In the past, most of the articles and reviews concerning Zao have focused mainly on the revolving door line-up changes, or their Christian beliefs.
Now, after 15 years and nine albums, the focus should finally have shifted elsewhere. You could argue that it’s due to the relatively stable line-up (unchanged for 4 years and counting), or the move away from religious-themed lyrics, but I disagree. My personal theory is that it has more to do with people being unable to concentrate on anything but frontman Daniel Weyandt’s circus strongman facial hair. And this isn’t just some throw-away tour beard competition, oh no. He’s obviously sinned and taken enough pride to wax it with care. Seriously, check their website for the awesome promo shot.
As with their beliefs, line-ups and facial hair, the music has also changed over time. Starting off as hardcore punk, Zao gradually headed into more metal territories until 2006’s ‘The Fear Is What Keeps Us Here’, with Steve Albini’s engineering probably taking the band as far as they could go with just harsh production and aggression. Consequently, the band seem to have taken a step back into a more commercial sound (relatively speaking of course), this time aided in production by Tim Lambesis of As I Lay Dying. The songs definitely still have the requisite crunch, whether it’s through the trademark stop-start rhythm of ‘The Eyes Behind The Throne’, or the pure velocity and punch of ‘What Will you Find?’. Weyandt’s vocals are still ironically hellish, only really straying from a positively acidic death metal growl in order to go with spoken word over more minimal instrumentation, which adds a nice depressing turn to the proceedings. Unfortunately, too many of the songs are let down by the inclusion of clean vocals (I think from the other members) on the choruses, dragging the band back down with the metalcore masses that sprung up in their wake. Most of it could be compared to Killswitch Engage, but some parts of Romance Of The Southern Spirit and the title track sounded positively Atreyu (if that can be used as an adjective).
For my money, the singing only really works on the closing track, but that might be because it’s not entirely a metalcore song. After a standard beginning, it all goes a bit post-rock, with some choral vocal harmonies over a more melodic guitar riff, which gradually increases in volume and noise, and repeats to fade. When it kicks back in to what I would assume is ‘The World Caved in’ portion of the track, it’s again switched to an acoustic guitar and spoken word, which gives an even more sombre end to the album.