Every band has their humble beginnings, and the legendary Zao is certainly no exception. Then based in Parkersburg, WV, what would come to be the landmark metalcore band that positioned their views on faith, as similar to Nick Cave or Johnny Cash, was an almost entirely different beast when their debut full-length All Else Failed hit the streets back in '95. Led by future Symphony In Peril vocalist Shawn Jonas (who replaced their original vocalist Eric Reeder before All Else Failed was recorded; Reeder is credited with writing most of the lyrics on the record) along with guitarist Roy Goudy, bassist Mic Cox and the enigmatic Jesse Smith on the kit, the first era of Zao began as four ministry-minded kids making a splash in the Christian hardcore scene with their spastic, punk-and-metal-tinged brand of hardcore. Lyrically, Zao was probably more straightforward here than at any other point in the band's existence, uncompromising in their stance regarding the Truth as well as their mission to a lost world. Though this first effort was naturally far from perfect, All Else Failed is a surprisingly entertaining glimpse into Zao's refreshingly fervent history.
Having listened to the Solid State follow-up to this record, the confusingly titled The Splinter Shards the Birth of Separation, I didn't have especially high hopes when I popped this disc in. The Splinterů was a jumbled mess of a record, with almost half of the songs directly ported over from All Else Failed, while other songs were cobbled together from pieces of material on their debut; there were only about two or three truly new songs on that record in total. While not altogether too much different in sound, All Else Failed is surprisingly much more cohesive and solid (though it may not be saying much). Jesse Smith's drumming is as cold-blooded as ever, truly providing the backbone of Zao's sound, while Goudy and Cox give a performance that, while not earth-shattering by any stretch, is at least more thought-through and creatively palatable than you might expect--especially if you've heard The Splinter... (though I'm still trying to understand why the chorus effect on Cox's bass was necessary). The riffs may not be groundbreaking, but they're played with incomparable soul. Jonas's oft-praised, bottomless-diaphragm screaming is present in full force, providing much of the heart and soul of the record. Moreover, heart, I think, is really the driving force behind All Else Failed; it's the engine that makes it go. The raw emotion bleeding through every track rivals Where Blood and Fire Bring Rest in its intensity and makes this musically-somewhat-subpar effort much more satisfying than it could have been without it.
While this record certainly has drawbacks, they're really only symptoms of a young band trying to find its identity. For one, and this could be a problem endemic to hardcore in general, most of All Else Failed's material seems to be based on the same several chords. As The Splinterů would later demonstrate, the striking similarities in the songs render the riffs capable of being mixed and matched to no obvious detriment. Speaking of song crafting, the pacing of some of these songs is especially frustrating and puzzling. In songs like the title track and "Growing In Grace," the pace will pick up, get going, then abruptly descend into a faux-ambient bass-driven plod; sometimes it succeeds, but not often. Sonically, it's like getting stuck at the top of a roller coaster; this is probably one of the hardest aspects of this album to accept.
There are plenty of areas where this album shines as well, besides what I've already mentioned. Though abrupt, the acoustic outro of the otherwise weak "Growing in Grace" is one of the brightest moments on the record, as well as an acoustic-driven hidden track that could have found a place in the record proper. Also, whereas most songs were improved upon by Smith and his new band of Zao brothers in the 2003 re-recording, "Endure," "Ps. 77," and "Exchange" easily outshine their later counterparts with their sheer intensity alone. While Zao of 2003 was fulfilling a contract, these boys were speaking their hearts and laying everything on the table. Zao also seemed to be ahead of their time at points; metalcore-foreshadowing riffs on tracks like "Resistance" could have easily fit on a Jimmy Ryan-era Haste the Day record. On the whole, All Else Failed can accurately be seen as both quite amateurish and quite progressive, often leaning definitely towards one or the other throughout the album.
Perhaps I may be giving first-era Zao too much credit, but I'm comfortable with my assessment. After all, they must've been on the right track for Jesse Smith to want to keep things going after all the members quit in 1997. Of course, Zao would go on to become a metalcore juggernaut and a pioneer in the genre, but pre-Weyandt, things weren't all that bad either.- Review date: 11/15/11, written by Steven Powless of Jesusfreakhideout.com
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