Portland is home to various musical venues where the proprietors have taken great pains to make the concert-going experience something special. Whether it’s the Doug Fir Lounge’s homage to the woody feel of the great Northwest or Mississippi Studios’ immaculate room, many of these places still feel new despite packing in beer-swilling music fans for years. The grungy Hawthorne Theatre, home to most of the city’s metal shows, doesn’t fit this description in the slightest. Dark, dirty and boasting pretty bad sound, it takes a pretty special show to make the Hawthorne a fun night out. Zeal & Ardor did just that.

Touring behind second album, Stranger Fruit, the story of Zeal & Ardor sprung from a story that sounds like total bullshit, despite being true. The half Swiss, half African-American singer was dared to create a project that combined black metal with “black music,” a provocation that led Manuel Gagneux to dig deep and use slave spirituals. Though the singer made no commentary about the state of the country today, his music speaks loud enough.

The band took the stage to “Sacrilegium I,” arranging itself in a horseshoe with front man Gagneux towards the front. Most of the band hid inside black hoodies. The audience, many of them clad in dark clothes as well, cheered in appreciative excitement. Then came the intonation of “In Ashes” where Gagneux and his band engaged in a sludgy call-and-response. Some guy next to me shouted, “Hail Satan” and the concert began.

As the band transitioned from “Servants” to “Come on Down,” the audience began to push and a mosh pit sprouted in the front, continuing through the 21-song set. Two male singers, both white, provided backing vocals as Gagneux shouted into his twin microphones. There was little let-up in the intensity as the set list careened from Stranger Fruit tracks to ones from 2016 debut, Devil is Fine.

Not all of the songs are strictly metal. “You Ain’t Coming Back” could be a TV on the Radio track while Stranger Fruit closer “Built on Ashes” is a cathartic comedown from the black metal madness. Still, songs like “Don’t You Dare” and “Blood in the River” were enough to make the mosh pit erupt and push those of us in the front up against the rail.

Before beginning the three-song encore, Gagneux looked at the crowd with wide-eyed wonder. He seemed genuinely surprised and honored that so many people had come out to witness the tenuous Zeal & Ardor experiment, one that excels in both the recorded and live venues. If the audience response wasn’t good enough for Gagneux, he should know that it was also impossible to find a T-shirt in XL by the time the Hawthorne Theatre belched its crowd out into the street. I am sure I’ll see quite a few Zeal & Ardor shirts around Portland. And I’ll be jealous.

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