Review Summary: Zao's signature sound is now unfortunately starting to blend into the mass of recent metalcore bands.
It's sort of weird that Zao never really got the acclaim they deserved. Sure, they've had a bit of popularity, with a few magazines stating that they're the yin to Killswitch Engage's yang, but they've always flown a bit under the radar, never reaching the status of other bands of their ilk, like the aforementioned Killswitch, or the far-reaching influence of a band like Converge. So now it's 2009, and their new album Awake? comes out tomorrow, and instead of people saying things like "Awake? sees Zao breaking new ground," they're saying "Oh, another Zao record." To put it bluntly, Zao's time has passed, and at this point in their career, they probably won't gain many new fans with a new album.
Still, Awake? isn't bad. It is, however, expected (which was to be expected). And the "Killswitch's opposite" thing no longer applies too much, given Zao's recent implementation of clean vocals, and sadly, that leaves the band with little claim to fame in terms of uniqueness. Although Awake? certainly sounds like a bonafide Zao record, their signature sound is now unfortunately starting to blend into the mass of recent metalcore bands. 2006's The Fear Is What Keeps Us Here was a pretty bitchin' album. It was pretty melodic, but the live production was so ***ing raw that it all sounded fresh. Awake? sounds much cleaner, and it suffers for it. It's still pretty dirty, especially Dan Weyandt's vocals, but the instruments aren't as dense or chaotic as they sounded before. As such, the album seems more formulaic and predictable. "Entropica" is a good song, but the verse riffs have been done elsewhere - that stop-and-go style of playing sounds really dated now. That problem is repeated on nearly every track; the songs are good, but they've all got elements that detract from the whole. Awake? doesn't necessarily sound lazy, but it does sound like Zao have run out of ideas.
It's a good thing, then, that Weyandt's vocals have lost none of their intensity. He shreds his vocal cords with the best of them, sounding just as brutal as he did years ago. For the most part, he is the saving grace of Awake?; his vocals have always been such a complement to the music, and that hasn't changed in 2009. The synchronization between him and the instruments is something to behold - oftentimes his vocals start to blend with the guitar riffs, distorted as they are. And speaking of riffs, "What Will You Find?" is an absolute triumph of a song, and one of the only tracks where the instruments outshine the vocals. The frantic intro hearkens back to Zao's early days of chaos, juxtaposed nicely with the technical leads in the bridge, which is a bit different for them. And the last twenty seconds is probably the best part of the whole record - the dual bending riffs are the most head-banging thing I've heard in a while.
Other than that, there aren't too many standouts. Zao have always been a bit of a homogeneous-sounding band, but it worked well for them in the past. The songs would blend together, yeah, but it added to the oppressive nature of their sound. Awake? has a more hopeful sound to it then previous Zao records, and because of that, the homogeneous nature of the songs detracts from the rating. Still, fans of the band will be pleased with Awake? While it certainly isn't the best Zao album, it's certainly a Zao album, and as such it's good.