For Fans Of
Leading up to the April release of Zao’s latest record, ‘The Crimson Corridor,’ I re-listened to my favourite releases of theirs: ‘Where Blood And Fire Bring Rest’ (1998), ‘The Funeral Of God’ (2004), ‘The Fear Is What Keeps Us Here’ (2006) and ‘The Well-Intentioned Virus’ (2016). This isn’t even counting other notable releases, like their 2003 re-recording of ‘All Else Failed’ or their stellar 2001 self-titled record. In revisiting these works, something suddenly struck me like a lightning bolt: Zao is genuinely one of the most important metalcore bands to walk the genre’s landscape. It’s not the same without them; they go beyond the genre. Thank them for the great (and poor) strides the genre made.
‘The Crimson Corridor‘ opens between Zao simultaneously sounding current and like their old selves in an authentic manner. It’s a more understated and cerebral record, but that only adds to its mystique. ‘The Well-Intentioned Virus’ was defined by suicide (‘Broken Pact Blues‘), doomsday brought upon by greed, (‘Apocalpyse‘), false truths (‘The Sun Orbits Around Flat Earth Witch Trials‘) miscarriage (‘The Weeping Vessel‘), and people believing what they do is just only for history to later judge them as evil. Here, things are bleaker than ever, far more cryptic. Moreso broad philosophical and social examinations of time, creation, death, consciousness, and humanity. Sometimes easy to decipher, other times ambiguous by design. At first, that was a little jarring for me, but after a few listens you start to piece together the personal and larger-scale sentiments that these songs share.
When it comes to the style of this monumental 12th album, it’s what many older metalcore fans worth their salt and strident Zao followers will have expected: still full of melodicism and dynamism, but also plenty of sick riffs, throat-shredding screams, distilled breakdowns and natural heaviness. It’s them! From the lively production, the vocal mixing, the technical songwriting, to how it’s all been performed. While it’s not a massively different record for Zao, this LP does mark a somewhat doomier, sludgier, ‘post-metalier’ approach, something they blend potently with their mid-2000s rawness, ’90s ferocity, and the razor-sharp focus of recent records into a gripping, overwhelming release that pulls from the eras that came before it. Like a greyer, methodical metalcore take on Tool and Neurosis and I’m here for it.
Zao’s careful control and intentional restraint that defines ‘Into The Jaws Of Dread’ – how it develops harmonically and dynamically, with this soundscape offering slight glimpses of ambience and people talking in the distance – makes for the greatest first instrumental song of any Zao release. Meaning that when things shift into a heavier realm at the 2:30 mark, the dynamic change hits so damned hard that you can practically feel the tonal dread seeping into your brain. ‘Into The Jaws Of Dread’ ends with the floor being pulled out from under you as a jagged, dissonant metalcore track leaps forth in the twisted shape of ‘Ship Of Theseus,’ perfectly capitalising on such a surreal first movement.
Lead by the familiar blackened vocals of frontman Dan Weyandt, it’s the Zao of old rearing its monstrous head in fine form. The Ship Of Theseus is an age-old thought experiment, one recently popularized during the series finale of WandaVision. It ponders whether or not a ship is still fundamentally the same ship after all the old wooden planks have been replaced. For Zao, they appropriate this question of identity for themselves: is a band without any original members still the same band? As this band has no original members; Dan and guitarist Russ Cogdell have been in the group the longest since 1998 and ’99 respectively. (Zao formed in 1993.) To answer that larger philosophical quandary myself: I dunno, maybe. Either way, Zao have carved out their name in heavy music through the great records released after their first Christian-leaning line-up ended. They’ve stuck around ever since, making career and genre-defying album after album. All of which tracks on ‘The Crimson Corridor.’
Songs like the dream-within-in-a-dream musings of ‘Croatoan’ and the last-human-alive apocalypse setting in ‘The Final Ghost’ present a grim and savage metalcore mood – namely in part to Dan’s vocal technique, despairing lyrics, and intricate guitar work. The ribcage-rattling chugs, throwback breakdowns, and pummeling grooves that come courtesy of drummer Jeff Gretz and bassist Martin Lunn are all pure bliss. A very real weight of fear and isolation hangs heavy in the air around the excellent ‘R.I.P.W.’, due to its forward momentum and Dan’s sorrowful lyricism. Equally cruel and heart-warming instrumental passages of clean guitars and bass melodies mark a beautiful eerieness, and when it cascades back into a bleak post-metal monster, it’s like waves crushing you into the sand. All before Zao send you on your merry way by returning to the track’s main verse motif for a sweet book-end.
The final third of the title track is what it must be like to pass from this life to the next; one of the grimmest, heaviest musical moments I’ve experienced in a long while. All sounding like you’re being carried down some Stygian river into whatever may or may not exist beyond this mortal coil. On short burst that is ‘Transitions,’ we get the kind of jumpy, angular metalcore that countless have tried their hand at over the last decade or so. Some do it incredibly well, but on this seventh song, we see one of the OG’s crushing it as few others can. ‘Lost Star‘ is another great example of this. Relevant and tight, yet nostalgic and raw.
A harmonic metal guitar finale from Russ and Scott Mellinger (whose sung vocals affix plenty to the record’s layers) in ‘Nothing’s Form’ suddenly drops into the levelling ‘Creator/Destroyer,’ a standout moment on an already exemplary record. Then the instrumental ghostly frame of ‘The Web,’ with eerie modulated vocals from Scott, cruises into a ten-minute epic. It’s a shimmering, ever-changing and instrumentally-focused piece, sharing an eternal “we will meet again” theme, and the inevitable eruptions of post-metal feel so fucking transcendent that I sorta hope I survive the rapture.
‘The Crimson Corridor’ is a nuanced, intricate, well-balanced and oppressive experience from top to bottom. Perhaps one that you must be in the right mental space in order to appreciate its terrifying vision. It’s a draining record, which is why I love it. It’s real; it’s a journey; it fucking means something! Listening to album #12 for Zao is like stepping forward into a different dimension. There’s such a meteoric impact to this sinister but genuine album’s thematic and musical duality, as it drifts between abrasive and pensive; implementing gripping use of negative spaces, existentialism, arresting atmosphere and metalcore that’s classic and contemporary. This is one of the most important metalcore bands dropping one of their strongest albums, 28 years into their lifespan, sounding as free, artistic, and as essential as ever. ‘The Crimson Corridor’ easily cracks into those top four Zao albums I mentioned at the start of this review. Shit, it could even be a top-three record for them. By far one of 2021’s finest and most accomplished heavy releases, one I find nearly impossible to find any faults with. They don’t make ’em much like this anymore.
Into The Jaws Of Dread
Ship Of Theseus
The Final Ghost
The Crimson Corridor
Stream ‘The Crimson Corridor’ below: