The artist behind Zeal and Ardor isn’t American. He’s Swiss, albeit of African heritage. Manuel Gagneux was prompted to begin the project by a 4Chan post. In an interview with Noisey’s Kim Kelly, he claims that he used the message boards as a starting point for his own musical experiments:
I used to make these threads where I would ask for musical genres, one would post “swing,” and the other would post “hardcore gabber techno” and I’d fuse the two and make a song out of it in 30 minutes. One day someone said “n*gger music,” and the other said “black metal.” I didn’t make the song then, but it stuck with me, and I thought it was an interesting idea.
At this moment in the interview, Kelly stops Gagneux – who, it should be reiterated, is also Black – and asks him to repeat himself. Did the post really explicitly say “n*gger music”? It did. Gagneux seems to almost shrug. “That’s 4Chan.”
Legacies and histories get condensed in these types of anonymous online comments. They matter because Black Lives Matter because for 400 years they haven’t. Anonymity is at once a mask and a conduit for greater, more violent forces.
This speaks to why so many have taken notice of the music Gagneux has made under the Zeal and Ardor moniker. There are a lot of genres that this anonymous online bigot could have meant, from blues to rap. What Gagneux took the term to mean was slave spirituals. And it’s this he chose to blend with black metal.
Gagneux isn’t ignorant to black metal’s frequent and notorious overlap with racism and white nationalism, or the apparent contradiction created by integrating spirituals into it. Nor should it be assumed that he's entirely insouciant to the brazen racism displayed in the original post. In some respect, Zeal and Ardor has to mine this juxtaposition in order to discover its whole aesthetic purpose, pushing past the very real ideological baggage in order to invert and explode it from the inside. “I kind of wondered what would’ve happened if slaves would’ve rebelled in a similar fashion to Burzum or Darkthrone” says Gagneux. It’s a stunning notion to concoct, even if it sounds at first disturbing.
When Devil Is Fine, Zeal and Ardor’s first album, began circulating online, several commenters wondered where Gagneux had found the samples of slave spirituals. Gagneux himself wrote the parts in their style, and recorded them himself. He has a versatile voice and musical sensibility to be able to veer from the deep spiritual pain of proto-blues to the near-inhuman snarl of black metal, from the sublime to the unholy, turning each into the other along the way.
The result is a particularly timely combination: twin halves of an un-reckoned history alchemically brought together. On the one hand there is a music that grew organically out of the violent uprooting and dehumanization of Black humans; a music which, quite ironically, became an almost universal starting point for modern popular music through the twists and turns of capital and colonialism.
On the other hand there is a thoroughly contemporary music that rebels against the extreme alienation of the present through a dark and twisted call-up of the past; a music which, tragically, is often linked through reality and reputation with the most reactionary outgrowths of this same (not-so-)postcolonial capitalism.
Bringing these two together results in a sound of a past refusing, violently and viscerally, to die.
If Zeal and Ardor insists that the history of slavery remains embedded in the contemporary, then the superb new album from clipping. asks whether it’s also going to be part of the future. And what would that mean? Splendor & Misery doesn’t so much seek to answer the question as examine its parameters. When the group’s members talk direct politics (which is rare) they normally insist that they are more folded into their sonic experiments. Which naturally makes for more engaging and compelling art than any number of random slogans placed over a beat.
Nonetheless, Daveed Diggs (he now of Hamilton fame) admits that Splendor & Misery is “the most explicitly political clipping. album thus far… The world we live in right now makes it pretty difficult not to be political.”
Splendor & Misery is a departure for clipping. in more than one sense. That aura of inevitable nihilism crawling out from the cracks of post-recession decay is there, but they are given, almost literally, an endless amount of space to mutate into something else. Its feel and story (it’s… wait for it… a concept album) rather questions the destiny of whatever might come out of the rubble. It is, of course, an Afrofuturist album, but how?
“Destiny” is, in fact, a notion that seems to be soaked into Splendor & Misery. Its plot sees “Cargo Number 2331” awake from stasis on a spaceship and take control as the lone survivor of a slave rebellion. Daveed Diggs’ rapping characteristically swerves from the manic and menacing to the urbane, weaving references to Jay-Z and Kendrick with Octavia Butler, Ursula Le Guin, and Samuel Delany.
Jonathan Snipes and William Hutson's sonic background pulls off something rare: using abstract noise to create foreboding silence. Cold steel clangs, computerized panic, and, coming in through the static, the sound of human cargo singing:
I'll follow the stars when the sun goes to bed
Till everything I've ever known is long dead
I can't go back home 'cause I want to be free
Someone tell the others what's become of me
In a surreal turn, much of the album’s plot involves the spaceship literally falling in love with Cargo Number 2331. The two decide that, rather than return to the known universe, they will pilot themselves into the unknown. Whatever futurist ramifications we might otherwise discuss, it seems striking here that, in this album’s imaginary, the evolution of human society has progressed to the point where we can conceive of the posthuman, but not the postcolonial.
After the Emanuel AME Church massacre in Charleston last June, I wrote about the continuing relevance of “No More Auction Block.” Songs like these may be a lodestone for American and global popular music, but they are also far too often treated as a dead past. What I mean by that is that, while the influence of blues and gospel can be heard in countless songs by anyone willing to listen, the use of more spirituals and field songs in their more "undistilled" form is a rare thing. Far too often, they are treated as a historical relic, a museum piece, something to be revered but not interacted with. “No More Auction Block” is something of an exception in this sense, given that it has been claimed as an influence for songs written more than one hundred years since it was first sung, but even here it is its more folk and blues iterations being referenced. Its veracity as a genre is conceived only in reference to others.
The music of clipping. and Zeal and Ardor not only face the pain and subversion of these songs head-on, they incorporate them as integral elements into a sonic palette that is thoroughly modern. Their records are obviously not taking place in isolation. Ruptures from “business as usual” in the present force the past to be viewed in a different light, and it is far from coincidence that records like these are being released in this moment in time. In the case of clipping., the influence of and sympathy with Black Lives Matter is obvious and conscious. But even in the case of Manuel Gagneux, whose citizenship might at first blush estrange him from identifying with an American movement, we shouldn't be quick to dismiss. If the past continues to shuffle through the present, then so does the colonialism that was animated by slavery; the world is indeed watching Black Lives Matter.
More than 150 years since Emancipation, reparations for slavery are still not in sight. No serious force in mainstream politics will take up the cause, despite the cruelly ironic fact that mainstream politics – such as they are – take place in stately buildings that would not have been completed were it not for the labor of Black and African slaves. This serves as a fitting backdrop for a country in which Black people are brutalized and killed by vigilantes and police forces (many of which have their very real origins in slave-catching posses), then are told by finger-wagging authority figures to behave better. When the same figures insist that we “get over” slavery, they are essentially telling Black people that they should expect to be used by a history that doesn't respect them.
Devil is Fine and Splendor & Misery are quite jarring in this respect. The narratives of human chattel are inevitably conjured with the sounds of slave songs; that they are then placed, rather seamlessly, into more contemporary sounds like black metal and hip-hop results in an experience equal parts unnerving and compelling. Unnerving because it forces us to admit that a holocaust has not been put fully to rest. Compelling because placing the "then" in the midst of the "now" allows its resistance to feel at once more rooted and more dynamic.
These albums are, to coin a rather clunky term, “historic acts as art,” art capturing the intervention of a moment in history presently unfolding. As works of art, they're complete, and stunning in the experience they provide the listener; but as works of history, they can't help but be unfinished.
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Alexander Billet is a writer, poet, and cultural critic. He is a founding editor of Red Wedge Magazine and currently is its editor-in-chief. His writing has also appeared at Jacobin, In These Times, and the International Socialist Review. Follow him on Twitter: @UbuPamplemousse