Written by: AP on 19/05/2009 17:37:27

If you have never heard the name Zao and you consider yourself a rather well-informed fan/member of scene music, you deserve none of it. Formed in 1993, Zao are considered one of the four cornerstones of metalcore along with At The Gates, Converge and Overcast and widely regarded as one of the most influential groups in the genre. With nine studio albums and more line-up changes dotting their history than in the infamous Underoath band member chart, Zao have constructed a legacy and evidently it was once again felt that time had come to wiggle a finger and remind the As I Lay Dyings and Killswitch Engages of the world where they came from. That reminder is "Awake?".

With "Awake?", Zao have decided (once again) to preserve the raw, dated and considerably more extreme sound of old metalcore, which will sound unfamiliar to those fans who encountered the genre through its current flagship bands (though it should be said that Daniel Weyandt's clean vocals are remarkably similar to those of Jesse Leach). Speaking of vocals, I recall an interview with Martin of The Psyke Project in which he pointed Zao as one of the most influential bands to him as a vocalist, and listening to "Awake?" his remarks couldn't have been more spot on. His distressing roar is almost identical to Daniel's, and once you notice it, very quickly the musical indifferences of the two bands become obvious as well. It's not that I want to slate The Psyke Project for this, because no band yet has been able to mimic the claustrophobia and discomfort that their music evokes in my mind, and in many ways they have simply stood on the shoulders of giants - one of these giants being Zao.

At the risk of sounding pompous, listening to "Awake?" is very much a cathartic experience because it quite literally gives the fingers high to its modern descendants. Launching straight into an almost Southern-sounding riff via a brief drum solo with "1,000,000 Outstretched Arms of Nothing" (a subtle hint to a populous and stagnating genre with nothing more to offer perhaps?), the album systematically decimates every metalcore cliché with riffs that are not only more authentic, but also more powerful and imaginative than most of those bands could ever hope to write with their random melodeath riff generators. Call me a cynic but it often sounds like a breakdown is little more than an excuse to cover up a lack of anything else to put there and yet listening to Zao the solution seems too simple: make it simple.

Bear in mind that when bands like Zao and Converge laid the foundations for metalcore, At The Gates had not even released the iconic "Slaughter of the Soul" and muted staccato riffing was still completely unheard of. And now despite more than ten years of progress (well...) in the genre, Zao still refrains from it completely. Instead, the band uses its tried and tested (and very effective) formula: song structures arranged from crude, weighty power chords and bar chords which give the choruses an immense magnitude. In the rhythm section Zao's weapon of choice is often a droning, almost hypnotic tempo (which Martin hinted will be made use of on the upcoming "The Great Telos" as well) and occasionally a d-beat-esque hardcore punk format. What you will not find in "Awake?" are breakdowns and even solos are rare (ironically, listen to "What Will You Find?" for one), and the absence of both of these mass-production techniques makes the album sound fresh and unspoiled - even if the formula dates back to 1993.

"Awake?" is an album that, like many of its kin, will not reveal its full beauty on the first listen. At first, your impression may be that there are no highlights as such and you recognize the band's status and let it cloud your judgment to some extent - it cannot possibly sound so indistinct. And looping through it again you will begin to appreciate that it does not sound indistinct, and that the reason you found no highlights on the first listen owes solely to Zao being such distinguished song-smiths. It's all killer and no filler, though the central trio "Romance of the Southern Spirit" / "What Will You Find?" / "Awake"? does deserve a special mention for best exposing the band's skillset: droning rhythms and intricate melodies entrenched in an otherwise gut-wrenching package - it's all there. "Awake?" is old men playing metalcore the way it was envisioned to sound like; do yourself a favor and buy it.


Download: Entropica, Romance of the Southern Spirit, What Will You Find?, Awake?

For the fans of: Converge, Norma Jean, Killswitch Engage, The Psyke Project

Listen: Myspace

Release date 05.05.2009


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