Zao-Awake?: Interviewed & Reviewed

RagingRev is not generally a music blog, but when a band that has influenced me as much as this one has gives me an opportunity to interview them it isn’t an opportunity I can easily pass up. The band in question is the one and only Zao. Originally hailing from Greenburg, PA; Zao was one of the first bands onto the Hardcore/Metalcore scene way back in 1993…many of the newer bands are listing Zao as influences in their music today, making Zao one of the most influential Metalcore bands still kicking it today. Far removed from their original lineup, the band currently consists of Dan Weyandt (brutal vocals), Scott Mellinger (Guitar shredder), Jeff Gretz (Drum destroyer), and Marty Lunn (Ace of Bass).

Zao has influenced me for many reasons, one of the more prevalent being that the band started off as a very hardcore Christian, evangelical band. They were often looked down upon in churches because of the way they sounded or looked, much like I was and eventually faded away from the church and the faith all together. Zao is no longer a Christian band and the change from one to the other is very visible in their music. Their ninth full length album entitled Awake? will be available in a limited release 8000 CD pressing and digital format through Ferret Records on 5/5/09.

I want to thank the guys, and especially Jeff (he helped me get the guys together for this) for making this possible, for giving me the opportunity to ask these questions and for their answers as well. Following the interview there will be a short review of the album and information on buying it.

The Interview


Jeff has hinted over at BleedZao that there was a noticeable theme to this album, something Zao has done a few times before with Funeral of God and Liberate Te ex Inferis…care to tell us what it is?

SCOTT: Well the overall theme is to wake people up. We are in a sad state of affairs when most people can’t tell you who their congressmen are. As a band I think we feel that we are coming to a crossroads in our country where our civil liberties and freedoms are close to extinction, the only way to change it is to pay attention and get involved. Hopefully people will read the lyrics and at least question what’s going on.

DAN – The theme is based around the question are we awake? From our consciousness to our ideals to our politics to our religions.

What kind of differences are we going to see in this album vs the rest of the Zao repertoire ? Similarities?

SCOTT: I think every record is different because we do not consciously think about it. We just write. There is no formula, just emotion and I believe the similarity is in the difference, you’ll never get the same Zao record twice.

JEFF: As many things are similar as are different. It’s the answer to records like Fear and Funeral, and even the older ones. It just explores different avenues of what the band does, and shows some new ones. There’s a lot more melody, but at the same time there’s a lot of heavier aspects. It’s not as fast as the last one, a lot more of that “Zao Plod” as I like to call it The next one probably won’t sound anything like this, as this one sounds nothing like Fear, and so on.

DAN: Well I think every Zao record has been slightly different and Awake? is no exception. Lyrically I feel it is similar in the sense that the majority of the lyrics that I write are based out of some sort of frustration. Trying to dissect a situation to in some way understand it. A cathartic release if you will. Vocally I tried to focus intently on the subject matter of the song while I recorded it. If a take felt good and conveyed the message at hand we would keep it. Passion over perfection.

Jeff now lives in New York from what I understand, and had to record separately from the rest of the guys, was that an easier way to record or was it more challenging?

SCOTT: It was very easy, basically foundations were written and sent back and forth. Jeff finalized his parts and recorded them in LA, I recorded all of my guitars in my home studio and Dan and I did our vocals in a really nice studio here in Pittsburgh. Daniel Castleman put it all together and mixed away. It was really that simple.

JEFF: I thought it was great. I had working demos of the songs before I even walked into the studio. We had 4 days to do the drums in California, I finished in probably one and a half. We had extra time so I did a bunch of stuff for Tim Lambesis’ Austrian Death Machine project. Totally relaxed. I even did drum tracks for a couple Zao cover songs too which we’re holding on to for the time being. The time from when we started to track to having everything down was pretty quick. Once we figured out the logistics of doing it this way, working in different states and doing a lot of it ourselves, it totally opens us up now. We can record a song anytime we want basically. Now that we know we CAN pull it off. The most awkward part was not being there for the mixes. We’d get mp3s sent of mixes and send our notes. Because we like to keep things simple it wasn’t too tough. We do next to NO editing, even though it was in Pro-Tools for convenience sake, we still basically treat it like tape. I know from the drum standpoint, I don’t think too many things went past one or two takes. The demos that we had of the songs were pretty much mixed so we just told Tim and Daniel Castleman , “make them sound like good versions of what we did on the demos”. They rocked it.

Every Zao album, in my interpretation of them all, has always been extremely introspective…something I always enjoy, and this one sounds like it is the same…Is that correct? What are the inner emotions that are being explored here?

JEFF: Musically, “What Will You Find?” is one of the songs that is MOST like The Fear Is What Keeps Us Here. I think all of us sort of wanted that one to go up first to sort of set the transition up. The overall tone is even MORE introspective than that. Not as “in your face” I guess.

DAN: I would say that the new record is introspective. Songs of pain and frustration with reality itself. The loss of friends and the bizarre workings of society and its infrastructures.

Now, we all know, or should know by now that Zao is NOT a Christian band, as an Atheist I couldn’t be more glad to know that…but all of the Zao albums have always had a certain spiritual significance to a lot of Zao fans…can we expect the same religious/spiritual undertones with Awake?

DAN:The new record has some spiritual imagery but the majority of the lyrics stem from my slow mental collapse.

SCOTT: I don’t think so but most people can find significance in whatever, just like the people who find Jesus in a [potato] chip if that’s what you’re looking for you’ll think you found it. My favorite thing about this band is being able to reach everyone, I am not a christian but I love the fact that Christians listen to us. Our differences in opinion are what make being alive so amazing.

American Sheets on the Death Bed was one of my favorite songs on The Fear is What Keeps us Here, it is a very charged political song…can we expect one or more songs of that nature on Awake?, also, was there any backlash from fans or anyone else regarding American Sheets and if so how did you deal with it/what was it?

DAN: I initially had a more lyrics in the sociopolitical realm for this record. A couple months before the recording process started a close friend of mine committed suicide. This changed my entire approach to the record. There is one song that made it called “The Eyes Behind the Throne”. There was some backlash but not too much concerning “American Sheets” but I have been criticized in one way or another for just about song I ever wrote. It seems I can never make anyone happy.

Dan, I have always been satisfied by your music. </asskiss>

SCOTT: Actually the whole record in some way is political, every song has something to say. We didn’t really see too much backlash from fans, but we also don’t push things down their throat. All of us have different views on certain things but I think we can all agree that our government is turning into something very overbearing and frightening. Freedom has no guarantees and people need to start realizing how precious it is.

JEFF: It seemed like we got a lot more people still asking about The Funeral Of God album title than American Sheets.

What kind of side projects are each of the guys working on now? Also, Is Russ doing anything musically since leaving the band?

SCOTT: I am still writing for my Jade Meridian stuff, even though no one gives a shit hahaha. It is fun for ME and that’s all I care about with that stuff. Marty is working with a band called Thee Adora.

DAN: I have been playing drums in a southernish/sabbathish doom band called Bastard for the last two and a half years. The founder/main songwriter/guitarist was my friend who passed away this summer. We had recorded a six song demo shortly before he passed. We are trying to get it pressed this summer. Another good friend stepped in to help us out and we still play shows here and there. Trying to let his riffs live on. I’m am not sure at this moment if Russ is involved in anything or not.

JEFF: I’ve been playing in an 11-piece orchestral pop band here called Emanuel and the Fear , strings, horns, flute. It’s pretty nuts. We have one cd done and another on the way. I’ve been doing a little more improvisational stuff too, there’s a lot of that in New York, and it’s something I’ve been itching to do for awhile. Preparing to do some more Conelrad recording soon, and I’m working on a soundtrack for a zombie movie called The Ragged. I’m scoring it from the bottom up. This is a first, I’m pretty excited about it. As far as Russ, he’s sort of in mystery land. He gave his blessing for us to re-do Romance Of The Southern Spirit. We wanted him on the record but it just didn’t line up.

Are there any possibilities or words in the contract that may be leading us to another album from Ferret? Does the band still have a good relationship with them?

SCOTT: I believe our relationship is fairly good. all bands and labels disagree so it comes with the territory but I think our relationship is better than most. There will definitely be more ZAO records though for sure.

JEFF: There will be another ZAO album, we’re already exchanging songs. No idea where it will come out. We’ll see what this one does and decide from there how to handle it.

I know you guys have said…over and over that you weren’t going to be doing any major touring in the near future, and from what I hear Cornerstone is a no go as well….has this changed at all?

JEFF: No plans for touring, maybe some one-off’s here and there. We want to play, but we’re well past the point of going where we’re not wanted. We really don’t have delusions of being “big time” at this point. I mean, it’s Zao, the bands not gonna “break out” at this point. So why fool ourselves? The shows will be much more sparse, but we’ll be able to tailor them and make them special, and most importantly, keep them fun. That’s kind of our mode of operating right now. You can rest assured if Zao is doing something we WANT to be doing it. Cornerstone is NOT happening. Sorry folks.

Aside from Russ’s bad knees and Dan’s hand incident (FOG tour), have there been any other band or touring related accidents or injuries during this last era of Zao? And what the heck actually happened with the hand thing?

SCOTT: No we have been very lucky to not have more than those two incidents. Dan is a very passionate person, he punched a wall and broke his hand. That’s all he was pissed and hit a wall.

DAN: Well Zao had been recording and touring almost non-stop and sometimes it can wear on you a bit. I lost my temper after a show and punched a wall (for the first and last time). One bone in my left hand snapped and another shattered and broke out of my skin. They actually found small pieces of the wall inside of my hand. I was at high risk for serious infection so I decided to go home. I tattoo for a living and didn’t want to risk any long term damage to my hand. Besides that and Russ’s knee I think the only other incidents involved minor vehicular accidents.

JEFF: Apparently part of the bone from Dan’s hand is still there in the club. I have been back to the club several times, but have NOT found it. My dreams of pulling some major Norwegian Black Metal moves and making a necklace out of it were dashed to pieces.

That is so freaking metal…

Now on a more serious note, has anyone other than Jeff been cleared of Body Thetans yet?

SCOTT: Not yet, definitely on my list, shit now people will think we’re a Scientologist band!

Well aren’t you?

JEFF: That is between Xenu and me.

DAN: Results pending

If I were to get Dan to do my soon to be Zao (zcross) tattoo…there would be some sort of discount in there right?

SCOTT: Maybe but then the tattoo will have to be done on one of your ass cheeks.

DAN: I would surely hook you up sir

Scott, I wouldn’t dare put it anywhere else. Dan, one day I may be able to get over my immense fear of needles and take you up on that.

Is there anything else you guys want to express to the fans?

SCOTT: THANK YOU, Fans hopefully realize they are the reason bands get to do what they do. And you fucking asshole BANDS better realize that too! we cherish every single person that gives us a chance ….sincerely.

DAN: I would definitely like to say thank you to everyone who has supported Zao throughout its ever-changing, chaotic career. We hope you like the new record. We strive to be sincere.

JEFF: As long as the fans show support, we’ll keep doing it, hell, probably WELL past the welcome stage we’ll keep doing it.


Album Review

I was lucky enough to be a recipient of a preview of the album for the sake of this interview…which is a great honor to me. I have been listening to this album in my car non-stop, and almost every time I get on my computer because I really want to get past just an initial response to it, I want to provide you with a look at the album after it kind of settles in on you. Awake? is every Zao album in that it is entirely different from every other Zao album ever released…but there is always that familiarity.

At first listen I was blown away at the brightness of the guitar on the first three songs; “1,000,000 Outstretched Arms Of Nothing”,”Entropica”, and “The Eyes Behind The Throne”, I’m no tuning expert but I don’t think Scott used Drop D or C on any of these first songs. This is a pretty massive removal from the Zao we all k now, despite the described brightness though, the lyrics almost contradict the initial tone. Each of these songs are fast paced and hard hitting both musically and lyrically and the contradiction seems intentional after multiple listens – as if the music represents the racing thoughts of a person whom has lost a loved one and the lyrics represent the mood of that individual, perhaps I’m breaking it down more than intended but that’s definitely how I hear it.

“Human Cattle Masses Marching Forward” is the fourth track, if you like breakdowns you will love this song because that is what it is, one massive breakdown…slow and grinding as if the train of the first three songs is screeching its wheels to avoid an obstacle on the tracks…Brutal is the word for this song.

“Romance Of The Southern Spirit” is a song that many hardcore fans have  loved since it was originally released on the Japanese version of Funeral of God, but this time it has been re-recorded…it fits right in with the theme of Awake? and really takes you by surprise when you hear the difference between the two versions…you can tell there has been a bit (read major) of an upgrade in drummers since FOG on this one. I loved this song before, and I really love it now.

“What will You Find” is a lesson in self reflection, you can hear it on the Zao Myspace along with “Entropica” right now. This is one of my favorites on the album because it is fast and hard at first and then breaks it down a couple minutes in…this is one for the mosh pits.

“Awake?”, “Quiet Passenger Pt. 1”, “Reveal” and “Quiet Passenger Pt. 2/The World Caved In” begin wrapping this album up and they do so in an epic way.  All of these songs flow together for me and I consider that a good thing.  Quiet Passenger pt. 2 brings a perfect end to a tragically rooted album. I don’t feel like I can say a whole lot to describe these last few songs other than the fact that I love the whole album, and these last few really drive it home hard.

The guitar is strong and powerful throughout, the drums are fast and complex, the bass is unavoidably present and strong, and Dan’s vocals are as brutal as ever and I dare say that Scott has come into his own vocally as well, as he has made immense improvements since Funeral of God.

The whole album, as was said previously, is very themed…I think it is incredibly obvious after the first listen and the outtro that Dan is writing this for his fallen friends. Dan clearly used his notepad as a tool for his grief here and is prompting the listener to examine his life and the things that he finds valuable. Overall Awake? speaks for itself as a  Zao album that has been influenced by real world experiences- life and death are it’s muses and the canvas is metal.

Buy the Album!

Buy the Album on Amazon now
Buy the Album on Amazon now

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