Artists that have been around for a while will, at some point or another, be confronted with a dilemma in retirement: is it better to go out with a bang or to slowly fade away? Kurt Cobain chose the former in the ultimate literal sense, while ailing and decrepit one-off hair metal bands like Poison continue to contaminate the audio well with fetid reunion tours designed solely to refill bankrupt accounts. And then there are bands like metal stalwarts Zao that do something in between. They try to rejuvenate a stagnant state of affairs by revamping their style to make it seem streamlined, modern, and hip. There may have been some doubt left for Zao in this regard after their transition from Christian label Solid State to metalcore imprint Ferret, but their ninth album Awake? solidifies the reality of this middling process, commonly referred to as selling out.
To be fair, Zao has always been evolving as a band, be it through the constant rotation of musicians (not a single original member from their The Splinter Shards the Birth of Separation debut is left), the quintessential concept album about Dante’s description of hell (Liberate Te Ex Inferis), or the incorporation of subtle electronic elements (Self-Titled). I can’t fault them for this over the course of their twelve year career; the times change, and so must the soundtracks that accompany them. But the one cardinal sin amongst the stringent metal community, the single act beyond redemption, is the inclusion of clean vocals, especially for a band as influential and resilient as Zao.
This downward spiral truly began after the departure of original drummer Jesse Smith and the release of their Ferret debut, The Funeral of God. It seems that Scott Mellinger, who has been with the band since their third record, has been harboring a need to sing about his feelings instead of letting them mosh along the fretboard via his calloused and capable fingers. This dropped off slightly with The Fear That Keeps Us Here like it might just dissipate, but Awake? proves it’s still there mocking diehard fans of the band and genre like some malignant and clownish emo-tumor. “1,000,000 Outstretched Arms of Nothing” begins their latest effort fiercely enough with pounding drums and menacing guitar riffs before descending into a doom-metal dirge, which I counted as a good sign. “Entropica” starts in similar fashion, but true to its title, it attempts to reconcile the harsh darkness of metal with angelic singing like they weren’t disparate at all. The result, of course, is disorder, disgust, and decay.
Further description would only belabor the point. The majority of the album’s remainder is fluffy alternations that ineffectually juxtapose the dynamic of hard versus soft. Songs like “What Will You Find?”, which features the album’s heaviest moment and only breakdown six tracks in, and “Reveal” offer some reprieve from the inane attempt at mainstream marketability, and frontman Dan Weyandt’s screams do sound as scathing as they did eleven years ago. It’s not that clean vocals are bad. It’s that they should be left outside the metal world, which is to say that members of Zao that want to sing should leave gracefully like Brett Detar did after When Blood and Fire Bring Rest to form something like The Juliana Theory. The result otherwise is boring and contrived, making the question Zao’s latest album title poses all the more appropriate.