Fans have long argued about which Zao era truly takes the cake, but many more should acknowledge the band’s late-career resurgence. Classics like Sprinter Shards and Blood and Fire hold up to this day, but a deaf person could hear the next-level songwriting and pertinent lyrics of Zao’s 2016 album The Well-Intentioned Virus. Following up such an emphatic, standard-setting comeback is easier said than done—hence why The Crimson Corridor comes five years later. Rather than try to top themselves riff-for-riff, these guys have chosen to take a less direct and more mood-centered approach. This 12th album burns slower and takes its time to build an atmosphere, offering a rapturous take on Zao's brand of metalcore.
Not since 1999’s Liberate Te Ex Inferis has Zao sounded this evocative. “Into The Jaws of Dread” starts off with pure instrumental post-metal, building upon a hypnotic riff to illuminate a depthful, vivid palette of sound. Beyond the exquisite drum and guitar tones, Zao brings incredible nuance to their music—like the synth patches Underoath’s Chris Dudley added to the opener. This dedication to detail carries over to the grating strains, bulldozing grooves, and ripping double-kick of “Ship of Theseus.” Dan Weyandt’s voice again recalls Liberate with extra layers of noise and distortion to his raspy screams. This directly contrasts with the otherwise pristine production.
Speaking of riffs, guitarists Scott Mellinger and Russ Cogdell seem to command an ever-flowing stream of ideas. The nasty double-bass subdivisions and harmonic minutiae of “Croatoan” contend for the best Zao riff ever, but the whole album benefits from these two making every lick count. Even better, this track shares contemplative, chilling ambiance with cuts like “R.I.P.W.” and “Lost Star.”
In both cases, the more subdued passages remain just as engaging as the hard-hitting riffs. The former finds bassist Martin Lunn trading melodies with the guitarists, while Mellinger's greatly-matured singing guides the latter along with an immersive, almost psychedelic aura. In both cases, the chilling, dreary soundscapes crescendo to tidal waves of chunky, violent heaviness, whether it be Mellinger's distinctive hammer-on riffs (Lost Star) or a compelling balance of anthemic leads and skronky syncopation (R.I.P.W.).
Rather than scale back Zao’s intensity, The Crimson Corridor instead builds more tension before dealing the metallic death blow. The notable exception becomes “Transitions,” which goes straight for the jugular with slug-fest percussion, dissonant chords and an absolutely life-ending breakdown of disjointed chugs and pinch-harmonics. The title track represents the opposite end with a plodding rhythm structure and morose arpeggios—much in common with the crushing gloom of sludge and doom metal. These lumbering dirges seamlessly transition into urgent metalcore explosions thanks in large part to drummer Jeff Grets, whose airtight beat-switches remain neatly charted, yet intuitively executed.
Compared to the topical fire of Virus, Weyandt now replaces appraisals of Trumpism or religious zealotry with more cryptic imagery. “Nothing's Form” ruminates about the tragedy of mankind (“I watched the heathen plead to the sky/ I watched the convert curse God as he died”) following the downward spiral of suffering and disillusionment to nihilism. “Creator/Destroyer” takes a similar approach, connecting familial betrayals to the story of Cronus, the titan king and god of time in Greek mythology. Weyandt’s screams and Mellinger’s singing furthers the emotional impact of both songs, but “Creator/Destroyer” goes above and beyond with Mellinger’s harmonious chorus—easily the best clean vocals on any Zao record.
The Crimson Corridor shows how solid musicianship ages like fine wine. Never mind the fact Zao started 32 years ago. It’s impossible to listen to “The Final Ghost” without headbanging along with the uptempo punk passage or start a one-man pit during the bare-bones mosh part. The metalcore roots of this album certainly hit hard and heavy, but even the most barbaric portions remain meticulously crafted. In this way, the experimental detours become natural extensions of where Zao have arrived as a band. The 10-minute closer “The Web” powerfully exemplifies this challenging zeal. It just has so much of everything—from brush-on-snare-drum balladry, melodious bass lines, and melancholy violins, to overwhelming riffs driven by slow-motion drumming.
Cinematic in scope, yet personal in its attack, “The Web” ends The Crimson Corridor by realizing its ambition as Zao’s longest and most engrossing record to date. Zao has undergone many changes and weathered many challenges to get to this point, and what a splendid juncture it is! Here they are, with zero original members and a dozen albums under their belt, self-releasing career topping music in a genre they helped define. It feels like a happy ending and a new beginning all at once.