Zao is to metalcore what Mario Lemieux was to hockey. Both the Pennsylvania-based band and the former Pittsburgh Penguin centre became legendary game changers, backbones of an aesthetic, mainstays of their milieus. Both entities sharp in scope and perennially gifted, Lemieux — nicknamed The Magnificent One — is a majority owner of the NHL team to which he devoted his 17-season Hall of Fame career; Zao sits atop the metal and hardcore genres as seasoned saviors, “owners” of an industry they helped shape.
The Magnificent Ones of metalcore are in the early stages of making a career-defining comeback. Twenty-three years since their formation in Parkersburg, West Virginia, Zao is in a unique position to once again forge new paths. Conceived as a Christian hardcore act by founding members of the band in 1993, the group’s distinguishing signatures began to take shape in what many fans consider the second era of the band, beginning in 1998 with the addition of vocalist Daniel Weyandt and rhythm guitarist Russ Cogdell; lead guitarist and singer Scott Mellinger joined the following year. (Drummer Jeff Gretz and bassist Martin Lunn round out the lineup today.)
Zao achieved underground notability with a run of releases in this second era from 1998 to 2001. The albums Where Blood and Fire Bring Rest, Liberate Te Ex Inferis and Self-Titled helped to acquaint a cross-section of church kids and Christian festivalgoers with metal, working to disperse the notion that the genre belonged only to the secular. In 2004, the band switched labels, moving from Solid State to Ferret, and released the turncoat treatise, The Funeral of God. Shortly thereafter, they unleashed the raw, Steve Albini-produced The Fear Is What Keeps Us Here in 2006. Awake came in 2009 — but then it was silence. Seven years of it, the band’s longest silence between albums, a curious indicator the end might have been near.
It wasn’t to be. Like Lemieux scoring a goal and three points in his first game back from retirement, Zao has conjured up some of their most intriguing work yet in their return to metal with The Well-Intentioned Virus; as Mellinger sings on the album, “You’ll see it, but not with your eyes.” The songwriting explores the shocking frailty and futility of life in a refined castigation. Between their evangelical inception and current iteration as impartial, humanist headbangers, The Well-Intentioned Virus, their eleventh studio album, recalls the band’s best material but augments their characteristic chaotic parade of aggression with prog-rock passages and a heightened sense of melody.
Positive and Negative Chaos
“On Awake, there were a lot of things that I forced into songs,” says Scott Mellinger, Zao’s guiding symphonic force. The guitarist is speaking by phone from his home in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, the same place where he writes much of the band’s music. Remembering their 2009 album, its creative hurdles and muted reception, the musician cops to Zao’s past ambivalence. “We were happy with it, but when it came out, we weren’t willing to work as hard as that record maybe deserved.”
Was Zao considering breaking up after their tenth full-length effort? Mellinger confesses his disappointment after its release but refutes any notion of a split. “We never intended it to be the end at all,” he says. “Some of this new record was being written while Awake was being released. Some of these songs are older songs that we came back to. When I look back at Awake now, there’s things about it that bum me out, but there’s things about every record that bum me out.”
“We were happy with Awake, but when it came out, we weren’t willing to work as hard as that record maybe deserved.” Scott Mellinger
Zao drummer Jeff Gretz concurs. “Awake was a slightly odd record. I don’t think people were expecting that record from us, musically.” Gretz is on the phone from his adopted home of New York. “But I stand by it. I do think we needed to make that record, but there were various reasons why it came out the way it did, in style and mood. I recorded the drums out in California. When we did Awake, I literally hadn’t seen Scott in three years.”
Gretz is recalling Zao’s frequent practice of recording their albums remotely, the group performing their respective parts independently. The arrangement is often a necessity for a band with members spread out across the country. Mellinger explains the geography: “Jeff lives in Brooklyn. Dan, Marty and I all live in the Pittsburgh area. Russ moved to Huntington Beach, California, so it inhibits certain aspects of doing things.”
“We’ve been able to work that way because of the situation with everybody living far away,” Mellinger continues. The last time the band recorded live in studio together was during the Fear sessions with Albini. “We can’t get into a room as a band and jam things out as much, which is kind of a bummer. But we’re at the point now where we just wanted to work, we wanted to do it. We’ll be creative in how we can make that happen.”
Awake was a detached, bicoastal recording, but The Well-Intentioned Virus was laid down entirely at Pennsylvania’s Treelady Studios with engineer Dave Didek. Although each player still tracked separately, the creative unity is apparent on the new record, and its thematic structure benefits from the cohesion. “When we did Awake, Dan and I wrote the lyrics separately,” offers Mellinger — the words on Virus were parsed by the two songwriters as a team.
Arriving at the Balance
“One thing that’s really vital with Zao is that there’s always an underlying importance to what Dan’s saying.” Mellinger proudly recognizes the vocalist’s signature style (and trademark growl) that has hooked listeners for nearly two decades. Weyandt’s denouement and delivery are key to Zao — Mellinger knows that strength is what separates the band’s music from that of any other act in their scene. “It’s important that everything we do lyrically is written or influenced by Dan.”
As such, The Well-Intentioned Virus is the band’s most rewardingly collaborative record. Works composed by Mellinger were funneled through Weyandt and revised by the pair collectively. “Dan and I worked really hard together, lyrically,” adds Mellinger. “I would send him demos of song ideas with vocal melodies, and then we would get together and totally rewrite the words. We really wanted to make it more of a combined venture.”
Mellinger also finds his true voice on the album. The guitarist and singer, who has provided collateral melodic locutions to Weyandt’s principal roar since The Funeral of God, has come into his own as a vocalist. The newfound fullness of Mellinger’s singing adds a new wrinkle to the band’s repertoire. As opposed to simply acting as occasional respites among Weyandt’s vicious onslaught, the clean vocal sections are now intricately woven into the fabric of the songs.
“I’ve always liked singing, but I never wanted to be a main guy,” laughs Mellinger. “I came at the singing parts of this record in a different way. We still wanted to make the songs brutal as hell, but I don’t want to write this crazy metal part and then a chorus comes in.”
Belying the grave intensity of Zao songs, creating them is not a completely joyless affair. As Mellinger describes of the writing process for the new album, “We really just focused on having fun. From a songwriting aspect, I didn’t go into it thinking of anything in particular — whatever felt good was going to happen. It took us back to how we were originally, not worrying about anything. The band doesn’t really have any expectation except making ourselves happy. If you’re not making yourself happy, it’s really not worth doing.”
Command / Conjure
The first public offering of Zao’s resurrected sound came in the form of a “Xenophobe” single, a two-song, 7″ EP released by the band last year. “‘Xenophobe’ was the first song that we all knew was going to work well,” says Gretz. Mellinger confirms the tune was a catalyst: “That song came together pretty quick, even though there’s a lot going on in it. I’ve always felt like when songs come to you easier, those seem to be the better ones.”
“It took us back to how we were originally, not worrying about anything. The band doesn’t really have any expectation except making ourselves happy. If you’re not making yourself happy, it’s really not worth doing.” Scott Mellinger
“Xenophobe” appears on the new album in a slightly altered mix, with freshly recorded guitar and bass parts. It’s Mellinger’s favorite song on the record. “When I hear ‘Xenophobe,’ I’m just like, ‘I’m so glad that’s our song.’” The song, a timely-written attack on small-mindedness, gave Zao the push they needed to finish The Well-Intentioned Virus. Containing material written over the past seven years, the recording process only began in earnest around two years ago.
Almost antithetical to the prolonged production, Gretz knocked out the drum parts for 19 songs in two days. “He’s a beast,” commends Mellinger. The album contains ten of those tracks, with the remainder earmarked for a future release. Gretz tentatively suggests that Zao will forgo a drawn-out timeline (a la Virus) and follow up the new album in quick succession. “The plan is to maybe finish the newer songs this winter and hopefully have an EP out next year.”
After the band finished tracking the album, vocals were ready to be recorded. Though they’re the crux of Zao’s compositions, the band doesn’t completely know what Weyandt’s final vocals will be until hearing the recordings. “Before the point where he actually lays them down, we have no idea what parts he’s gonna be singing,” Gretz says. “He’ll show us the lyrics or give us some example lines, but, for the most part, the rough mixes are the first time we hear what he did.”
Regardless, the album as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts; The Well-Intentioned Virus is one of the band’s most dire, determined collections. The previously opined “disappointing” quirks of past efforts have cleared out; Mellinger has yet to find a weak spot on the album. “There’s not one thing on this new one that I’m weirded out about. I love everything that we did. That’s the cliché answer, but this one is my favorite.”
Passages of Safety
The-Well Intentioned Virus is being released on the band’s own Observed/Observer Recordings label. Gretz has stepped up as the de facto label head and press representative. “I was the guy with the credit card that said, ‘Let’s do this,’” he quips. After a highly praised stretch on Tooth and Nail/Solid State Records and their formative mid-period span on Ferret Music, Zao is now trusting themselves, preparing for this (and future albums) to be released independently.
“Jeff and I had tons of conversations about wanting to release it on our own but keeping the open mind of possibly working with a label again,” Mellinger says. Gretz expands on the idea, ultimately explaining they were ready to put their own money where their collective mouth was. “There were a couple of labels that expressed interest — and that we were interested in working with — but we’ve sort of learned our lesson. At the end of the day, we were always prepared to do it by ourselves.”
The brain can be willing, but the band still had to work out basic logistics. Gretz knew they were going to need to rely on some friends to roll out the album properly. “With the ‘Xenophobe’ single, I’m perfectly fine with printing up and assembling and mailing out six-hundred 7” records,” he says. “To handle a full release, I don’t even have enough room for all the records! I couldn’t wrap my head around it. That was the thing that made me initially question releasing it ourselves.”
They found that help in the band’s current partnership with Holy Mountain Printing; it gave them a distributor for the new record. Originally signed on to sell officially-licensed Zao shirts and other band merchandise, the North Carolina-based screen printing shop is now working with the group to properly get the release to the public. Observed/Observer Recordings, its label name taken from The Well-Intentioned Virus song of the same name, is now a bonafide business arm of the band.
As expected for a Zao recording, The Well-Intentioned Virus investigates death, faith, social and political philosophy, but in a way that cuts deeper than their previous outings. From the “sort-of” title track’s indictment of religion to the doomsday-inducing centerpiece “Apocalypse,” the message amid the chaos shines strongly.
Holy Mountain’s involvement bypasses the group’s need for a direct corporate alliance. “There are a lot of aspects of it that are really different,” Mellinger says about keeping the operation grassroots. “Not that all of our experiences on record labels were really that terrible. The worst part is when you lose ownership of your recordings. The reward of doing it yourself is the friendships, the relationships. Scenes don’t last without that.”
The Curtain Is Raised
As expected for a Zao recording, The Well-Intentioned Virus investigates death, faith, social and political philosophy, but in a way that cuts deeper than their previous outings. From the “sort-of” title track’s indictment of religion (“Frothing hordes of true believers / You are right, yes, you are right / You have been chosen to ruin countless heathen lives”) to the doomsday-inducing centerpiece “Apocalypse,” the message amid the chaos shines strongly.
The death of Mellinger’s father in 2009 cast a particular pale light on the album’s meaning; his loss fueled the aforementioned “Apocalypse.” “A lot of this record was written when my dad passed away,” he says. “Even in some of the guitar work, I think you can hear that sadness. The lyrics were written about dealing with that grief, then Dan and I worked on it together. ‘Apocalypse’ is really meaningful to me.”
Weyandt also experienced his share of darkness during the writing of the new album. A family member attempted suicide, and that agony is unpacked on “Broken Pact Blues,” the dreadful near-departure causing the songwriter to explore a life-ending outcome that was, thankfully, avoided: “Come back to us / Please return to your body / Turn in place to see it lying motionless below you.” (“The person is still here and they’re awesome,” Mellinger confirms of the depicted kin, “Everything’s great with them.”)
Zao’s inquiries into the mysterious purlieu of death expose layers of extreme realization that aren’t often penetrated by music, even with metal’s preoccupation with the macabre. “Dan has dealt with a lot of loss in his life,” Mellinger explains of his longtime friend, bandmate and co-writer. “The way he verbalizes some of the stuff that he’s been through — our band doesn’t mean sh-t without that.”
Evolution Über Alles
Zao’s artistic awareness of life and death plus a forward-thinking alignment with social justice puts them in a special place on metal’s spectrum of substance. Album after album, they’ve brutally dissected humanity’s parasitic constructs to euphoric effect. Does Zao consider themselves a socially progressive band?
“Absolutely,” declares Mellinger. “As a band, we’ve always wanted to fight for the oppressed.” He realizes the band’s support for equal rights is especially important after the recent presidential election and its divisive afterglow. “It’s tough to fight populism. Most people in our country aren’t necessarily aware or even intellectually vested in politics. People have been voting against their own interests since before I was born.”
“The religious right has kind of stolen what Christianity meant to some people and turned it into a political force. I think everyone’s views have a place at the table, as long as those views aren’t condemning people. We’re trying to push boundaries.” Scott Mellinger
On “Xenophobe,” Weyandt laments the intrinsic flash point where “logic and compassion regress to selfish superstitions.” The context is clear. “I think that’s why some of us have strayed so far from Christian ideals,” Mellinger adds. “The religious right has kind of stolen what Christianity meant to some people and turned it into a political force. I think everyone’s views have a place at the table, as long as those views aren’t condemning people. We’re trying to push boundaries.” With those words, he is summing up the continued importance and surreal existence of Zao in 2016. “Being in a band is such a weird privilege, and we really care about this album. There’s something special about putting your own necks on the line for a record.”
I Wish You Peace
On “I Leave You in Peace,” The Well-Intentioned Virus’ closing epiphany, Weyandt speaks softly into the din: “They say behind the veil of chaos lies peace.” Evoking similarly orated passages in past Zao classics, the attendant poem feels somehow weightier when communicated in plain speech. “Possession triggers change into tangible signs to see / Barren of the fruit to bear, they’re all strangers to me.” The strangers ascribed in Weyandt’s lyric may very well be the same poison-tongued brothers from the 1998 song “Lies of Serpents, a River of Tears” or the “Eons and eons, decades of liars” from 2004’s “Live… From the Funeral of God.” It is they who mislead, betray, connive, refuse to open their minds, and gain nothing.
Seven years in the making, the Virus clearly shows tangible signs of the group’s fascinating maturation as musicians, composers, and humans. Zao is one step ahead of the well-intentioned idealists, and they crush underfoot the wolves in sheep’s clothing, the ones hellbent on destroying the world. Weyandt takes a page from his well-worn-now-ostensibly-abandoned Bible and turns the other cheek. “I wish them peace, respectfully,” the vocalist acquiesces to all children turned into enemies, to all armies thirsty for blood, and to all men no better than demons. To the strangers.
The Well-Intentioned Virus will confront you. Zao will dislodge ideology and challenge you. And then they’ll leave you in peace. Respectfully.
Zao was posted on December 4, 2016 for HM Magazine and authored by Philip Trapp.