(Andy Synn reviews the latest album by the band Zao.)
Remember when the word “Metalcore” actually meant something? Those halcyon days when it referred to bands mixing the breakneck emotional intensity of Hardcore with the prodigious sonic power of Metal, rather than being a watchword for formulaic, anodyne angst-merchants desperate for their fifteen minutes of dubious fame?
And so, it seems, do Zao, who returned at the tail-end of 2016 with what could very well be the best thing they’ve ever released.
That’s possibly a contentious statement, I know, and it’s not intended to downplay the rest of the band’s back-catalogue by any means. But somehow, despite coming on the heels of an almost seven-year hiatus, The Well-Intentioned Virus manages to be a near-perfect blend of focussed aggression, creative ambition, and borderline-lethal execution.
In microcosm the separate elements and individual performances which make up this album are all top-notch. The guitar work of Scott Mellinger and Russ Cogdell is positively red-hot and razor-sharp throughout, the duo churning and burning their way through a wide array of gnarly, broken-toothed riffs and bleakly evocative melodies as if they’d never been away, backed up by the muscular bass-lines of Martin Lunn and the creative, cathartic pummeling of Jeff Gretz behind the kit.
And then there are the vocals, with Daniel Weyandt’s paint-stripping, scenery-chewing snarl remaining just as savage, if not more so, as ever, every line spat forth with a potent mix of scalding venom and furious conviction.
But it’s the improvement in Mellinger’s cleans which comes as the biggest surprise, the guitarist delivering his solemn melodic croon on tracks like “Apocalypse” and the Extol-ish “Haunting Pools” with a newfound level of clarity and melodic fidelity.
It’s on the macro scale, however, where everything ultimately falls into place, the album as a whole transcending the mere sum of its parts without ever threatening the clear and distinctive identity established by each and every track.
The ravenous, Hardcore-meets-Death-Metal grooves of the title-track, for example, follow on directly from the enigmatic sturm und drang of opener “The Weeping Vessel” without missing a single beat. The molten hooks of the rip-roaring “Jinba Ittai” are followed in quick succession by the gloomy, atmospheric grandeur of the aforementioned “Apocalypse”. And the dynamic, light-and-shade of “Observed/Observer” eventually leads the listener to the edgy, Punk-Metal culture-clash of “The Sun Orbits Around Flat Earth Witch Trials” and the proggy, Metal/Hardcore hybrid of the climactic “I Leave You In Peace” in turn.
And yet despite these variations in approach and delivery, the band’s signature style remains fully intact and as well-established as ever, positively pulsating with raw energy and pure, unbridled passion.
Ultimately The Well-Intentioned Virus is the sound of Zao firmly back in the saddle and still at the very top of their game.