Zao – ‘The Well-Intentioned Virus’

By James Lee

Legendary. It’s a word that carries a lot of weight, and one that often gets thrown around without real due cause. Plenty of artists over the years have been dubbed ‘legends’ simply by having been around for a long time, or for amassing a hefty back-catalogue. However, longevity alone should not be enough to merit the bearing of such a moniker – to truly be considered a ‘legendary’ act, there has to be something more to a legacy, something storied and almost mythical. As individuals and as musicians, there should be something indescribably special and unique that sets them apart from their peers. When Solid State Records released a ‘best-of’ Zao album in 2003, they chose to call it ‘Legendary’. That they were able to do this so unapologetically and without irony is testament to the power the band have exerted in their two decades laying waste to the heavy music scene. If any metalcore act has earned the right to be described in such reverent terms, it is Zao.

‘The Well-Intentioned Virus’ is an album many of us never thought would see the light of day. Zao’s entire history has been littered with extended hiatuses, turbulent line-up shifts and bitter breakups, so the notion of any new music from the band is always (and rightfully) met with intense appreciation and excitement, as it’s never really clear if this might be the last we ever hear of them. Zao surprised many last year by appearing out of the void with the ‘Xenophobe/Fear Itself’ 7”, the first release from the band’s new self-run label, Observed/Observer. Those two songs were the first we’d heard from the band since 2009’s ‘Awake?’, both immediately quelling any fears that Zao might have lost their touch in the years since they parted. The mere existence of the single immediately started furious whispers of a new full length record from the band, and here we are a little under a year and a half later with the fruit of those whispers.

Not only is this the first Zao album in 7 years, it’s also the first since 2004’s groundbreaking ‘The Funeral Of God’ to feature long-time guitar player Russ Cogdell, back in his rightful place alongside the line-up that wrote and recorded both ‘Awake?’ and 2006’s ‘The Fear Is What Keeps Us Here’ – longtime members Dan Weyandt (vocals) and Scott Mellinger (guitar), along with Marty Lunn (bass) and Jeff Gretz (also of From Autumn To Ashes) on drums. It’s clear from the very first track, ‘The Weeping Vessel’, that Cogdell has slipped back into the band seamlessly, its ominous guitar intro giving way to rolling waves of colossal riffs that sit among some of the band’s best. Though the band’s last two records were strong and certainly worthy entries into their discography, Zao work better as a two-guitar band, Cogdell and Mellinger weaving around each other to create a dense tapestry of atmospherics that was lost a little with Mellinger as the sole six-stringer. Songs like ‘Jinba Ittai’ display scorching examples of the pair’s harmonic interplay, riffs stacking on top of each other to create powerful walls of sonic fury.

Arguably Zao’s strongest asset though has always been Daniel Weyandt, a man whose thoughtful and poetic lyrics moved the band gradually further and further away from their Christian ministry-based roots and into something much darker and more personal, and whose emotional intensity is only matched by the thunderous rasp of his voice. Whilst most hardcore singers were still barking like angry dogs, Weyandt brought an almost death metal-tinged scream that completely changed not only Zao’s sound, but in many ways metalcore as a genre. It gave them a dark and menacing edge that was devastating in 1998, and in 2016 is still a force of nature. ‘The Well-Intentioned Virus’ is Weyandt’s album in many ways, his lyrics and performance elevating everything around it, its jagged edges making the most serrated of riffs seem even more savage.

‘The Well-Intentioned Virus’ is also arguably the nastiest and most vicious sounding record of Zao’s career. Whilst some acts return after extended breaks with a mellowed attitude, Zao appear to have only embraced their anger even more, crafting a sometimes frighteningly intense listening experience, even down to the production work. Sonically it sits somewhere between the relative polish of ‘The Funeral Of God’ and the stripped-down roughness of ‘The Fear Is What Keeps Us Here’. Whilst never sounding quite as raw as Steve Albini’s work on the latter, it retains that album’s nervous buzz, which only acts to heighten the furious bite of tracks like ‘A Well-Intentioned Virus’ and a slightly reworked version of ‘Xenophobe’.

Up until 18 months ago the world thought it had heard the last of Zao, though we could all rest easy knowing that they disappeared having left behind a sometimes flawed but always intriguing discography that would ensure they’d be forever remembered as one of the greatest and most important metal/hardcore bands of all time. Today, Zao have proven that they are no mere nostalgia act, and that they have as much to say both verbally and musically today as they did twenty years ago. ‘The Well-Intentioned Virus’ is miraculous simply for existing, so for it to be this heart-stoppingly good is more than we deserve, and for that Zao deserve our praise. Truly, truly, let’s hope this is not the end.

JAMES LEE

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