The much celebrated Zeal & Ardor really shouldn't work as a concept. Manuel Gagneaux had been in a few different pop bands when he asked the members of 4chan to give him two genres for him to combine for a song he'd create in half an hour. They gave him black metal and black music, so he combined extreme metal with African American spirituals, a ludicrous concept but one that, to everyone's surprise, actually worked. Having found that he was somehow able to release this as a serious project, he framed the underpinning idea as "what if American slaves had embraced Satan instead of Jesus?"
While the first Zeal & Ardor album was an entirely solo effort, he expanded into a full band in time for the amazing second album Stranger Fruit, even though only the band's drummer, appeared on the album with him. That's Marco von Allmen and it's the two of them here as well, even though a lot of what they do is samples and programming. This is a much more artificial album than the last one and deliberately so, with plenty of electronic manipulation and a lot of industrial grooves too. I think that's a mistake because, while black metal can work with drum machines, I don't believe that spirituals can work with anything except heart and soul.
That's underlined for me on Bow, which explores the spiritual side of Zeal & Ardor but with heavily artificial accompaniment. These aren't old black felons singing on a chain gang. They're sitting in a studio generating handclaps electronically and that doesn't work for me in the slightest. Sure, I can see a place in music for the static, dissonance and manipulative effects that are spread over this album like a rash, but not in a solo spiritual section. Going with that decision means that Bow is a failed experiment for me and it's not the only one here.
Some songs work really well but I'm pretty sure that which will depend on your tastes. Many have praised Run, the opening single, which is a an alternative rock/nu metal onslaught, but I wouldn't because it didn't do much for me. I'd call out Golden Liar as the highlight, which reminded me of a Tracy Chapman song written for the soundtrack of a western feature, complete with whistles and narration. It's the sort of song that will absolutely find itself playing behind the crucial finalé of a TV show. There's some of that in Church Burns too, but it has industrial layers to hinder that.
Another track that worked for me is I Caught You, which combines the call and response aspect of spirituals with alt rock. It's modern and trendy and wants to be both, but it transcends the limits that come with that to be a fascinating song. Death to the Holy does some of the same, but with a little less ambition, something that's otherwise all over this album and every Zeal & Ardor release.
I have every respect for Gagneaux doing things that aren't done just to see if they'll work and I'm often appreciative of a song, even if I don't actually like it. Erase is one of those. I didn't want it to heavy up, but it does with hardcore vocals and jagged guitars that end up dissonant and djenty. I didn't like it much at all but it was easy to appreciate Gagneaux's talent nonetheless.
Where he lost me this time out was on songs that feel disjointed. Emersion is the first of them. It shifts genre like a round of Whose Line is It Anyway, alternating between inoffensive electronica in a Moby or Enigma vein and what I guess is blackgaze, the black metal wall of sound with what I would think of as a post-rock melody. These aren't integrated into a single sound, something that Hold Your Head Low achieves. It's like moving the dial on the radio between stations and back. It even ends with still more inoffensive keyboard work that could be the theme tune to a kids show. Feed the Machine feels disjointed to me too.
And all this means a mixed bag. I adored Stranger Fruit and don't recall any of it not working. This has a bunch of stuff that works, led by Golden Liar, and a bunch of stuff that doesn't, chief among them Emersion. Most of it sits in between, with Hold Your Head Low and I Caught You high on that scale but Bow and Feed the Machine at the lower end. And that means only a 6/10 for me, a major drop from the previous album. But hey, let's see what Gagneaux does next. It's guaranteed to be interesting but, when you're playing with genres like this, not everything pans out every time.