Within the world of hard and heavy music, “metalcore” is big business right now – a sub-genre that has its heart in classic thrash and death metal but its head in the beatdowns and ideology of hardcore punk.
Zao is one of, if not the seminal metalcore group, a band whose gargantuan guitar sound, ear-shredding vocals and intelligent lyricism has influenced everyone from New Wave Of American Heavy Metal exponents like Killswitch Engage to beyond-extreme noise terrorists like Norma Jean.
Still, as we all know, innovators rarely get the credit they deserve, something not lost on Zao judging by the tongue-in-cheeky title of their recent career retrospective – Legendary.
Perhaps it’s the fact that Zao have had more line-up changes than Liz Taylor’s had engagement rings that’s to blame for them not making an impact beyond the cult and discerning listener. Then again, maybe it’s because they’ve been associated with being “religious”. Funny how accusations of “intolerance” and “hypocrisy” only ever seem to fly in one direction, isn’t it?
Whatever the whys and wherefores, people do finally seem to be cottoning on to Zao’s influence on the underground heavy music scene, which makes the timing of their latest album more than apt. The Funeral Of God is unashamedly a concept album, exploring the horrifying notion that God takes us at our word and abandons His Creation, leaving it to destroy itself.
If you think that must make The Funeral Of God the antithesis of a feelgood, summery pop album, then you’d be right. All the trademark Zao elements are here. There are twisting musical tempos; vocals that could strip paint at a thousand paces (don’t believe the nonsense that’s been written about there being a lot of bandwagon-jumping “sing-y” bits); huge, discordant guitars and bruising, pummelling rhythms.
And when these all synergise together, as in the ear-defying beatdown in The Last Song From Zion, where the guitars sound like pneumatic drills and the earth-quaking bass and drums their rhythmic accompaniment, one can but smile at the impressive brutality of it all.
Of course there’s a bit more to Zao than bludgeon, bludgeon, bludgeon and closing track Psalm Of The City Of The Dead has an eight-minute soundtrack that befits its title. Here, Zao take on elements of instrumental giants like Isis and Neurosis, with an intro of grooving, textured guitar riffs, a semi-acoustic mid-section and a superbly dynamic outro where swathes of electric guitars are layered beneath ambient piano and well-arranged strings. When the lone female vocal proclaims, “My soul is growing cold,” you’ll find that the corresponding chill in your spine is a very real one.
Doubtless, debate will rage about whether The Funeral Of God is up there with the best Zao albums. Whether it is or not, it is better than much of what passes for metalcore these days and it’s about three times as intelligent. And with talk of this being a consistent and “definitive” line-up, the future’s looking bright for Zao… Even if their lyric sheet might tell you otherwise.