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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Belt

EP REVIEW: Birdmask - Tristan

Updated: Nov 22, 2023

Melancholy suits Manuel Gagneux of Zeal & Ardor

Birdmask is the solo project of Swiss-American, Manuel Gagneux, better known for his work with metal band, Zeal & Ardor.

In the press accompanying the release of Tristan – Birdmask’s first release since a trio of albums in 2018 and the first of two EPs with Isolde to follow early next year – Gagneux, explains how the endeavour enables him to better explore melancholy, with metal more a vehicle for sadness.

Melancholy looms large over the piano-drenched five tracks which serve as a platform for Gagneux to treat the listener to his strong and varied vocals. Meeting somewhere between Johnny Stevens of Highly Suspect and Chris Cornell, Gagneux variously lets his vocals soar on the more ballad-heavy tracks, while pulling back on quieter moments and adding the odd impassioned growl more familiar to fans of Zeal & Ardor.

The narrative arc is strongly fixated on being in the depths of darkness and depression and trying to escape, with the final track suggesting a breakthrough – satisfying to say the least, and a window into what next year’s EP may represent more, with the press saying that release will showcase Gagneux’s happier side.

Leaning into melancholy - Manuel Gagneux, AKA Birdmask (Credit: Samuel Morris 2020)

Tristan begins with ‘Way Out’ – a crisp three-minute song with Gagneux singing “Help me find my way out of here”. This call for help over understated piano finds a strange reminiscence with the vocal performance of ‘Fever for the Flava’ by Hot Action Cop at one stage.

Continuing the bleak theme, ‘Recovery’ is more soulful as Gagneux laments “We’ll never get better, it’s a long and gruesome odyssey”, and describes the moments of recovery as bringing us peace from the tribulations of life. The best way to describe the rhythm and delivery of the chorus is RagnBone Man singing Nirvana’s ‘Polly’.

‘Dearly Beloved’ is a duet with a fantastic vocal performance from I Used to Be Sam, providing a female counterpart to Gagneux as they sing “You’re going to last another day” in the chorus and provide vivid glimpses of the rut they find themselves in (“When you wake in the bathtub, you know that you messed up”). Not as stunning as SIPHO.’s duet with Shaé Universe on ‘Run For Your Life’ but one of the year’s best duets nonetheless.

Gagneux turns the drama up a notch for ‘Leave the Rain Outside’ with low piano notes, lolloping keys and background harmonies for greater texture, with the metaphor summing up the nature of the song. There’s even a small amount of electric guitar thrown into the mix for the best track of the quintet.

Finally, ‘Breathe In, Breathe Out’ is an apt name for a closer which plays like Gagneux is relieved to get to this point. Keys dominate the track which builds to a fun trip-hop percussive beat and bassy synth before Gagneux repeats the title of the track over just the keys. The build-up of the track excites but then ends just as you’re willing it to delve deeper – a brief joy.

Gagneux sought melancholy and melancholy is what you get on Tristan, but it’s rare for this to translate into such a powerful and ultimately uplifting set of tracks.

Tristan is out on Friday (24 November) via MVKA


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