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With a ferocity, intelligence and passion that's still present after all these years, Zao have made one of the most vital albums of their career.

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Album Review: ZAO The Well-Intentioned Virus

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The mid '90s were an interesting time for metal. A burgeoning metalcore movement was just beginning to gain traction, one that would pave the way for names such as Killswitch Engage, Shadows Fall and Unearth. Though these bands and several others get most of the credit for the New Wave of American Heavy Metal movement, one band that's hardly mentioned in those conversations is West Virginia's Zao. Zao is a bit of anomaly within the context of this scene; many, many people are familiar with their name and possibly some of their early and mid-career albums, such as Where Blood and Fire Bring Rest and Parade of Chaos, but for whatever reason, they've never been recognized as a crucial a band as some of their contemporaries.

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Of course, it hasn't helped that over the last 15 years, they've been on and off as a band. 2004's The Funeral of God was a solid effort, as was 2007's The Fear is What Keeps Us Here, which saw the band team up with producer Steve Albini to create the rawest and most unorthodox album of their career thus far. The band quietly released Awake? in 2009, and had been relatively silent ever since, that is until last year, when Zao revealed they were working on a new album. After a long seven-year gap, The Well-Intentioned Virus has been unleashed upon an unsuspecting world, and it is a virus that reinforces Zao's unnoticed vitality to the scene they helped birth.

"The Weeping Vessel" opens the album up, which begins with a somber guitar before Dan Weyandt's unmistakable growl comes in with the rest of the band, jolting the song into a cacophony of chaos. There is a decidedly sinister undertone that runs through the veins of the songs found on The Well-Intentioned Virus, perhaps more so than ever before, and this quality alone sets Zao apart from many of their peers. It's not even worth labelling the band at this point; elements of the more extreme side of metal including black, death and doom rear their heads throughout the album, most notably on the title track and the Morbid Angel-worshipping "Haunting Pools."

It's arguable that Zao's compositions have never been finer, as well. Guitarists Russ Cogdell and Scott Mellinger have been the core of Zao's sound essentially since the Where Blood and Fire Brings Rest days, and their discography has shown that they refuse to make the same album twice. The Well-Intentioned Virus is no exception to this, and it certainly doesn't hurt that drummer Jeff Gretz and bassist Marty Lunn form an impressive rhythm section that's both technical and rock solid. Throw in Weyandt's impassioned screams and introspective, challenging lyrics, and you have a formula for one of the most artistically complete and powerful albums of 2016.

Though they're nowhere to be found on Encyclopedia Metallum, make no mistake: Zao is a band cut from the same razor-sharp cloth as many of the very best metal bands. Yes, they started as a Christian metalcore band back in the day and are largely associated with that scene, but to pigeonhole them as "just another Christian metalcore act" would be a huge disservice to them; they shed that skin a long time ago. As The Well-Intentioned Virus proves, Zao still has what it takes to brawl with the best of 'em, and puts most other bands attempting to play this style of music to shame. With a ferocity, intelligence and passion that's still present after all these years, Zao have made one of the most vital albums of their career.

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Score: 9/10

 

Follow Aaron on Twitter for musings about metal and more.

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