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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.   Ravage Ritual
  3.   In Times Gone Past
  4.   How Are the Weak Free
  5.   To Think of You Is to Treasure an Absent Memory
  6.   Repressed
  7.   Intro
  8.   Song 1
  9.   It's Hard Not to Shake with a Gun in Your Mouth
  10.   The Buzzing
  11.   A Fall Farewell
  12.   Desire the End
  13.   What Will You Find?
  14.   Reveal
  15.   My Love, My Love
  16.   Pudgy Young Blondes with Lobotomy Eyes
  17.   Live... from the Funeral of God
  18.   The Last Song From Zion
  19.   The Last Revelation (The Last Prophecy)
  20.   The Rising End (The First Prophecy)
  21.   All Dressed Up (With No Place to Go)
  22.   Walk on by, Walk on Me
  23.   PS. 77
  24.   A Pirates Prayer
  25.   The End of His World
  26.   FJL (Instrumental)
  27.   Witchhunter
  28.   A Tool to Scream
  29.   Circle IV the Hoarders and the Spendthrifts: Skin Like Winter
  30.   Circle II the Lustful: If These Scars Could Speak
  31.   Circle II the Lustful: Autopsy
  32.   The Latter Rain
  33.   For a Fair Desire
  34.   Resistance
  35.   The Children Cry for Help
  36.   Surrounds Me
  37.   Times of Separation
  38.   Killing Cupid
  39.   I Lay Sleepless in My Grave
  40.   Fifteen Rhema
  41.   The Dreams That Don't Come True
  42.   Psalm of the City of the Dead
  43.   A Last Time for Everything
  44.   Exchange
  45.   For Fair Desire
  46.   Eyes Behind the Throne
  47.   Human Cattle Masses Marching Forward
  48.   Romance of the Southern Spirit
  49.   Kingdom of Thieves
  50.   Physician Heal Thyself
  51.   One Last Time
  52.   Savannah
  53.   The Race of Standing Still
  54.   Growing in Grace
  55.   Circle V the Wrathful: Man in Cage Jack Wilson
  56.   Endure
  57.   Circle III the Gluttonous: the Ghost Psalm
  58.   The Icarus Complex
  59.   The Ballad of Buddy Bigsby
  60.   Suspend/Suspension
  61.   Particle
  62.   Circle III the Gluttonous: Desire the End
  63.   Awake?
  64.   Skin Like Winter
  65.   March
  66.   Angel Without Wings
  67.   Alive Is Dead (Instrumental)
  68.   The Lesser Lights of Heaven
  69.   Foresight
  70.   Ember
  71.   In Loving Kindness
  72.   Circle I Limbo: Intro
  73.   Man in the Womb
  74.   Dark Cold Sound
  75.   Circle I Limbo: Savannah
  76.   1,000,000 Outstretched Arms of Nothing
  77.   Autopsy
  78.   Everything You Love Will Soon Fly Away
  79.   All Else Failed
  80.   There Is No Such Thing as Paranoia
  81.   American Sheets on the Deathbed
  82.   Man in Cage Jack Wilson
  83.   If These Scars Could Speak
  84.   Trashcanheads
  85.   Circle IV the Hoarders and the Spendthrifts: Dark Cold Sound
  86.   Kathleen Barbra
  87.   Black Coffee
  88.   Violet
  89.   The Ghost Psalm
  90.   At Zero (Simeon Simmons)
  91.   Cancer Eater