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A staple of the annual Cornerstone festivals, Zao is perhaps the first metalcore band with roots in the Christian music scene to enjoy a credible, respected position in the mainstream realms of hardcore and metal. Their Carcass-inspired vocals have inspired a slew of imitators of their own. Multi-instrumentalist/drummer/founding member Jesse Smith has long been recognized as one of the best percussionists in heavy music. And the band's lack of apprehension about straying from proven formulas, genre restrictions, and labels of any kind is astounding. Their live performances are nearly a thing of legend in the underground, with bandmembers often flailing about, emoting, and connecting with the crowd with intense passion. The influential Zao (Greek for "alive") began in 1996 in Parkersburg, West Virginia (later relocating to Greensburg, Pennsylvania), when Smith gathered some friends together with the intention of starting a ministry-oriented, faith-based hardcore band similar to so-called "spirit-filled" bands like Unashamed and secular acts Unbroken and Earth Crisis. He bought his first drum kit the weekend he formed the band. Their first release was a split with the band Outcast on a small Ohio label, followed by the All Else Failed full-length album. This gained the attention of Seattle's Tooth & Nail Records, which signed the band to a lengthy contract and released The Splinter Shards the Birth of Separation in 1997. Zao became the flagship act for the label's hardcore-oriented Solid State imprint. After touring for the album, Smith found himself without a lineup as every other member exited following 1997's Cornerstone Fest. Determined to press forward, he recruited guitarists Brett Detar and Russ Cogdell, and vocalist Daniel Weyandt, and without a bassist redefined the Zao sound and produced the awe-inspiring Where Blood and Fire Bring Rest, a mournful, poetic, and incisive metallic testament to perseverance and overcoming all odds. The album signaled a shift in focus from the outright preaching of Christianity to a more personalized wordplay. It also saw the band musically moving far away from their initial influences and defining themselves as a formidable entity all their own. Zao toured relentlessly behind the album's release, and in 1998 produced a split with one of their touring mates, Sacramento, California's Training for Utopia, dubbed simply Training for Utopia/Zao. Detar left the group shortly after the EP's release to focus on his then side project the Juliana Theory. He was replaced by former Creation Is Crucifixion guitarist Scott Mellinger. Rob Horner was the next man to join the group, filling the long-vacant bass position. This lineup crafted Liberate Te Ex Inferis, a slightly more experimental yet still heavy album, in 1999. The album incorporated Neurosis-like meditations, further lyrical storytelling (including the tale of a doomed, true-to-life porn star), and flashy photography. Horner left briefly and Weyandt took over bass duties in addition to singing. Cory Darst replaced Weyandt for one tour before Horner returned. Cogdell left next and Weyandt returned, with Zao making Self-Titled in late 2000 as a four-piece and releasing it that same year. The album served as an all-new Zao mission statement, building on the band's past strengths while dipping into moody atmospherics reminiscent of Portishead, Massive Attack, or perhaps even the oft-cited Radiohead. Shortly after the album's release, Darst replaced Weyandt full-time as an official member of the band. In 2001, Zao recorded three songs at a Seattle studio and toured with renewed vigor. In early 2002, both Horner and Darst exited the band, with Weyandt and Cogdell coming back onboard as Zao re-signed to Solid State for two more albums. Parade of Chaos appeared in July, a month before that lineup of Zao broke up. This was far from the end, however, and the band reunited for two Cornerstone performances in 2003 and was permanently back together by the year's end. (Society's Finest vocalist Joshua Ashworth briefly replaced Weyandt.) A series of demos was cut that same year for a fledgling label that never quite got off the ground, so the band was instead snatched up by Ferret. Meanwhile, the best-of album Legendary surfaced the following year via Solid State. By now, Zao included Weyandt, Mellinger, and Cogdell alongside new recruits Shawn Koschik (bass) and Stephen Peck (drums). Together, they recorded their Ferret debut, the conceptual The Funeral of God, which was released in the summer of 2004; it earned the guys praise from the metal scene and their first airplay on MTV. Lots of touring commenced over the next two years, playing well-received sets with bands like the Dillinger Escape Plan, the Juliana Theory, and Every Time I Die. Peck made his leave in mid-2005 and was replaced on drums by Jeff Gretz in time for U.S. and U.K. dates with Bleeding Through and their stint at 2005's Warped Tour. During Warped, however, Cogdell suffered a knee injury, which ultimately caused his departure. That fall, Zao continued on as a four-piece comprising Mellinger, Weyandt, Gretz, and bassist Marty Lunn. The Steve Albini-produced The Fear Is What Keeps Us Here was next issued in the summer of 2006. Early the next year, a healed-up Cogdell rejoined Zao's ranks as Gretz left to join From Autumn to Ashes, and in 2008 the band issued their ninth studio long-player, Awake?. An unofficial five-year hiatus followed, with bandmembers focusing on side projects like Lonely Ghost Parade and Young Fox, but the group eventually returned to the studio, releasing the Xenophobe EP in 2015 and the full-length Well-Intentioned Virus the following year. ~ Ryan J. Downey
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  1.   Song
  2.   Particle
  3.   Circle II the Lustful: Autopsy
  4.   Endure
  5.   Times of Separation
  6.   Kathleen Barbra
  7.   Intro
  8.   Live... from the Funeral of God
  9.   The Last Song From Zion
  10.   The Ghost Psalm
  11.   Trashcanheads
  12.   5 Year Winter
  13.   Circle IV the Hoarders and the Spendthrifts: Dark Cold Sound
  14.   Ravage Ritual
  15.   Ember
  16.   Repressed
  17.   For Fair Desire
  18.   Man in Cage Jack Wilson
  19.   If These Scars Could Speak
  20.   Desire the End
  21.   Autopsy
  22.   Human Cattle Masses Marching Forward
  23.   A Last Time for Everything
  24.   Pudgy Young Blondes with Lobotomy Eyes
  25.   Killing Time 'Til It's Time to Die
  26.   The Last Revelation (The Last Prophecy)
  27.   The Rising End (The First Prophecy)
  28.   Skin Like Winter
  29.   Man in the Womb
  30.   Killing Cupid
  31.   Angel Without Wings
  32.   Suspend/Suspension
  33.   The Dreams That Don't Come True
  34.   The End of His World
  35.   FJL (Instrumental)
  36.   The Race of Standing Still
  37.   Alive Is Dead (Instrumental)
  38.   Circle III the Gluttonous: Desire the End
  39.   Circle III the Gluttonous: the Ghost Psalm
  40.   Circle II the Lustful: If These Scars Could Speak
  41.   Violet
  42.   The Latter Rain
  43.   Fifteen Rhema
  44.   To Think of You Is to Treasure an Absent Memory
  45.   Song 1
  46.   Resistance
  47.   The Children Cry for Help
  48.   Surrounds Me
  49.   In Loving Kindness
  50.   The Eyes Behind the Throne
  51.   Circle IV the Hoarders and the Spendthrifts: Skin Like Winter
  52.   Exchange
  53.   Quiet Passenger, Pt. 1
  54.   American Sheets on the Deathbed
  55.   Physician Heal Thyself
  56.   The Lesser Lights of Heaven
  57.   The Buzzing
  58.   At Zero (Simeon Simmons)
  59.   Lies of Serpents, a River of Tears
  60.   A Pirates Prayer
  61.   Truly, Truly, This Is the End
  62.   Circle I Limbo: Intro
  63.   One Last Time
  64.   March
  65.   Entropica
  66.   It's Hard Not to Shake with a Gun in Your Mouth
  67.   Trash Can Hands
  68.   Circle I Limbo: Savannah
  69.   Cancer Eater
  70.   Paradise of Chaos
  71.   Foresight
  72.   Savannah
  73.   A Tool to Scream
  74.   1, 000, 000 Outstretched Arms of Nothing
  75.   Reveal
  76.   Circle V the Wrathful: Kathleen Barbra
  77.   Romance of the Southern Spirit
  78.   The Icarus Complex
  79.   Breath of the Black Muse
  80.   Witchhunter
  81.   Psalm of the City of the Dead
  82.   Quiet Passenger, Pt. 2/The World Caved In
  83.   Awake?
  84.   Black Coffee
  85.   For a Fair Desire
  86.   Kingdom of Thieves
  87.   In Times Gone Past
  88.   My Love, My Love
  89.   Free the Three
  90.   A Fall Farewell
  91.   How Are the Weak Free
  92.   Walk on by, Walk on Me
  93.   Everything You Love Will Soon Fly Away
  94.   Circle V the Wrathful: Man in Cage Jack Wilson
  95.   All Else Failed
  96.   I Lay Sleepless in My Grave