspired lyrics… and then come some full on Black Metal unclean vocals and blast beats…! The guitar patterns come in waves, fusing black metal with alt. rock seamlessly. Totally avant-garde and something that shouldn’t work within the context of the album but strangely does. Before you know it you’re listening to the bluesy tones of “You Ain’t Coming Back” and thinking about how something that could sit on a Muse record could sit beside the Black Metal of the previous song. An Organ underpinned by programmed beats takes us through “The Fool” which sounds like it belongs on a 70’s psychedelic rock album. An off kilter synth pattern builds through to a close – have you just been on a fare ground ride? Tripped out on some magic mushrooms?

From a blues-y opening “We Can’t Be Found” suddenly bursts into full on Black Metal driven riffage overlayed with a piece of lead guitar work that simply has to be heard to be believed. The song slows up for a breakdown that leads to another and another before piling back into the Black Metal. There are points when you think they’re going to burst into something reminiscent of a Queen song but thankfully then don’t. Title track “Stranger Fruit” is probably more of a summary of the albums material than anything else, fusing all of the styles while also having a life of its own. Imagine if Greg Puciato (ex-Dillinger Escape Plan, Killer Be Killed, The Black Queen etc) or Mike Pattern (Dead Cross, Faith No More, Mr Bungle etc) pooled all of their material from all of their side projects and then got Nine Inch Nails main man Trent Reznor to collaborate on it. That is what this album sounds like – out there, avant-garde and strangely addictive. “Solve” is another 70’s psychedelic rock synth number, this time without any beats and again makes you feel like you’re on a fare ground ride with some killer clowns lurking. Another build on the earlier religious incantation theme is “Coagula” that has some solid enough alt. rock guitar work with the vocal. This is probably what Ghost should sound like. Album closer “Built On Ashes” steps back to the gospel inspired vocals and delivers a soulful lyric while building musical layers play out underneath. As an album, there are so many nuances within “Stranger Fruit” that shouldn’t work together but some how manage to, perhaps through solid and well thought out musicianship. The problem is you find yourself asking who’s going to listen to this? Pop fans are going to be turned off immediately by the Black Metal elements while Black Metal fans are going to be raising their eyebrows and the rest. Is it Metal enough to be considered Metal? Yes. Is it Pop or Soul enough to be considered those things? Yes. Does it work as a whole? Yes. One thing is for certain, it’s interesting and out there. [7/10]

Track listing

  1. “Intro”
  2. “Gravedigger’s Chant”
  3. “Servants”
  4. “Don’t You Dare”
  5. “Fire Of Motion”
  6. “The Hermit”
  7. “Row Row”
  8. “Ship On Fire”
  9. “Waste”
  10. “You Ain’t Coming Back”
  11. “The Fool”
  12. “We Can’t Be Found”
  13. “Stranger Fruit”
  14. “Solve”
  15. “Coagula”
  16. “Built On Ashes”

“Stranger Fruit” by Zeal & Ardor is available via bandcamp.

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