Zeal & Ardor
Devil Is Fine
24th February 2017 – MVKA
01. Devil Is Fine
02. In Ashes
03. Sacrilegium I
04. Come On Down
05. Children’s Summon
06. Sacrilegium II
07. Blood In The River
08. What Is A Killer Like You Gonna Do Here?
09. Sacrilegium III
It’s always tempting for musicians wanting to make their mark on a genre to take their chosen framework and mash it together with something seemingly out-of-place. This is a go-to tactic for folk metal with its prevalence of zithers and hurdy-gurdies, and it’s worked well there. Let’s not forget that this philosophy has also left us with the questionable legacy of rap metal.
The key difference is how artful the blend is. This doesn’t need to be subtle; Shining‘s use of saxophones is hardly understated and it’s a good look on them. The philosophy falters where bands are too self-conscious in their mash-ups, looking at the 40+ years of metal history and despairing that everything has seemingly been done, then frantically trying to recruit members to their acapella vaporwave project.
Zeal & Ardor have been the focus of a lot of press, a lot of which has been bemused. Broadly, Devil Is Fine is a mix of black metal, blues & gospel, and electronica – but the album covers an astonishing amount of ground, constantly haunted by spreading itself too thin or being too affectedly weird. On the flipside, there’s a sense that something like this could be a Big Thing. On paper it should work; blues and black metal have Strong Opinions on The Devil. Electronic music and black metal are strange bedfellows but it’s not sacrilegious to mess with them.
Expectedly, this record is by and large a mixed bag. Even though my experience improved on multiple listens, the record never settles on a consistent tone. I can’t claim to be much of an authority on gospel but the black metal elements are heavily influenced by the recent wave of blackgaze/post-black metal acts. A little disappointingly, the guitars sit low in the mix so they often come across as just angular shoegaze rather than black metal. I often found myself wondering if the record would work better leaning more towards dark ambient influences than incorporating occasional frosty bursts.
Also, for black metal fans this is likely to be a disappointment. A lot of the tags for this record have suggested this is primarily black metal and it’s not, not really; there’s a frequent creepy haunting tone but it’s only occasionally that the black metal elements are used to convey this. If you dig Alcest and their ilk this will be an unusual departure, and certainly worth investigating.
My initial notes for this review were super-negative. One of them just reads “Devil Is Fine is fine,” which I’ll never get to use in its intended context. The truth is the more time I spent with the record, the more I was drawn to it. Firstly, Zeal & Ardor’s songwriting chops are well-explored in key moments; opener and single “Devil Is Fine” is absolutely superb and genuinely chilling, mixing chants with thunderous percussion and an unnerving gothic aesthetic. In addition, so much of this record works even though you get the sense the goalposts are constantly moving; the electronic sections are proper cool, “Children’s Summons” sounding almost chiptune-y. “In Ashes” flirts more obviously with some metal influences. In the end it seems futile to tick off all the genre engagements; it’s a soup, but against the odds it works.
I hear a lot of Björk‘s Debut in this record. There’s a lot of raw experimentation and unfiltered courage. Devil Is Fine is certainly novel, and thought it’s a little unfair to compare this to Debut‘s innovations they both have a kind of naive hubris which makes them charming. That’s probably the best feature of the record; Devil Is Fine is so singular and odd that it occupies a different space to any of the records it’s influenced by, and by virtue of its charm demands to be considered differently. It might not change the face of metal forever but it might just stick out enough to be cited as an off-beat influence a little further down the line.
To the cynics, Devil Is Fine doesn’t rest on novelty. It doesn’t work like any record in any of the genres it borrows from and it’s fickle enough to frustrate anyone trying to draw themes through it – but of all the records that will get fancy label re-releases this year, this is among the most deserving.