Zao's new self-released full-length album, their first in seven years, is a bold way to end the most trash year in recent memory.
I wrote about a dozen different openings to this and deleted all of them. Every single thing about the past year that was in some ways difficult or defeating, was too real to compare to a handful of MP3s, sitting on a Bandcamp website page.
Here’s the thing about the new Zao album, and it’s cliché – The Well-Intentioned Virus is the right album for right now.
It’s dark. It’s angry. It’s powerful. It’s emotionally connected. And the songs are aimed at the very things that made 2016 a hard year for the spirits of many.
Seven years appears to have been the right amount of time for Zao to spend not releasing records. There’s something about this record that feels right, not rushed. Also, I believe in the magic of Russ Cogdell.
This is the right album. Songs like “Xenophobe” tackle broad and current issues, using direct language while tracks like “Apocalypse” and “I Leave You In Peace” build the trademark Zao atmosphere and lyrical darkness.
The music is a refreshing composition that spans two decades of metalcore fury. Let me be clear – I will not listen to Awake? probably as long as I live. So, if that album sucked or was cool or whatever, I don’t care. To not waste 500 words on it, here’s how it works: I bought The Splinter Shards… in 1996, then hung with them through Where Blood and Fire…, Liberate Te Ex Inferis, Self-Titled, and gave up after Parade of Chaos. I heard some of the stuff after, but it doesn’t matter.
I’ve intentionally skipped out on like 12 years of Zao records and didn’t like what I heard from those post-Self-Titled days. But, I believe in the magic of Russ Cogdell.
I can piece together where Zao was headed from Self-Titled and Parade of Chaos, and I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t this album. This album is too good to be a follow up to anything they did during that time. It certainly has elements of that Ferret Records era sound, but the focus here is something more. The occasional clean vocal isn’t my favorite, but they’ve figured out how to put it in here without triggering the immediate turn off switch in my head. You see, clean vocals are just about my least favorite thing in a good metal song.
But, the gaps are bridged. Cogdell has been in and out of Zao for almost 20 years. He’s been around through all the different post-Splinter phases of the band and the distinct stylings associated with those separate eras are stamped all over this record. But the structure is done so well that you don’t feel disjointed. Instead of pulling out a “Trashcan Hands” with electric drum kit and then running it back with an evil pop-punk love song like “Angel Without Wings,” the writing incorporates all things Zao within tracks. Tracks don’t seem out of place on this release. Instead of having of insanely crunchy, heavy bangers and a randomly rock-ish sounding jam sandwiched between very late-90s, early-00s metalcore, they’re just infused into every song. (Editor's note: portions of the paragraph have been edited due to fact error.)
It feels effortless, like they didn’t force themselves to have a certain sound. Instead, they captured the best elements of themselves and created one big record. It doesn’t have the atmosphere of Liberate or Where Blood and Fire, but nothing can. Instead, they progressed while perfecting elements that are distinctly Zao.
This is still dark and awesome. I can’t stagedive to it and I probably won’t be un-retiring any spinkicks, but I’m definitely going to soak myself in the sound and the emotive imagery that Dan Weyandt pens in his lyrics. Marty Lunn and Scott Mellinger have always been fantastic, and it feels like years and years of playing together, then given a nice long break, has brought them back together even more in sync.
With the closing track, Zao won my heart back. They’ve always been good at writing long, winding songs that pull you in. At more than seven minutes, “I Leave You in Peace” is the ideal culmination of this album. At once all things that were great about the “classic” Zao sound from when Weyandt and Cogdell first joined the band, while incorporating harmonies that were woven throughout each composition on this album.
The lyrics paint a powerful and enveloping picture:
As their battlefield burns, I walk away
On one another they turn, I turn away
Splintered by survival’s self-serving feral jaws
Accompanied by its prideful, non-lamenting claws
You’ve created and summoned
The Destroyer of Mercy
The Maker of Lost Ways
As 2016 draws to a close, we all have a lot to digest and a future to brave. And as Weyandt screams, so say I to 2016 and all the crosses that year will forever bear, “I wish them peace, respectfully.”
by Daniel Coughlin