Review Summary: Zao find themselves creating some of their finest moments alongside some of their weakest tracks.
Zao. They have a history dating back to the early 90’s and rabid enough fan-base to have carried them into the late 00’s. While never reaching the heights of the bands they influenced, they are often most of the cited and influential bands that came from the mid-90’s bourgeoning metalcore scene. They survived years of an ever rotating cast of band members, sometimes with almost entirely new line-ups from album to album, faux break-ups, and having to work within the confines that being categorized as a ‘Christian’ band can entail. One thing they can never being found guilty of, is making the same album twice. It almost seems as if each album is somehow an attempt to completely reinvent themselves. They embraced a very hardcore approach to their first few albums, before enlisting Dan Weyandt on vocals. It was if the influence of black metal and Carcass was written on their sleeves with their proceeding albums featuring Weyandt.
Their self-titled album is an enigma when listening to it within the context of their entire discography. While they had always passable production values, the self-titled album almost seemed like an apology after the poor production of the preceding album, Liberate Te Ex Infernis. While ‘Liberate’ is perhaps, the height of their songwriting and most treasured album, in regards to the fans, its production was severely lacking in every aspect. The self-titled album showcases a pristine sound with a massive wall of guitars and an unusual, yet flawless drum sound, courtesy of an electronic V-Drum kit. When the album appeared in 2001, the V-Drum sounded strangely industrial, perhaps a tad too synthetic, but listening to it now, it sounds right at home considering almost all modern death metal or metalcore drumming has an over processed sound. What is particularly strange is the regression of their following albums, engaging again, in an inferior sound quality, especially their final two albums, The Fear is What Keeps Us Here and Awake?
Digging into the music, the self-titled is far from their most cohesive effort, in part, due to the inner turmoil they were facing at the time. Members had come and left and this album was literally stripped to the core, with one guitarist also filling in on bass, Weyandt on vocals, and founding member, Jesse Smith on drums. This album is by far the heaviest effort they ever conceived, with Weyandt not only engaging in his trademark black metal scream but also incorporating some aggressive death metal growling as well. This was the first release to see him stretch himself like that and he never approached his vocal delivery to cover so much ground again. This in itself is strange, because, as for the growling approach, he delivered it convincingly and with the best of them.
The songs are hit and miss. Opening with one of the stronger tracks, ‘5 Year Winter’, it takes no time to tear right in and ends almost as quickly, running just under 2:30. The 2nd track is one of many on here, which are simply pointless and just add to the track count. Other offenders include the tedious ‘Witchhunter’ and the ridiculously cheesy ‘FJL’ which sounds like an afterthought for emo album. The songs that are great, fire on all cylinders. ‘A Tool to Scream’ uses an overly long intro only to turn into a full on barn-burner, culminating as perhaps the most epic sounding track on the album. ‘Trashcanhands’ and ‘At Zero’ are relentless in their brutality showcasing just how intense Zao could truly be in full form. ‘The Dreams That Don’t Come True’ is a solid mid-tempo track, adding some variation to the album. This album, unfortunately, feels like a promise left unfulfilled. The tracks that are worth noting are excellent for the genre and could stand up to instrumentally and creatively to their peers. However, when over half the album is lackluster, it seems like they could have simply made a stellar EP and left the other tracks in the dustbin. In some ways, the fact that there is so much filler material gives a greater significance to the stronger songs. They appeared to be onto something with this album, incorporating an overall heavier sound; thicker guitar tones, more double bass, death metal vocals, and top notch production. However, the following album, Parade of Chaos, would see return to more middling approach in terms of production and songwriting.