Sifting #2- ZAO

Zao are a mess. Ok, that’s harsh. The West Virginia outfit are a pioneering hardcore band responsible for some of the most intense sounds the scene has ever produced. But they’re also the flaky dudes with an exhausting former members section that once broke up in the middle of a show, and untangling the band’s history and discography can be a daunting and, yes, messy prospect. But Moderate Rock is here to help. This is the second in a series of features ranking a band’s entire back catalogue from worst to first.

Some ground rules: Let’s agree up front that Zao’s best work has been with ferocious vocalist Dan Weyandt at the helm. As much as founding member and drummer Jesse Smith was once a heartbeat of the band, the group has gone on to do great things without him. Weyandt on the other hand, has proven irreplaceable. And we’re dealing with albums only. 2017’s ‘Pyrrhic Victory’ EP comes highly recommended but was just five tracks and only full-lengths make this cut.

Let’s start sifting!

ALL ELSE FAILED (2003): For the most part a newly recorded version of Zao’s identically-titled original line-up debut from 1995, this is worth some of your curiosity but perhaps less of your time. Warmer production and Weyandt’s demonic howl are worthy updates but the songs remain relatively one-dimensional compared to what was written after them.

BEST SONG: ‘Exchange’

AWAKE? (2009): Criticised in some quarters at the time of the release for sounding generic, ‘Awake?’ actually stands out as one of the most direct Zao albums. The real issue is that it pales in comparison to the two records before (and the one after) it. Sure, some of the band’s gnarliest edges are softened by sub-par production but Jeff Gretz’s drumming is relentless, Scott Mellinger peppers riffs everywhere, and it still sounds little like anyone else.

BEST SONG: ‘What Will You Find?’ is a rabid dog

SELF TITLED (2001): The departure of guitarist Russ Cogdell in the lead up to recording Zao’s fifth album, and the fact that the remaining members wrote it in the studio, might explain some of the less dynamic riffs in the band’s history but it doesn’t excuse a dud drum sound and some misplaced rapping. ‘Self Titled’ isn’t a bad record but it is a clumsy one, full of interesting ideas that never quite come together.

BEST SONG: ‘Five Year Winter’

PARADE OF CHAOS (2002): It came hot on the heels of the occasionally wobbly ‘Self Titled’ but ‘Parade of Chaos’ found Zao on steadier footing. You can practically hear Mellinger’s increased confidence as composer, and with the band unafraid to indulge their experimental impulses moments like the electric storm conclusion to ‘Suspend/Suspension’ and the muddy melodies of ‘Angel Without Wings’ sound purposeful and powerful. The production is perhaps a little thin at times but this is a big, bad record.

BEST SONG: ‘Killing Cupid’

THE WELL-INTENTIONED VIRUS (2016): If it wasn’t for the fact that Zao, despite themselves, have been so good for so long, this, currently the band’s most recent full-length outing, would rank much higher. At least ‘The Well-Intentioned Virus’ seemed to bring Zao back into the heavy music community’s collective consciousness, a place they never should have left. A dark, vital effort, stuffed with quality.

BEST SONG: ‘Xenophobe’, or the trademark, serpentine riffing of the title track.

LIBERATE TE EX INFERNIS (1999): When Zao began their second era in 1998, it felt like the band couldn’t plumb depths any darker. Just a year later and this fearsome full-length showed they had barely scratched the surface. Urgent, breathless, and dripping with darkness, even during acoustic introductions and eerie samples, ‘Liberate…’ features hellscape wailing (‘Savannah’), high-octane chaos (‘Skin Like Winter’), and some of the most raw, personal lyrics Weyandt has ever penned. Might just burn to touch.

BEST SONG: ‘Savannah’

THE FUNERAL OF GOD (2004): This one could split the field. Some will consider this Zao at their lithe and inventive best but for others, the fact that this was released via Roadrunner Records and features the band’s first substantial use of clean vocals might sully the experience. There’s certainly no denying the intriguing high concept- the once deeply religious Weyandt imagining the disappearance of god- or the searing songwriting chops.

BEST SONG: The title track could strip paint.

WHERE BLOOD AND FIRE BRING REST (1998): This didn’t exactly come out of nowhere- Drummer and figurehead Jesse Smith had been refining Zao’s fury for a few years already- but still no one could have predicted the impact it would make. ‘Where Blood and Fire…’ is one of those rare records that sounds as seminal today as it did on the day it was released. A vitally intense calling card of Zao’s second era, an influence on so many other bands, and an instant classic.

BEST SONG: It’s full of bona fide killer cuts, but ‘A Fall Farewell’ could convince you to fight people.

THE FEAR IS WHAT KEEPS US HERE (2006):
Steve Albini must have loved getting his hands on Zao. There’s so much of the band’s raw, relentless, passionate approach that syncs up with the enigmatic producer’s own sparse sensibilities. And both parties excel here. Recorded ‘live’, all playing together in one room, the band delve deeper into a corrosive metal sound while Weyandt rages against politics, religion, and loss. The end result is Zao as ugly and as in-your-face as they have ever sounded. Unforgettable.

BEST SONG: ‘A Last Time for Everything’ is Zao distilled into a scintillating, terrifying five minutes.

What a story. One of development, progression and, despite the occasional fatal dose of chaos, consistency too. Since 2002 this band, an unassuming act to look at, have used a wide variety of influences, instruments, and invention to push the metalcore envelope with relentless abandon while always sounding decidedly like nobody but themselves. With their stellar studio output laid out like this it’s clear just how special an outfit they are. Hat tip, sirs.

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