The 2001 release of Zao's (Self-Titled) was the unwitting precursor to a tumultous chapter in the band's history. Guitarist Russ Cogdell, who had been with the band since Where Blood and Fire Bring Rest, departed the band prior to recording along with bassist Rob Horner (though Cogdell would return to record The Funeral of God in 2004), leaving the band as a three-piece. Nevertheless, the band, known for its relentless dedication, pressed forward with Jesse Smith and Scott Mellinger writing the entire album in the studio (sending the finished tracks to an oddly absent Dan Weyandt to add vocal tracks) and managed to craft a pretty solid record despite the issues they faced at the time.
One of the first things one notices about (Self-Titled) is the peculiar tone of Smith's electronic V-Drums; the dark, impersonal, mechanical thundering combined with the tastefully ambient plodding and nasty riffing of Mellinger create an album that, while more polished than Liberate Te Ex Inferis, picks up where that masterpiece left off in terms of its high creepiness factor intertwined with well-placed moments of sheer brutality. As for Dan's vocal work, (Self-Titled) is probably his magnum opus; his always reliable trademark gargly scream has more body, and his surprisingly underrated roar makes its first appearance here, instantly making one wonder how much more awesome his first two albums with Zao could have been had he employed this scary open-mouthed growl sooner. It's a devastating, satisfying sonic effort overall. Strangely enough, sitting down and listening through (Self-Titled), it's Zao's least cohesive album to date, despite being among its greatest sonically; the track placement especially is pretty questionable. Taking it from the top, though...
If you know Zao, you know "Five Year Winter." If you don't, one listen will help you understand why this is the quintessential Zao tune. More than anything, this gem is pretty much Zao 101: groovy, plodding riffs, percussive insanity, brutally honest lyrics, everything. Following, however, are three straight tracks with extended drum intros, the first being an instrumental. "Alive is Dead" (the original working title for the album) is actually enjoyable to listen to, as it sounds like an excellent intro track to bring the listener into the tent of the Zao sound, but it should have just been the first track to begin with, as this would have greatly aided the flow of the album; as it stands, however, its placement just comes off as odd. "A Tool to Scream" works well with its ominous overtone and is an excellent utilization of Dan's roar and the band's self-described "Zao plod." "Witchunter," however, is the album's first sore spot. Hearing it after the preceding two songs, its drum intro and slow buildup makes one wish they'd just explode right out of the gate already; this isn't Isis or Hands, it's Zao. Overall, it feels like a misplaced, overlong intro/outro track. The spoken lyrics are kind of cool, and major kudos to the band for trying new things, but a track like this would work better on an album that didn't already have two instrumental tracks and only ten songs total.
"Trashcanhands (Keyboard Cowards)" finally brings the onslaught from the outset, as well as some heavily electronically-distorted background vocals that make this hands-down the track you would least want to listen to in the dark. The lyrics are interesting, too, consisting of a fiery rebuke of judgmental fans (specifically "DXCBoy" and "Firekid," actually mentioned by username in the song). Considering the way the scene has always treated bands, it's an understandable sentiment expressed here. "The Race of Standing Still" follows, a plodding beast in the vein of "A Tool to Scream," but with rather sentimental lyrics and clean guitars that really make this song... beautiful. It's really among Zao's best, which is more than can be said for "FJL," another outro-type interlude that calls to mind "814 Stops Today" from Underoath's The Changing of Times. Like that song, this spacey, vague musing would be better as a closer (perhaps with "The Race..." as the next-to-last track?) or, better yet, dropped in favor of a more interesting tune. Ten tracks and only seven solid metal cuts? Come on now.
The last three tracks, however, are brilliant, knocking you to the ground, stealing your wallet, and kicking you in the teeth, respectively. "The End of His World," a crushing depiction of loss in wartime, stomps, grooves, and breathes fire through its three minutes; like much of (Self-Titled), the music evokes images of Godzilla chaotically stomping about through Tokyo. "The Dreams That Don't Come True" is somewhat of a sequel, seeming lyrically to be detailing the feelings of the widow after the events of the previous song; it calls back some of the lyrical themes of Blood and Fire. Like "The Race of Standing Still," it shows that metal can be beautiful, emotional, and poignant without nasally clean vocals or guitar parts filled with high octaves and major chords. It's really the standout track on the album. Finally, "At Zero" comes out of nowhere to unleash upon the listener the most brutal two-and-a-half minutes on the record. On previous records, Zao would go with the lengthy instrumental album closer, but here they go with the Metallica "Damage, Inc." or "Dyers Eve" approach, and it works splendidly and is ultimately a satisfying way to wrap things up.
Though not Zao's tightest package as a whole, the seven solid tracks that are present are among their best work. Personally, I find myself going to this album more than any of their other work despite its flaws and the juggernaut status of their prior two albums. If you can find this record anywhere, pick it up immediately; I don't see too many physical copies of this one floating around. Better yet, look for The 2nd Era, a 3-disc anthology of this record and their two previous albums. You won't be disappointed.- Review date: 10/19/11, written by Steven Powless of Jesusfreakhideout.com
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