Pennsylvania’s Zao needs no further introduction. One of metalcore’s pioneering bands influenced a huge swath of groups, mainstream and underground, with their chaotic riffing, pummeling rhythms, honest, heart-wrenching lyrics and venomous screaming of Dan Weyandt. And while the band endured quite the past (with pigeonholing by fans, both Christian and secular, shedding their Christian overtones, and line-up shuffles to where there are no original members left in the band), Zao continue to walk to the beat of their own drum while inviting the fans to come along. Seven years between albums, though, is quite the absence, even for a band who tours with decreasing frequency. However, a two-song teaser released last year provided a glimpse of what they were working on, and now The Well-Intentioned Virus is here and it features returning guitarist Russ Cogdell.
Right off the bat, “The Weeping Vessel” slowly and gently sets a somber mood with jangly arpeggios before the band lurches forward with a visceral riff interplay between Cogdell and fellow guitarist Scott Mellinger. Jeff Gretz pummels forth with some heavy fills, building tension without overpowering the guitars or Marty Lunn’s bass. Weyandt’s voice, once compared to Carcass‘s Jeff Walker, shows no signs of wear after years of vocal torture, sounding just as venomous as he did on 1998’s landmark Where Blood and Fire Bring Rest. His lyrics continue to amaze, giving perspective to what I assume is a miscarriage (“Procession to a grave/Unknown is the one we mourn/An entity lost its way/To this physical plane”) that’s, once again, spat out with a passionate anger that only Weyandt can provide. In other words, while sounding fresh and modern, it is still unflinchingly (and thankfully) Zao to its core.
The time off works to Zao‘s advantage, as The Well-Intentioned Virus showcases some of their best writing yet. Closer “I Leave You In Peace” could’ve fit right in on 2006’s viscerally ugly The Fear Is What Keeps Us Here in terms of heft and Gretz’s ridiculously heavy Neurosis-like drumming. “Xenophobe,” one of the two tracks released last year, sounds more frantic and impactful here. The lyrics also reflect the times with a sad, stark accuracy (“Implant a thought, sow the seed/Groom xenophobic racist steeds/Loud and dumb without folly/Shouting ‘Stop evolving Uber Alles'”). Even the singing voice of Mellinger improved immeasurably, as it gives songs like “Observed/Observer” and “Haunting Pools” a nice counterpoint to work with.
Yet, despite listening to the album repeatedly, I’m hard-pressed to find a standout track on The Well-Intentioned Virus. Mind you, this isn’t a dig towards the album. In the past, songs like “Lies of Serpents, A River of Tears,” “If These Scars Could Speak,” and “A Tool To Scream” clearly stuck out from the rest. No such claim can be made here due to how mature and vital it all sounds. Every song possesses a purpose on Virus. The warm, dynamic production also benefits the album. The bass remains audible without losing any heft, the guitars feel warm and heavy, and the drums sound organic and thick.
2016, despite all the loses and defeats, marks the Year of the Comeback. Candiria returned after a lengthy lay-off with a great album, and Metallica… also made a record. And even though some some songs may feel a bit longer than necessary, Zao left the biggest mark for me this year. Just as their name means “alive” in Greek, so too does The Well-Intentioned Virus teem with vibrancy and urgency. Proof you can mature as a band without losing any intensity or integrity. I just hope the next album takes less than seven years, but this was well worth the wait. Highly recommended.