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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.   Resistance
  3.   The Eyes Behind the Throne
  4.   Walk on by, Walk on Me
  5.   Ravage Ritual
  6.   Song 1
  7.   The Children Cry for Help
  8.   The Last Revelation (The Last Prophecy)
  9.   Circle IV the Hoarders and the Spendthrifts: Dark Cold Sound
  10.   Circle I Limbo: Savannah
  11.   Suspend/Suspension
  12.   Times of Separation
  13.   Desire the End
  14.   Autopsy
  15.   What Will You Find?
  16.   Reveal
  17.   Romance of the Southern Spirit
  18.   A Last Time for Everything
  19.   In Times Gone Past
  20.   The Rising End (The First Prophecy)
  21.   Breath of the Black Muse
  22.   Skin Like Winter
  23.   Savannah
  24.   PS. 77
  25.   Killing Cupid
  26.   The Buzzing
  27.   At Zero (Simeon Simmons)
  28.   The Dreams That Don't Come True
  29.   Witchhunter
  30.   Alive Is Dead (Instrumental)
  31.   All Else Failed
  32.   Circle V the Wrathful: Kathleen Barbra
  33.   Circle III the Gluttonous: Desire the End
  34.   The Latter Rain
  35.   For a Fair Desire
  36.   Fifteen Rhema
  37.   Ember
  38.   March
  39.   To Think of You Is to Treasure an Absent Memory
  40.   Lies of Serpents, a River of Tears
  41.   In Loving Kindness
  42.   Particle
  43.   Surrounds Me
  44.   Growing in Grace
  45.   Praise the War Machine
  46.   Foresight
  47.   Man in Cage Jack Wilson
  48.   American Sheets on the Deathbed
  49.   For Fair Desire
  50.   Circle IV the Hoarders and the Spendthrifts: Skin Like Winter
  51.   FJL (Instrumental)
  52.   The Last Song From Zion
  53.   Intro
  54.   Killing Time 'Til It's Time to Die
  55.   The Race of Standing Still
  56.   The Ballad of Buddy Bigsby
  57.   Exchange
  58.   If These Scars Could Speak
  59.   Everything You Love Will Soon Fly Away
  60.   Physician Heal Thyself
  61.   Cancer Eater
  62.   Truly, Truly, This Is the End
  63.   All Dressed Up (With No Place to Go)
  64.   Circle III the Gluttonous: the Ghost Psalm
  65.   Endure
  66.   Repressed
  67.   5 Year Winter
  68.   Circle I Limbo: Intro
  69.   Dark Cold Sound
  70.   Paradise of Chaos
  71.   Circle V the Wrathful: Man in Cage Jack Wilson
  72.   Quiet Passenger, Pt. 2/The World Caved In
  73.   The Lesser Lights of Heaven
  74.   Kingdom of Thieves
  75.   It's Hard Not to Shake with a Gun in Your Mouth
  76.   The Icarus Complex
  77.   Kathleen Barbra
  78.   Live... from the Funeral of God
  79.   How Are the Weak Free
  80.   There Is No Such Thing as Paranoia
  81.   Circle II the Lustful: If These Scars Could Speak
  82.   Trash Can Hands
  83.   Awake?
  84.   My Love, My Love
  85.   Psalm of the City of the Dead
  86.   Human Cattle Masses Marching Forward
  87.   The End of His World
  88.   The Ghost Psalm
  89.   Trashcanheads
  90.   Man in the Womb
  91.   1,000,000 Outstretched Arms of Nothing
  92.   One Last Time
  93.   A Pirates Prayer
  94.   Pudgy Young Blondes with Lobotomy Eyes
  95.   Violet
  96.   Circle II the Lustful: Autopsy
  97.   Angel Without Wings
  98.   Free the Three
  99.   A Fall Farewell
  100.   I Lay Sleepless in My Grave
  101.   A Tool to Scream
  102.   Quiet Passenger, Pt. 1
  103.   Entropica

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