As music listeners, we consume and digest so much that we’ll often think we’ve heard it all, but then something inconceivable makes its way to our ear drums and reminds us that we have not, in fact, heard it all. When it comes to music, the possibilities are endless. Such is the case with the latest album from Zeal And Ardor, Devil Is Fine. Taking blues and combining it with black metal? Is that even possible? It is possible, and the results are very impressive.
The first run through Devil Is Fine greets you with the title track of the same name. Innocently enough, it has the feel of an older blues song. The raspy vocal lines and recording bring to mind the older recordings of such blues greats as Bobby “Blue” Bland, Buddy Guy or Howlin’ Wolf. The crackle of the microphone that can be heard has you wondering if this was sampled or performed. After many spins of this album, I’m going to operate on the premise that the vocals were sampled from older songs whose origin I was unable to pin down (h/t Son Ov Wolf for raising that observation). From what I can gather, the vocals were sampled from recorded versions of Negro Spirituals. According to Wikipedia, Negro Spirituals are described as:
Generally Christian songs that were created by African slaves in the United States. Spirituals were originally an oral tradition that imparted Christian values while also describing the hardships of slavery. Although spirituals were originally unaccompanied monophonic (unison) songs, they are best known today in harmonized choral arrangements. This historic group of uniquely American songs is now recognized as a distinct genre of music.
Since most slaves were not allowed to have any property of their own, having a musical instrument was unlikely and singing songs was really their only musical outlet. The early songs were composed usually on the spot and utilized clapping to keep a beat. I made the connection because the vocal stylings used on Devil Is Fine to the same kind of sound that some songs from the Coen Brothers comedy, The Ladykillers. To give you an idea of where some of the sounds being used on Devil Is Fine come from, you can listen to “Come let us go back to god” from the soundtrack. When “Devil Is Fine” kicks in, you’ll hear blues, black metal and Negro Spirituals work in concert with each other to bring you a combustion of something unlike anything you’ve ever heard. At first, the track conjures the image of African American slaves who are on their way back from a day’s worth of hard labor all chained together walking back and forth. The track makes use of chains clanking in place of the clapping that would typically serve as the backup to the vocals.
“In Ashes” is where things really start to get interesting as the song starts off with some tremolo picking guitar accompanied by the soothing vocal sounds of “Burn the young boy, burn him good. Wash the crimson stains from the field.” This repeats as new instrumentation is added with repetition of the vocal line. The first time is with what sounds like a fiddle to go along with the tremolo riff. The next time around brings in the drums to build things up until a scream lets out and the music intensifies with the guitar becoming more prominent and a double kick drum beat taking the composition to the next level. The screams on most of the tracks here serve to blend in with the furniture instead of taking center stage because the star of the show is the bluesy vocals that hook the listener and keep them entertained throughout the track. As with several other tracks on the album, the formula that is utilized by Zeal and Ardor is to introduce a vocal melody and have the music that goes with it start off gently and then up the intensity in both departments as the songs progress. It’s a formula that works extremely well and makes for an interesting listen.
“Come On Down” follows a similar formula and is equally as compelling. Once again the vocal lines use a bluesy intro that later morphs into more tremolo riffs that compliment each other perfectly. A brief clean guitar break coupled with more soulfully executed vocals give you a breather before returning to a stomping, blackened beatdown that will have you nodding your head in approval the second it arrives. In addition there’re three instrumentals going by the name of “Sacrilegium I, II, & III.” The first almost sounds like a Middle Eastern dance song, the second a song that would be played from a wind-up music box near a baby’s crib and the third, a track of some trippy sounding piano. There’s also “What is a Killer like you gonna do here?” that features some Mike Patton-esque rumblings over a blues filled backdrop. The closest to straight black metal that you’ll come to on this release is the blasting “Children’s Summon” which still uses chanted vocals and the soulful singing that is found throughout the album.
“Blood In The River” is the song I keep coming back to. It utilizes the formula of sampled vocals over the blackened blues so well that you cannot help but sing along. The clanking of slave chains once again make their appearance accompanied by only the thump of the bass drum and that sweet Negro Spiritual crooning. I’d really love to hear where these were taken from to see if the lyrics were shuffled around or taken out of context to fit with the theme of the track. “A good god is a dead one, a good god is the one that brings the fire” are the lyrics to the opening that repeat themselves throughout. This is followed by what could be characterized as a chorus. That goes “The river bed will run red with the blood of the saints and the blood of the holy.” After several measures of this passage, the song gets heavier with tremolo riffing and double kick drums. The vocals maintain their presence, and the transition into black metalish elements is perfect just as it is with the other songs that follow this formula. These two vocal passages are the mainstays of the track. Next comes a brief interlude with a sample and some chanting behind it before the song returns to the lyrics used in the opening. The song reaches its climax at this point as the vocals are layered with backing vocals to intensify what was introduced in the beginning. If this song were the mound of cocaine Tony Montana was snorting from at the end of Scarface, I’d ingest the whole damn thing without a second thought. As of this writing, I’ve listened to this song alone a total of 80 times because I simply cannot get enough of it. Jam it below and get infected by the blackened blues.
4/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell
If this had been an EP of just the four songs highlighted, this would’ve easily have been a 5/5 release. The other tracks are interesting in their own right, but those four are so strong that they carry the music to unforeseen levels of excellence. It will be interesting to see if the concept of using sampled vocal tracks with entirely different music catches on and we see other artists experiment with it. I really think Zeal and Ardor is on to something here and has created something new and exciting that keeps me coming back for more. Head over to Zeal and Ardor’s Facebook page, give them the thumbs up, purchase Devil Is Fine over at bandcamp, head to the Federal Reserve, get an advance copy of the Harriet Tubman twenty spot and shove it down a racist white man’s throat to remind him it’s 2016, not 1886.
h/t Sweaty Nipple