Birdmask, the solo project of Manuel Gagneux (Zeal & Ardor), releases ‘Placebohead’ the second track from upcoming Isolde EP (release September 27th). Whilst Swiss avant-garde metallers Zeal & Ardor is as much conceptual as it is political, Birdmask offers a true expression of Gagneux, and an opportunity for “gleeful stupidity and childish exploration”.

Opening with foreboding ambience, ‘Placebohead’ quickly evolves into sinister blues, sending listeners on an emotive journey through what Gagneux describes as “hurtful advice falling onto deaf ears”. The unease created via drone and discordance are sharply contrasted by the melodic descending riff, showcasing Manuel’s excellence in creating musical shades of night and day.

It’s in these dichotomies of sound that Manuel lives and breathes. ‘Placebohead’ (as with previous single ‘Dial Up’) has two mood settings, yet maintains a cohesive sound. His exploration of genre resists uniformity and leans into many styles across the sonic spectrum, evoking feelings of melancholy and despondency, contrasted with an overarching sense of optimism.

Sonically, the upcoming Isolde is a departure from what was showcased on Tristan, leaning into more traditional song structures and band-focused genres. The lo-fi experimentation and mournful atmosphere of the previous EP revealed something unanticipated in Gagneux’s songwriting, offering a selection of largely ambient and electronic tracks steeped in sadness and beauty; one moment soulful and stark, the next frenetic and soaring.

The themes reflect the namesake of both EPs, a fictional 12th-century chivalric romance adapted by Richard Wagner titled Tristan und Isolde. Tristan, a tragic character whose social standing prevents him from marrying his love, is marred by tension and uncertainty, while Isolde, the Irish princess betrothed to Tristan’s uncle, is depicted with optimism and brightness.

The combination of the Tristan and Isolde EPs reveal Gagneux’s full artistic vision and Birdmask’s distinct identity; a lens focused inward to scrutinize emotional states and guide listeners through personal journeys.

Birdmask predates Zeal & Ardor, as Gagneux began making music under that name in 2011. He could never quite coordinate with his musician friends to form a band, so he figured he could learn producing on his own. “As a last resort, I figured I could make music on my own.” For several years, he self-released on Bandcamp, labouring in obscurity while releasing scores of singles and two albums. Then Zeal & Ardor happened, and over a short period, Gagneux suddenly and unexpectedly found himself celebrated in the metal world.

Through Birdmask, Gagneux confronts subtler personal themes and how his ego interacts with feelings of imposter syndrome: “I write songs and I don’t really know what I’m dealing with, and then years later I’m like, ‘Oh, wait, I wrote that because of this and that.'” Recent years have led him to work on “remembering what is me, and what is just the echo of other people’s projections. I have to be alone sometimes just to work out: Am I doing this because people expect it of me, or is it something I genuinely feel?”

Throughout that time, however, Gagneux yearned to return to the music he had been making before, which he describes as “the yin to Zeal & Ardor’s yang,” and he never stopped writing tracks intended solely for Birdmask releases. Although the duo of EPs was recorded over an 18-month period, the tracks were all written over an estimated five-year span. Gagneux emphasizes that Birdmask is not a side project; it’s his original vision. “I think I’d like to try to reach different people. And there’s a conscious effort of separating the two, just because it’s different music, at least to me. The reason I wanted to distinguish it is that it would be easy to gain an online following of people who just associate me with Zeal & Ardor and, by proxy, happen to like this.” or Bandcamp:

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