The Gestalt of Zeal and Ardor
Manuel Gagneux discusses his confrontational Devil is Fine album.
Posted Apr 18, 2017
“I can't do him no wrong;
Devil is kind;
I see him before long;
Devil is fine;”
From “Devil is Fine” by Zeal and Ardor
Manuel Gagneux is one raw and confrontational motherfucker.
One could argue that it’s gutsy enough to introduce yourself to the world (under the band name Zeal and Ardor) with an album titled, Devil is Fine. This theme puts Gagneux squarely in the confrontational lineage of musicians who explore satanic themes. Blues musicians such as Robert Johnson often had a conflicted combination of dread and longing regarding the Devil—seeing Satan as a necessary evil to develop otherworldly musical skills, but dreading having sold their soul to do so. Later on, Black Metal bands such as Bathory and Behemoth freed themselves of such conflicts, and arguably outright celebrate the Devil and Satanism.
But Gagneux’s work is perhaps even more confrontational from a certain perspective. He combines Gospel music, which traditionally celebrates God, and Black Metal music, which traditionally celebrates Satan, and lets Satan win. And in doing so, he arguably follows in the boundary-pushing tradition of Ray Charles, who infamously blended the more dangerous sexual, and at times devilish, vibe of Rhythm and Blues with Gospel music.
And the critical acclaim for Devil is Fine is just as raw and brazen as the music itself. Billboard writes that Gagneux’s music is what “…spirituals might have sounded like if they were sung not in the service of God, but of Satan…impassioned howls, blast beats and furious guitar together with call-and-response chants and handclaps…The results are powerful—and eerie.” Spin Magazine describes the album as, “…innovative, unapologetic…” And as if that wasn’t enough, Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, called Zeal and Ardor’s album, “best new music in a while.”
From an early age, Gagneux knew that he needed to have his own voice and to be in touch with his most basic impulses, free of the burden of social expectation. As an example Gagneux, who is mixed race (his mother is black and his father is white), and grew up in Switzerland, often felt like an outsider because of his racial identity. But rather than feeling like this robbed him of an identity, Gagneux feels that this allowed him to be free to have his own identity.
“I didn’t fit in with the Swiss crowd and I didn’t fit in with the black community…Not fitting in…not being stuck in a clique or a group of people was very beneficial, since I wasn’t forced to like things I didn’t naturally like, or forced to dislike things,” Gagneux told me. “So being a solipsistic person like I am, it helped. It kind of forced me into having an identity, which, in retrospect, I’m really thankful for.”
Gagneux soon discovered black metal, and he instantly connected to the intensity of the music. “I got into metal as a young teenager…And it was the most extreme form of music. And being a semi-aggressive teenager, that was just brilliant,” he said.
Soon, Gagneux was not only taken with the sound of black metal, but also with its exploration of satanic themes. But rather than representing a religion or a way of life, for Gagneux, these themes were an opportunity to defy societal norms and allow himself to be a more independent thinker.
“Satanism isn’t used as an actual spiritual path, it’s a form of rebellion—a tool actually,” Gagneux described. “In modern LaVeyan Satanism, there is actually no occult or supernatural element. It’s more of a philosophy. The pursuing of the id...which is not the best way of leading a life. But there are good ideas there. I think it’s honesty. It’s not suppressing something.”
“It’s allowing yourself to react to what your impulses are.”
As a child, Gagneux was often truant, causing his father to send him to therapy. He didn’t like most of his therapists and tended to stop therapy after a few sessions. However, the form of therapy he liked the most was Gestalt therapy, which Gagneux appreciated because it focused on being direct and confrontational. Gestalt therapists, in part, aim to help patients to be present and in the moment by pushing away personal or societal barriers so that they can connect with their creativity and sense of fulfillment. Gagneux saw parallels between his Gestalt therapy and the satanic themes of Black metal music.
“That’s what Fritz Perls was trying to get out of people to a certain extent. It’s not the best way to lead your entire life but it’s important to be aware of what our actual impulses are,” Gagneux described. “I’ve gotten a bouquet of therapies and I found the only one not bullshitting me was the Gestalt therapist…I think it was just direct confrontation as opposed to someone asking questions for later review. There was something about the immediacy that really spoke to me.”
Drawing from his experience with Gestalt therapy, Gagneux approached his music in a similar manner—where he took a direct, confrontational approach to unlock his raw and immediate emotions. Gagneux described how Tom Waits was an influence in this regard.
“I think Tom Waits played a huge role…I think he absolutely doesn’t act when he gets into his story telling bit,” he explained. “And I think that’s the unfiltered him that kind of bleeds through when he lets loose this sad war thing that he does.”
Part of Gagneux’s process is that he creates a safe space for himself by practicing and recording his songs alone. “And I don’t think it would have worked in any other way, because like with therapy sessions you have to be honest and uncensored and unfiltered. And it’s extremely hard to do in the presence of someone you don’t really trust,” he explained. “I really need to get into the zone before I can make anything that’s worth anything. And basically it’s the feeling of being the only person on the planet. And from then on I can actually make something worthwhile.”
More, Gagneux is very mindful of not putting pressure on himself—so that he can just be. "The less I try that, the better it goes. And I think we’re back to the Gestalt here. Because it just has to be unfiltered and direct. And if I think too much and have too many ways to go there, it’s not going to happen,” he said.
What emerged for this album was an almost minimalist sound with a consistent rhythm that allows the listener to be immersed in the music. What is perhaps unique to Gagneux’s approach is that the intensity of the song does not build—but starts right from the opening verse. In this way, it is perhaps more similar to hardcore punk bands such as Minor Threat which often blasted listeners from the get go rather than ease into a song.
“I think what strikes people is that it doesn’t ease into a crescendo of cathartic belting—it starts directly like that. There’s no preface. But the mantra, repeating the same phrases over and over again, actually forces people into this similar emotional state,” Gagneux described. “Because if you modulate or oscillate emotions, the audience can’t completely lose themselves in what you’re trying to convey. So the repetition actually forces people into the similar position.”
And through this more open and honest creative process, Gagneux was able to explore an integration of themes and styles that may often be taboo for artists. For example, he noticed the thematic nature of spirituals by American slaves, which as he described—perhaps inadvertently—embraced the religious ideology of the slave master.
“So what struck me as very odd was that even though the American slaves made these songs for themselves, they actually assimilated and incorporated the faith of their masters and oppressors. So that was the fascination and even the reason for the genre mashup,” he said.
And what he found was that there was a synergy between Gospel and Black metal that he hadn’t anticipated. “I think they both have an incredible emotional vehemence. I think metal can be perceived in two ways. If you’re not familiar with it or you don’t expect it, it can pretty much be a punch to the face. But if you allow it, it can be a gust of wind to your back just pushing you onward,” Gagneux described. “And I think the thing about the spirituals is that they have an inclusive, engaging thing that you want to be a part of it. You want to sing or clap your hands. And if you preface the metal with that, then the metal is already the gust of wind in your back. It’s already supporting you and it’s never the antagonist.”
To be sure, not everyone has been thrilled with Gagneux’s unorthodox creation. Gagneux described how many black metal purists did not like his take on the genre.
“There were a lot of people who disapproved,” Gagneux recounted. “I’m harshly generalizing here—these are people who search out a group of like-minded people, kind of the loner types. And bastardizing something that they identify with is sacrilege. It offends them greatly.”
But as he has always done, Gagneux chooses to tune out the influence of others so he can explore his own creative process. “I’m very much aware that people have their own opinions and I have no control over them. So it should be taken with a grain of salt. But I actually enjoy negative opinions because they show me what I can improve upon.”
And as he continues Zeal and Ardor’s European tour, Gagneux knows that his music—like his Gestalt therapy—is always a place where he can find his own raw, honest emotions.
“It’s total catharsis for me. I think I’m a grounded person because I have music,” Gagneux said. “As long as I have output I’ll be very happy.”
He’s not the only one.
Michael A. Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with offices in Manhattan and South Orange, NJ, and is a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Contact Dr. Mike at michaelfriedmanphd.com. Follow Dr. Mike on Twitter @drmikefriedman.