Review Summary: What would have been Zao’s best and most consistent album if it wasn’t for one fucking song.
There was a time when I thought that metalcore was just a bunch of Killswitch Engage clones trying way too hard to have popular appeal. I listened to Zao once, and I immediately felt stupid for ever thinking such a thing. While I have discovered over the years that my previous views toward metalcore are some of the most idiotic I have ever held and that it is an incredibly diverse genre with many bands whom I consider favorites, I still can safely say that I have never discovered another band quite like Zao.
Fusing sludgy, rumbling hardcore riffs with Dan Weyandt’s passionate shrieks and an uncanny sense of ambience, Zao’s discography tells a heart-wrenching story of the members’ own personal struggles with faith, heartbreak, and loss, and their willingness to expand their sound and pour their hearts into everything they do makes Zao a force to be reckoned with, even at their weakest. At their strongest, Zao burned brighter and more passionately than any of their contemporaries, with their thunderous third album Where Blood and Fire Bring Rest setting the standard for what was to come from the band upon its release. A short split EP with fellow metalcore heroes Training For Utopia later, Zao welcomed guitarist Scott Mellinger to the fold. Mellinger, the first atheist to join the then Christian-labeled band, brought a nearly impossible new level of energy and depth to the band, with his inimitable style of hardcore riffing making Zao’s fourth album, Liberate Te Ex Inferis, a metalcore classic. After buliding upon their then standard sound, the only logical next step was to break away from what was established and start exploring some new musical territory, and with that, we arrive at Zao’s self-titled 5th album.
To this day, opinions on this particular work are very much split between fans, and I often feel like part of a vast minority when I say that I absolutely love this album. It packs just as much of a punch as its two predecessors, and many of its songs rank among my absolute favorites from the band. It’s honestly a pretty straightforward album to talk about despite the changes it makes, and it rarely sounds so far off from Zao’s previous material that it hurts to listen to.
There are plenty of what you could call more standard Zao songs on here, such as Trashcanheads, A Tool To Scream, and Five Year Winter, which may very well be my favorite Zao track. That said, this album has an unmistakable sound that can be attributed mostly to the percussion department, which is comprised of both Jesse Smith’s trademark grooves on the kit and various instances of electronic percussion which occur frequently throughout the album. Another aspect of change is that there aren’t as many acoustic passages like those on “To Think of You is to Treasure an Absent Memory” and “If These Scars Could Speak,” and their place has been filled by some far more interesting soundscapes. One of my favorite moments on the album in fact is the second track, “Alive is Dead,” which sees sinister, crunchy riffs layered over industrial tribal percussion to create an atmosphere of primal rage and madness that only intensifies as the music grows more and more chaotic and distorted in the absence of any vocals. Speaking of the vocals, this is really the first Zao album where Dan Weyandt can be seen trying to express a bit more versatility in his craft. Weyandt’s caustic shrieks still dominate the album and are still one of the essential elements of Zao’s sound here, but the six minute “The Dreams That Don’t Come True” takes a bit of a detour and shows Dan utilizing his passionate, yet unusually calm and mid-range clean vocals to create a song that is heartbreaking in a way not previously seen in Zao’s career. Overall, the experimentation serves as a sort of alternate method to evoke many of the same emotions that can be felt in Zao’s previous work, with everything working together to create a less unified, yet more varied and quality-consistent atmosphere of anger, bitterness, fear, anxiety, and heartache, and there is absolutely no passion or heaviness lost in the more traditional aspects of the album. This had never been done before on any Zao album before, and no Zao album since has sounded quite like this one either, making this arguably the most unique album in Zao’s discography, which is truly an honor.
The key word in the paragraphu I wrote above however is the word “overall”. For the very vast majority of the album’s runtime, this it remains consistently fantasic, but there is one particular song on here where it seems like Dan Weyandt wrote it with the tip of the pen sticking out of his ass and writing on a used period pad. “The End of His World” lasts only slightly over three minutes, the first 20 seconds of which are spent blatantly ripping off the intro to Korn’s Blind and the remaining time of which is spent displaying how many ways Dan could make Limp Bizkit’s music look masterfully composed by comparison. It’s an abomination of punky riffs and shouts combined with Zao desperately clinging on to the remnants of their sound while either failing to create any atmosphere or creating one which collapses in on itself with every passing second. On the positive side, I cannot say that this song is boring or fails to hold my attention by any stretch of the way. I however can say that it is one if the most unamusingly erratic abortion clinic waste baskets of a song that I have ever heard that hurts itself more by being jarringly inconsistent even with an album as experimental as this one. Now that I think about it, I think it’s kind of a good thing that this song isn’t consistent with the rest of the album, because an album where this song would not stand out like a sore thumb from everything else on it would get an immediate 1.5 at most from me. Even in saying that, every other song on the album does such a great job creating an atmosphere with an undeniable personality that one song, even one as bad as this one, can’t ruin the experience or even bring this album down to less than a 4 from me.
Zao’s self-titled in a way went beyond its predecessors in that it wasn’t just unique within the genre of metalcore, but it was unique for Zao as well, and this personality that can be heard throughout the album makes it a very unlikely candidate for a masterpiece despite its glaring flaws. Even in the presence of such a monstrosity of a song as “The End of His World,” songs such as “Five Year Winter,” “Alive is Dead,” and “The Dreams That Don’t Come True” make this album Zao’s most dynamic and quality consistent one to date when “The End of His World” is factored out. Other than one song here being terrible, I can’t give you a legitimate reason not to love this album and instead of harping on that one song any longer, I’ll leave by saying that if you want to experience one of metalcore’s greatest acts making something truly unique and beautiful, just listen to this album and skip track 8.