It’s a surprisingly balmy evening in Manchester, despite it being November, and there is a definite air of excitement in the air for the performance of a band who have, in my opinion, released the best album of 2022. Last seen earlier this year supporting Meshuggah, Zeal and Ardor fans have long awaited a headline tour from this, initially at least, one-man band.
First up, Birmingham/Swindon four-piece, Heriot, were a support act I was particularly looking forward to. I discovered them in 2020 when they released their single “Cleansed Existence” and, after binging their new EP “Profound Morality” over the course of the past few weeks, I knew they would be a great opener for Zeal and Ardor, and I wasn’t wrong! Fast, but sludgy, atmospheric, and with the occasional industrial vibe, Heriot filled the stage with their crushing heaviness and grooves, bassist and vocalist Jake Packer’s deep growls complimenting the manic shrieks of guitarist Debbie Garth perfectly, a happy crowd made their approval clear, and Heriot leave Manchester with plenty of new fans.
Next up are headliners Zeal and Ardor. The brainchild of Swiss-American musician Manuel Gagneux who described Zeal and Ardor as “what if American slaves had embraced Satan instead of Jesus?” And the mix of black metal riffs, with gospel-like vocals, sprinklings of Soul Jazz and delta blues is a lovely one. Can a band singing about the virtues of Satan still play gigs that feel like religious experiences? Judging by the crowd’s reaction, absolutely!
Opening with the anthemic “Church Burns”, and then immediately into their heaviest, most aggressive song “Gotterdammerung”, the crowd are a heaving, sweaty mess in moments. Bringing the vibe lower (but not to a deficit!) They reel off “Ship on Fire”, “Row” and “Gravediggers Chant”, perfectly showcasing their multiple influences in a few short songs. Despite being down two members due to illness (backing vocalists Dennis Wagner and Mark Obrist) the sound is immense and overpowering. Gagneux is a surprisingly cheerful frontman, easily conversing with the crowd in between songs, and the performance isn’t dimmed by them being two members down.
Zeal and Ardor draw tracks from their entire back catalogue of three albums and one EP and all are gratefully received by the audience. These gospel-like songs are made to be sung by a crowd and the show is absolutely full of them. 2022 single “Run” is quickly followed by 2018’s “We can’t be found”, the songs punctuated by Gagneux’s easy chat with the crowd.
“Trust no one” and then the epic “Death to the Holy”, its lyrics leaving no Illusions as to what inspires these songs. “Don’t You Dare”, its staccato rhythm sounding powerful along with Gagneux’s angry vocals, then “Devil is Fine”, a take on traditional Black American slave songs, a direct hymn to the Dark Lord himself, is followed by “J.M.B” and “Feed the Machine”, before Gagneux states “This is usually the part where we pretend to leave the stage for a few moments and then come back and play some more songs. So, we’re just going to pretend we did that and keep playing!! as they launch into fast-paced and frenetic “I Caught You”, and finally wrapping the set up with fan-favorite, “Baphomet”, Gagneux encouraging the crowd to enact lyrics, “right hand up, left hand down” and the audience is eating it up. One hour and 15 minutes just goes far too quickly, but the prospect of Zeal and Ardor on a bigger stage with all members in the SOPHIE tent at Bloodstock Festival in 2023 (headlining the second stage no less!) will carry me and plenty of the other audience members through the long wait, because even with two-fifths of the band missing, in a more modest venue, Zeal and Ardor absolutely smash it. Bloodstock doesn’t stand a chance.
Review and photos by Donna Craddock – Click Click Bang Photography