Let’s just say you’re in a hardcore band with a niche-but-loyal audience. You just completed a major festival, embarked on a fairly successful US tour, and you’re about to write your next album when your bandmates decide, “Hey, you know what? I’m giving up music for the ministry.” Folks, that’s what happened in 1997, to Jesse Smith, (now former) drummer for (then-)Virginia’s Christian hardcore outfit, Zao. Having just wrapped up a tour for support of the band’s second album, The Splinter Shards the Birth of Separation, Smith was left with the unenviable task of picking up the pieces and starting over when his bandmates decided to leave music almost entirely for the Lord. Nonetheless, Smith bounced between his home state and Greensburg, Pennsylvania with a new band and a far-less preachy delivery both onstage and lyrically. The result? Their third album and today’s Yer Metal Is Olde inductee, 1998’s Where Blood and Fire Bring Rest.
Smith would recruit Pensive guitarist Brett Detar, who recommended a young poet and vocalist in Season in the Field‘s Dan Weyandt (who also brought bandmate Russ Cogdell to fill in on second guitar). The change in sound was made immediately apparent on opener “Lies of Serpents, A River of Tears”. Gone were the Earth Crisis overtones, replaced by a more metallic approach akin to the likes of Converge or Disembodied, with Detar’s riffing and Cogdell’s atonal spazz-outs. Also, Smith’s drumming became more primal and visceral as well, propelling “To Think of You is to Treasure An Absent Memory” and “Ravage Ritual” to heights the prior line-up couldn’t even touch. In the former case, “To Think of You…,” despite the heft the end of the song brings, also stands out as one of the most touching songs the band has written to date.
That is largely due to the lyrics of Dan Weyandt. During the short creation of Where Blood and Fire…, Weyandt suffered a number of losses, including the deaths of close friends and family members from suicides and car and gun accidents. Those tragedies were laid bare for all to hear on “To Think of You…” and “A Fall Farewell.” Sure, his faith (at the time) shone through in the lyrics, complete with capitalized pronouns, but instead of the band’s prior message of “Believe in Jesus for He will save us all,” the delivery was more “Hey, some serious shit happened to me, and my faith is the only thing keeping me alive. Take it or leave it.” That message carried a heavier, more personal impact than before, making Zao infinitely more relatable to not only their loyal Christian fanbase, but to secular fans, such as myself.
It doesn’t hurt that Weyandt also sounded like a man possessed on the mic. Again, doing away with the band’s prior hardcore leanings, Weyandt’s voice channeled more Jeff Walker (Carcass) than Karl Buechner. You can feel the seething animosity towards televangelists and judgmental Christians on “Lies of Serpents, A River of Tears” and “Ravage Ritual.” And oddly enough, that same rasp sounded pained and forlorn on “To Think of You…” and the ending of “March,” due to the heavy subject matter. Sadly, due to such a ferociously uncompromising delivery, Weyandt’s vocals were viewed as “demonic” by their peers at the time, giving the band the unfortunate distinction of not being Christian enough for the Christians, but too Christian for the non-Christians, due to the lyrics. Thankfully, both camps have, over time, come around to enjoy this album on its own musical and artistic merits.
Sadly, Detar would quit Zao in 1999 after a falling-out with Smith, who himself would leave in 2003. Still, the mark Zao left with Where Blood and Fire… (as well as its immediate follow-up, 1999’s Liberate Te Ex Inferis) can’t be denied. Various metalcore and hardcore bands site Where Blood and Fire…‘s intensity and honesty as a turning point in hardcore music, and many to this day hold the record in high esteem. It’s easy to see why, though; honest music stands the test of time. Regardless of your faith, give Where Blood and Fire Bring Rest a listen and find out for yourself.