Zeal & Ardor, Valhalla, 26 February 2019

Zeal and Ardour

Photo: Doug Peters – http://www.ambientlight.co.nz

First published at: https://www.ambientlightblog.com/zeal-ardor-wellington-nz-2019/

This was supposed to be Swiss/US band Zeal & Ardor’s first New Zealand gig. There was buzz aplenty and fans had arrived early from all around the country. Then it started to go wrong. Actually, it had started earlier in the day, when the band posted on social media that they’d arrived safely in Wellington. However, their gear hadn’t. It was worse. One of their number couldn’t make it either. I learned later that their bassist, Mia Rafaela Dieu, was sick and had to remain back in Brisbane, where the last show was. Then the remaining band members been delayed at customs in Wellington Airport – and searched due to “traces of substances on their clothes and a laptop”. It was all looking pretty dire.

And then, suddenly, Facebook posts proclaimed that it was all back on again – this time as a ‘Stripped Down Show”. If you’ve heard Devil is Fine and the latest Stranger Fruit, then you’d expect a night of loud, distorted negro-spirituals mixed with an angst-loaded soup of black metal. This brainchild of Swiss American Manuel Gagneux sounds on record like some fantastical collaboration of Rob Zombie, Trent Reznor and Moby. And on stage and vinyl it’s a full on sonic assault. Usually. But that’s not how the night went.

Through some last minute wrangling, they’d managed to co-opt gear from tonight’s opening act, Auckland’s own His Master’s Voice. The show must go on…and it did. And so, by 8.30pm 150 punters crammed into the Capital’s own tiny music club to show their support.

His Master’s Voice opened with some very clever 70’s tinged psych-rock. Their reputation had proceeded the band and they didn’t disappoint. They started with a (relatively) new song – a three section instrumental called HMV, that really showed off the skills and energy this four piece are capable of. Dripping in layers of pedal distortion the band then launched into tracks from their outstanding album The Devil’s Blues mixed with earlier material from their impressive back catalogue.

You gotta love Jesse Sorenson’s raspy rock vocals – perfect for this kind of music and he throws everything at it. Wild hair fair flaying left and right, he’s the incarnation of Robert Plant. The band were determined to take this small but eager audience through a fast, squirming ethereal journey right back to the heart of 70’s rock. It worked. Channeling everyone from Led Zep to Lemmy and Hendrix they poured the high octane all over the floor and threw down their matches.

Despite the band’s energy fans didn’t really want to fully mosh tonight. The place is too small to do that safely, instead opting for some intense rock-nodding. But necks were close to snapping especially to the favourite Don’t Trust Myself – an awesome wig out song. Later in their 50 minute set they drop in a few slow burners which build climatically, giving guitarist Az Burns opportunity to really kick things into high gear with some intense blistering guitar solos.

According to their facebook page this will be the band’s final show until later in the year, to allow time out for “writing and other ventures within the band”. If Devil’s Blues is anything to go by, they’ve set the bar pretty high. Here’s hoping they don’t stay away for too long.

4 hours’ sleep and complete disorientation would normally phase most bands. Manuel Gagneux did his best to hold it together. Minus most of their digital toys and all of their key instruments they were the band laid bare, even their usual ‘costumes’ were missing.They still retained their usual monastic hoodies but wore them ‘casual’ over whatever they’d arrived in from Brisbane. Their ‘robes’ were loosely slung like dejected extras from Hogwarts. After all, there was no point going for the full ecclesiastical ‘drama’ if half the equipment was missing.

They played a shorter set, only 30 minutes. Half the material could not be achieved without specific instruments, kit and of course a bass player. None the less this gig would be special – without costumes, sound, smoke or mirrors. It was not to be how it was rehearsed and not what we expected. This was a down to earth rock experience – no hiding. Summoning up all the strength he could muster Gagneux lead his men into battle – on vocals and Az’s guitar, flanked by vocalists Denis Wagner and Marc Obrist and supported by guitarist Tiziano Volante and drummer Marco Von Allmen on the rest of HMV’s gear.

They launched into a disturbingly soulful version of Gravedigger’s Chant quickly followed by Come On Down and a preacher-ranting delivery of You Ain’t Coming Back. On this one, Gagneux quite rightly squeezes out every last frustration from his day (and there were many). He throws his voice like some dark, satanic overlord, issuing an ultimatum of doom at any one in his path. For Blood in the River Volante provides extra vigor, playing both the top end and the dark bass notes in the same violent strum-fest, in compensation for their missing bassist.

They continue the assault with Built On Ashes and a hastily reconstructed rendition of Don’t You Dare. The set is completed with Devil Is Fine. And the stage goes quiet. “That was disturbingly pleasant,” Gagneux concludes, apologizing again and thanking the audience for their patience and support.

Sure, this wasn’t the show we were promised but I was impressed that a band the often relies so heavily on it’s equipment could adapt to such extreme circumstances. I would definitely like to see Zeal & Ardor again in full force, and look forward to their return (This time we’ll have to bribe the airport staff to secure their equipment gets here in one piece).

Once again, thanks have to go to His Master’s Voice for not only lending the gear but putting on a phenomenal opener. They saved the show, no doubt about it. And perhaps this gig was always going to be unpredictable. As I was heading out, I spotted one of the tour shirts proclaiming “Fuck it. Shit Happens”. No truer word has been spoken.

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