Zeal & Ardor’s Manuel Gagneux: “If I limited myself to Black music and black metal, I’d end up painting myself in a corner”

Zeal & Ardor
(Image credit: Katja Ogrin/Redferns)

Swiss American multi-instrumentalist Manuel Gagneux formed Zeal & Ardor in 2014 on a dare to combine black metal with Black music. The resulting hybrid of buzzsaw riffs, trip-hop groove, haunting lyrics and gravedigger chants turned heads, and the feedback convinced him to continue the project, which he called Zeal & Ardor.

“I’ve never believed in boundaries,” Gagneux says days before beginning a tour with Opeth and Mastodon. “I love combining all these different styles I’m into and just take them in whatever direction feels inspiring. Then I throw it all up against the wall to see what sticks. I’ve done that since the beginning.” 

Gangeux’s full-length 2016 debut, the pained, provocative Devil Is Fine, was praised in underground metal and indie circles. So Zeal & Ardor took their angry gospel to the road with equal success. Then, in 2018 Gagneux wrote and released the more eclectic and experimental Stranger Fruit, which kept one foot firmly planted in the occult and the other in African-American music and history. 

For Zeal & Ardor’s new, self-titled release, however, Gagneux has pulled back from some of the musical and lyrical motifs and focused less on black metal lyrics and tremolo riffs in favor of a more diverse range of styles, including thrash, industrial, post-rock and soundtrack music, without abandoning his roots. 

“I didn’t want to stray too far from what I’ve done before, so you’ve still got the Delta blues and heavy riffs in there,” he says. “But I feel like if I limited myself to Black music and black metal, I’d end up painting myself in a corner and then it wouldn’t be fun anymore.” 

On Stranger Fruit, drummer Marco Von Allmen replaced the group’s drum machine and has played on everything Zeal & Ardor have done since then. And when he’s on the road, Gagneux takes with him a lineup of talented, creative touring musicians who sometimes take unexpected liberties with his songs. 

“I love it because it keeps me on my toes and I get to hear the music go to places that, maybe, I didn’t expect,” he says. At the same time, he reiterates that he never wants Zeal & Ardor to be a full band. “I’m a real control freak,” he says. “I feel like it’s my baby and I don’t want to give it up. So I do everything on the albums except the drums, which my body is simply too stupid to do.”

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Jon Wiederhorn

Jon is an author, journalist, and podcaster who recently wrote and hosted the first 12-episode season of the acclaimed Backstaged: The Devil in Metal, an exclusive from Diversion Podcasts/iHeart. He is also the primary author of the popular Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal and the sole author of Raising Hell: Backstage Tales From the Lives of Metal Legends. In addition, he co-wrote I'm the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax (with Scott Ian), Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen (with Al Jourgensen), and My Riot: Agnostic Front, Grit, Guts & Glory (with Roger Miret). Wiederhorn has worked on staff as an associate editor for Rolling Stone, Executive Editor of Guitar Magazine, and senior writer for MTV News. His work has also appeared in Spin, Entertainment Weekly, Yahoo.com, Revolver, Inked, Loudwire.com and other publications and websites.