Written by Tim Ervolina
Between 1937 and 1942, Alan Lomax, an archivist at the Library of Congress, recorded and preserved thousands of field recordings of working people, mostly African-Americans. He was a passionate devotee of acoustic folk and blues musicians like Lead Belly, Muddy Waters, Jelly Roll Morton and Woody Guthrie. He invented the “concept album;” the artistic endeavor beloved of critics but unknown to the masses. He was also a suspected Communist, hassled for years by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.
All of which make Lomax the perfect progenitor for Manuel Gagneux, whose debut as Zeal & Ardor, Devil is Fine, is due on February 24th from MVKA. Zeal & Ardor presents us with a Devil who went to church one Sunday and realized the music was way better there. It’s mysterious and monstrous, beautiful and haunting, dripping with blood, rage and pain that has been the African experience in America for 400 years.
Gagneux gets the Devil right: his anger is justified, because God has beaten the Hell out of him since the beginning of time. Zeal and Ardor‘s Devil fights back with Nat Turner’s vengeance wrapped in the soft sweetness of a Sunday morning in a country church. The Latin word “sacrilege” means “thief of sacred things.” Devil is Fine is literally a sacrilege, and a damned good one at that.
The opener, the eponymous “Devil is Fine,” is an ear-wormy, sing-in-the-shower paean to Satan, sung in the traditional call and response of the enslaved work crew. It’s a “Jesus is Just Alright with Me” for metalheads. I dare you to try to get this song out of your head.
The call and response continues in the dark hymn “Ashes,” where Gagneux urges: “Burn the young boy, burn him good, wash the crimson stains from the field.” You can feel the glee of the slave patrollers, viciously setting upon the would-be escapee.
The next track, “Sacrilegium I,” is actually the first movement of a mini-black symphony, with a grand opening allegro, featuring amazing chanting from a Missal of Satan on a black, blood-stained altar. The next movement is a couple of tracks later, “Sacrilegium II,” a horror-film soundtrack-worthy piece which forms the adagio of the whole album. The third part (which is actually the final track on the album) “Sacrilegium III,” is a bit of fun, bright, and pretty keyboard work that makes you forget you’re listening to music glorifying the Dark Lord. Play this one for your Holy Roller aunt, but don’t tell her the name.
On “Come on Down,” when Gagneux begins to chant,”I can’t see no Devil in the field. Come down, come on down…” you gotta know it’s going to end badly, but you forget the terror because the music is so fucking good. This track fades into “Children’s Summon”—a music box serpent, swallowed whole by a devilish-chanting set to slashing guitars. “Blood in the River” is another earworm (“A Good God is a dead one, A Good Lord is Dark One, river-bed will run red with the blood of the saints and blood of the holy…”) that recalls the Whore of Babylon in Book of Revelation. Momma did warn you, after all, that the Devil knows his Bible.
On “What is a Killer Like You Gonna Do Here?” Gagneux is both growly and melodic:
“Have you ever killed a man before? Did you see his beggin eyes, did you feel the gore? What is a killer like you tryin’ to do here?”
If you haven’t been summoned to Hell after listening this far, you will literally feel the hair begin to rise on your neck during the strange and winding guitar work.
So, who would dig this mash-up of African spiritual, black metal thrust, poetic lyrics and inverted religion? You got ears? You would. Buy it.