Words by Brian O’Neill | Photos by Tashina Byrd
They call themselves “Dream Thrash,” and it’s one of the rare instances where a band’s self-anointed genre is a perfect fit. The riffs come from three guitars in waves like a kaleidoscope, shimmering as they cut through the fog-filled venue, no differently than the mobile spotlights that spun around the stage. Meanwhile, Brett Boland’s ethereal voice sounds like it’s harmonizing with itself, a neat trick that would leave David Copperfield scratching his head. It’s a dazzling effect whose oeuvre causes light and sound to unite as a single sonorous display.
It’s difficult to describe Astronoid without using the same adjectives one would use to describe shoegaze. It’s atmospheric – heck, the band’s last album is literally called Air – but the band is not informed by My Bloody Valentine or even the more metallic likes of Alcest. It’s far more melodic and drummer Matt St. Jean – a pummeling prog metal Neil Peart – keeps everything moving along like a jet stream.
It’s been over two years since the band’s last album. You can’t blame them for the delay since they’ve been getting great tours including northeast dates with Ghost. Based on the 45-minute support set, whatever comes next will be worth the wait.
The Philly show kicked off the Zeal & Ardor tour. Despite all of the acclaim the project has received since The Devil is Fine was self-released in 2016, Manuel Gagneux had to form a band to perform in response to demand rather the other way around. As such they only have a handful of shows under their belt. Although Gagneux had hired guns to play a handful of American shows, this was the first American show for Zeal & Ardor with the musicians he now says are members of the band.
Jitters or technical issues might have been expected. There were none. At least there was nothing discernible that detracted from the intense phenomenon before us.
A line of three hooded figures stayed at the center of the stage with Gagneux in the middle. He sang lead, using one mic for singing and another for screams. Those flanking him provided backing vocals that were simultaneously soulful and monotone, not unlike the plaintive plantation wails of spirituals in the pre-antebellum south. The trio was flanked by a guitarist and bassist, also dressed in black robes, with a drummer at the rear. It was an unusual setup, but Zeal & Ardor isn’t ordinary in anything else so why start with the choreography?
Although most of the material could have elicited headbanging – “Come On Down,” “We Never Fail,” and especially “Cut Me,” which comes off like a modern take on Shrapnel Records’ ‘80s techno-thrash – the crowd was mostly rapt with attention. It wasn’t just because it wasn’t a typical “metal” crowd although likely a third of attendees might have never been to a metal show before. They clapped along unprompted for the syncopated stomp of “Row Row,” but otherwise the audience just soaked in the spectacle.
This is not uncommon when witnessing something heavy, unique and unwilling to stick to a single genre. Just as at shows by the likes of John Zorn, Melt Banana or Mr. Bungle, the mostly racing mashup music left even ardent fans unable to do much more than take it all in and try to keep up.
It was an arduous task even when the band slowed down. Half of the equation, aside from the blast beats and thrash metal guitars, is the Negro Spirituals Gagneux approximated so convincingly on record that many thought they were samples (in the Noisey interview that introduced many to Zeal & Ardor, he deadpanned that he couldn’t find many of them about Satan). And half of that phrase is spiritual, which is what “Gravedigger’s Chant” was. As he sang, sweat dripped from his impassioned, contorted face. It was as real as it gets.
Some say Zeal & Ardor started off as a gimmick. Even Gagneux concedes as much. But that was before he released two fantastic albums. If they don’t disavow someone of that notion, the live show certainly would. And if that doesn’t do it, that person just doesn’t have a soul.