01. Into The Jaws Of Dread
02. Ship Of Theseus
04. The Final Ghost
06. The Crimson Corridor
08. Nothing's Form
10. Lost Star
11. The Web
Discussing Zao typically begins with a history lesson - a timeline of the arrivals and departures of band members leading us to the current lineup of musicians - but on their latest album, The Crimson Corridor, the group kicks things off with a philosophical exercise, throwing into question if any of that matters at all. "Ship Of Theseus," both as a song and as a thought experiment, examines the concept of what dictates identity – in Zao's case, the continuation of a band that no longer carries an original member among its ranks. And, fresh off last year's release of the earliest incarnations demo material, Preface: The Early Recordings 1995-1996, the dichotomy between the groups that recorded 1995's All Else Failed, 1998's Where Blood And Fire Bring Rest and 2009's Awake?, all under the same moniker has perhaps never been more apparent.
But when vocalist Dan Weyandt screams "This is the Ship of Theseus / (we are) fragments of the frame / composing a new identity / from the prototypal remains," in the track's closing, it becomes clear that they themselves view the band as its own entity, regardless of the components that comprise it. It is a representation of their continuous evolution, being a group that has never shied away from attempting something new, always looking to expand upon their sound. If that is the case, then The Crimson Corridor is certainly the next stage in the process.
The record picks up right where their last full-length, The Well-Intentioned Virus left off. The chaotic technicality that album introduced is present, but woven into a more diverse sounding approach. New ideas are fleshed out, but the result is distinctly Zao. On "Croatoan" and "The Crimson Corridor," the teetering guitar play of Russ Cogdell and Scott Mellinger complements slower, drearier sounding sections. The Neurosis influence isn't something new to Zao's sound, but this time it's more pronounced as the band delves further into a post-metal feel. Weyandt's signature tortured screams fit well into the more atmospheric heaviness, unsurprising when you consider he originally developed it after UK sludgers Iron Monkey.
Drummer Jeff Gretz's double kick provides the album's driving force, on display particularly in the serene intro track "Into The Jaws Of Dread," and on songs like "The Ship of Theseus" and the noisey "Transitions." His smooth shifts between complex, creative fills and doomy minimalism provide the perfect rhythmic accompaniment to the blaring guitars. On "The Final Ghost" Zao embrace their early metalcore roots, bouncing between chuggy palm-muted verses and a more open chorus, while "R.I.P.W." adopts the emotional intensity that made the group's late nineties releases the classics they are today.
Throughout the album Zao fuse ideas from their past with a new energy and freshness, and whether it is the melancholic melodicism of The Funeral Of God or the dark ambiance of The Fear Is What Keeps Us Here, it's all done without appearing like they are in looking in the rear view mirror. The clean guitar breaks of "Creator/Destroyer" and "Lost Star" are accompanied by spoken word and clean sung vocals respectively, giving a break from the onslaught. But in "The Web," the album's ten minute closer, the song is based more around the mellower vibe, which grows into The Crimson Corridor's pummeling conclusion.
Zao is not currently a full-time endeavor, touring sporadically when their jobs and personal lives allow it, even before the pandemic. Perhaps because of this, and the freedom of operating their own record label, Observed/Observer, they appear to be exploring the sounds they want without the urge to placate fans or management. It's no secret that the group has put out material to fulfill contractual obligations in the past, but since going independent with the release of The Well-Intentioned Virus, the band sounds not only refreshed, but well on top of their game.
Bottom Line: The Crimson Corridor ranks up with all of Zao's best material. Those nostalgic for Where Blood And Fire Bring Rest or Liberate Te Ex Infernis might argue, but the growth they have shown in recent years finds the band releasing some of the strongest material of their lengthy career.