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The heavy music scene owes a huge debt to ZAO, and you can be sure your favorite bands know it. Underoath and Unearth used to open for them. As I Lay Dying invited Dan to guest on their new album, "Shadows Are Security." The lion's share of the credit for crossing faith-based music into a then-politically motivated and secular only hardcore scene lays squarely on Zao's shoulders. Remember a time when a Carcass-inspired hiss or a melodic chorus seemed crazy? That was the time before Zao.
Greensburg, Pennsylvania isn't known for many things besides being in close proximity to the mall where George A. Romero filmed "Dawn Of The Dead." And the renegade spirit, commentary on the world around them, and personal introspection that drives the spectacled filmmaker lives and breathes within Zao, a band whose backwoods roots have allowed them to stay one step ahead of the trends by staying true to their isolated selves.
"The Funeral Of God," "Parade Of Chaos," "Self-Titled," "Liberate Te Ex Inferis" and "Where Blood & Fire Bring Rest" are all landmark albums in the underground. Each of them turned a corner for the style at a time when things felt stagnant.
The original incarnation of Zao was formed in the mid-90s and played a style of music influenced by Earth Crisis and Strife while prosteylizing with the evangelical zeal of Strong Arm and Focused. When that group fell apart shortly after the 1997 Cornerstone Festival, Zao as its best-known ever since was born in the fires of creative tension.
"Where Blood & Fire Bring Rest" took the conventions of hardcore and heavy metal (and the version of Zao before it) and turned them on its head. The songs were thunderous, epic, passionate and bold in their execution. New singer Daniel Weyandt's personal approach to his lyrics and vocals exorcised his demons as if his life depended on the songs. His voice shaped a life wrought with tragedy, suicide and death into beautiful musings that connected with their brutal honesty and naked self-observation.
Guitarists Russ Cogdell and Brett Detar, and original drummer Jesse Smith, played the songs with a passion to match Dan Weyandt's soul-wrenching lyrics as the now Greensburg based band (linked to the Zao of old only by West Virginian Smith) devastated stages across the country. Not since Unbroken had jaws dropped like this.
Dan, Russ and Brett became estranged from Smith for a while some time after the recording of "The Split EP" with Training For Utopia. During the break, Dan and Russ started a band called Eight Stars For Elijah with guitarist Scott Mellinger.
Scott replaced Brett (who left to pursue his side-project The Juliana Theory full-time) shortly after Zao regrouped, beginning a song-writing partnership that persists to this day. Jesse's West Virginian friend Rob Horner filled the long-vacant bass position before the band made "Liberate Te Ex Inferis (Save Yourself From Hell)."
The album redefined the sound of an era again and created one of the band's biggest live hits, "Savannah," which details the rise and fall of a real life porn star in all of its tragic ugliness, spitting bile upon the kind of world that makes such things happen to people.
Zao's next album, "Self-Titled," was recorded by only Dan, Scott and Jesse and featured a vast amount of experimentation with electronics, dark soundscapes, and melodic interludes. "A Tool To Scream" and the lovelorn letter that is "Five Year Winter" eclipsed all they had done before, while "At Zero" is the kind of devastating album closer that brings to mind Metallica's "Dyer's Eve" or "Damage Inc."
After the album's release Zao toured with a new singer, Corey Darst, who did an admirable job mimicking Dant's voice but never captured the same energy. In December of 2001 Zao broke up onstage, ironically as Dan stood in as a "guest."
Blood & Fire did not bring rest in this case, however, and soon Dan, Scott and Jesse returned to producer Barry Poytner's Arkansas studio and created "Parade Of Chaos," which pushed their musical envelope even further.
"The Buzzing" and "Suspend/ Suspension" opened the album with alarming force; "Free The Three" and "How Are The Weak Free" were well-suited for long drives down desolate roads. While there they re-recorded the original Zao's debut, "All Else Failed."
The "Burn It Down And Walk Away" tour followed, with Russ Cogdell back in the band, and saw Zao playing to bigger audiences than ever before. Although it was billed as their "farewell" he band learned, as ever, that they simply could not put their passions to rest. Despite the turmoil, the distance between the Greensburg members and Smith, and all of the trials and tribulations of being in a touring band, Zao arose again.
In 2003, Dan, Scott, Russ, Jesse and Rob cut a series of demos for a fledgling label that never got off the ground. Ferret Music signed the band instead, but not before Dan drifted from the band one last time. Society's Finest singer Joshua Ashworth stepped in and toured with them for a while, but Scott and Russ soon realized that they could never make a Zao album without Dan. Meanwhile Jesse, long enamored by various outside projects, decided to leave Zao once and for all, and Rob stepped aside with him.
Eager to reconnect with his brothers, Dan didn't hesitate for a second about rejoining. Dan, Russ and Scott enlisted two longtime Greensburg friends, Shawn Koschik and Stephen Peck, to fill the vacant bass and drum positions and recorded "The Funeral Of God."
An ambitious concept album which envisions a world where God decides to abandon humanity the way that much of mankind has abandoned Him, the album heralded the return of Zao to a new world where heavy music is enjoying a resurgence.
"The Rising End" is powerful and filled with dread; "Praise The War Machine" is more topical than it seems, and "The Lesser Lights Of Heaven" is filled with depth. Zao always evolves in every sense of the term and "The Funeral Of God" is no exception.
"The Funeral Of God" saw the band get their first airplay on MTV2 and Fuse as well as major accolades from Metal Hammer and Outburn. Yes, at last, recognition! And finally, like their heroes Johnny Cash and Nick Cave, people started to realize that the kind of art Zao makes is not easily classifiable as Christian or secular... It's just good.
Zao headlined the Ferret Music Tour in 2004, the "Praise The War Machine" tour in 2005, and also hit the road with Dillinger Escape Plan. Longtime tour manager Marty Lunn took over the bass position before the band co-headlined the "City Of Champions" tour with The Juliana Theory. And more recently Jeff Gretz became the band's new drummer before they toured the UK and America with Bleeding Through.
This fall will see the release of a career-spanning DVD featuring an in-depth and lengthy documentary about the history of the band, footage from Greensburg, rare outtakes of their former bands, raw live footage from over the years submitted by fans and newer shows shot professionally from many camera angles.
And next year will see the release of the band's second Ferret Music album. Get ready. Like the Greek word for which they are named implies, Zao is truly "ALIVE."
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