“There’s another four or five songs,” Zao drummer Jeff Gretz told us in November 2016 days before the release of the band’s vivid comeback album, The Well-Intentioned Virus. “I think our plan is to maybe finish them up this winter and possibly have an EP out next year.” And it’s not that we didn’t believe him – it’s just that it took seven long years to get from Zao’s 2009 sonic freakout of a tenth album, Awake, to the stunning, inspired, return-to-form-but-more eye-opener of Virus. Nevertheless, here we are: The band has delivered on their promise, and November 2017 brought the fortuitous addendum of Pyrrhic Victory.
And it’s a good time to be a Zao fan.
While this new EP could seemingly be viewed from afar as a condensed version of Virus, the five songs on Victory still spread out in interesting and enlightening ways. The tunes continue Zao’s dejected-but-selfless lyrical probing of broken humanity; guitarist Scott Mellinger’s acid-dipped strings still pulsing and punishing in a syncopated assault with Gretz’s hospitable, autarchic rhythms. You don’t necessarily need to have heard Pyrrhic Victory’s parent album to understand the intention and orchestration affected here, but it assuredly affords a sharper view of the band’s overarching message when the two releases are taken in tandem.
“I cannot disjoin the lucid from the unsystematic cognitions,” vocalist Daniel Weyandt growls, by way of introduction, on EP opener “Drifting Shadows in Walking Dreams.” “I lie trapped outside, forced to spectate my very own existence” — and we’re off to the races. It’s a mouthful, but Weyandt has a lot to communicate on every Zao release; this time, he only has five songs with which to do it instead of ten. “Spiraling waves of confusion” set the pace, because the puzzle pieces rarely fit and life hardly makes any sense. We’re all spectators here, but we’re also on display — active participants in our own demise. The sun sets and then it rises again. One could say we’re “Clawing, Clawing, Never Cutting Through” — as the middle track here is titled — but when the sky finally breaks on the following song, “The Host Has Bared Its Teeth” (much as it did on Zao’s 2004 anthem “The Rising End”), we’ll be left wondering why we only ever cared about ourselves.
Many Virus songs felt ultra-personal: Mellinger’s father’s death is sublimely felt out on the heart-rending “Apocalypse,” Weyandt’s brother’s near-demise is deftly explored on “Broken Pact Blues.” Here, the tunes feel more universal, more instructional. The band already told us what brought them here, now they’re demonstrating what will happen to us.
But Zao’s more astute listeners are probably well aware of the plan – or lack thereof. Weyandt closes the EP by preaching to his choir on “Feed It Pain”: “Bring it to life so it may suffer, make it alive and feed it pain. If it gets back on its feet, then we’ll cut it down again.” A sense of tender loss combined with cosmic frustration and sociopolitical disgust has always colored the Zao vocalist’s lyrical content, but his words are more pointed now, full of a sharper wit and more skeptical clarity than ever before. Weyandt’s words are no better weighted than by the ripened adornments of his bandmates: Gretz, Mellinger, bassist Martin Lunn and guitarist Russ Cogdell.
And the aural draping from the crew has never been so perfectly defined. The middle eight of “Gifts of Flowers and Stone” builds on the progressive leanings first ignited on Virus’ “Xenophobe”; the dead center of “Feed it Pain” opens up an elegiac march not often heard from the metalcore vets, plumbing the abysmal depths in a surprisingly fresh fashion. It’s great these five holdovers from the Virus sessions made their way out so fast, and the next Zao full-length should be on the way directly. “Probably next summer or fall, we’ll actually start working on the next record,” Gretz said in 2016. Here’s to more Zao forever and ever – or, at least until the bitter end they so handily illustrate on these tracks – amen.