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"Zao" is a metalcore band from Parkersburg, West Virginia. Founded in 1993, Zao has hosted several musicians and endured numerous roster changes to the point where no original members remain. Former drummer Jesse Smith, singer Daniel Weyandt, and guitarists Scott Mellinger & Russ Cogdell are seen by most fans as the "core" of Zao.
Christianity has been a key influence in the band's work; because the founding members claimed to have a strong relationship with God, they were considered a devoted Christian band, which changed as time passed. Former drummer Jesse Smith slowly changed the band's vision. Because only half the band's members identified themselves as Christians, Zao no longer considered itself a Christian band but rather a group of open-minded artists. Lyrics in future productions may or may not include Christian messages, but Zao has stated they would have loved to return to the Christian Cornerstone Festival when it was still active.
To date, Zao has completed ten full-length albums, three EPs, a two-disc DVD documentary and multiple concert tours, garnering a limited but global fanbase and earning critical praise in the process.
The First Era (1993-1997):
Founding members were vocalist Eric Reeder, guitarist Roy Goudy, bassist Mic Cox, and drummer Jesse Smith. The band's name comes from the Greek word (ζάω), which means "alive" or "to have life". Zao vocalist Eric Reeder has been credited with coming up with the band's name. Calling their sound "Christ-centered hardcore", they sought to reach an audience that they felt has been pushed away from the organized church. Most of their early songs, which appeared on their first two full-length albums, All Else Failed and The Splinter Shards the Birth of Separation (which saw the band re-recording much of the All Else Failed material), contained explicit references to God and centered on the theme of the peace of God. Reeder (who appeared on Zao's Author and Sustained demos, as well as a split with Outcast) left before Zao recorded All Else Failed and was replaced by Shawn Jonas, who went on to form Symphony in Peril. Jonas left the band after recording two albums and is now a youth pastor at New Life Church in West Virginia; original bassist Mic Cox left the band, and Kevin Moran took his place. Ron Gray also joined the band as a second guitarist after the recording of The Splinter Shards the Birth of Separation. All of the band members, except for drummer Jesse Smith, quit Zao following the 1997 Cornerstone festival and a couple of shows they played on the way back home.
The Second Era (1998-2002):
In 1998 Smith recruited Brett Detar, guitarist of Pennsylvania emocore band Pensive, to help him build a new incarnation of Zao. Detar suggested a pair of his friends, guitarist Russ Cogdell and enigmatic writer / poet (and future tattoo artist) Daniel Weyandt. Both Cogdell and Weyandt had played in Christian Hardcore band Seasons in the Field, who had released a split EP with Pensive. Smith would drive several hours to Greensburg, where all these new members lived, to co-write and rehearse what would become the first (and in many ways, defining) album from the new Zao, Where Blood and Fire Bring Rest. The group played fewer and fewer songs from the old version of the band as Blood and Fire took hold. They toured without a bassist and set stages ablaze with their raw emotion and Weyandt's personal storytelling, which detailed the hardships that informed their songs. With a rockabilly look and Smith's oddly engaging habit of setting up his drums facing away from the audience, their live reputation grew large in the underground. Not long after recording their half of a split EP with labelmates Training for Utopia in California, Detar left the group in 1999 to focus his energy on his rock side-project The Juliana Theory, who would sign to Sony and have a successful career before disbanding in 2006.
Scott Mellinger (ex-Creation Is Crucifixion) joined the band on lead guitar, and Rob Horner came in on bass, before the recording of another landmark metalcore album, Liberate Te Ex Inferis (Latin for "Save Yourself from Hell", a line from the movie Event Horizon). Cogdell left the band in 2000 to go to film school. Horner left at the same time, with Weyandt handling bass as well as vocals for a time.
Mellinger, Horner and Smith wrote and recorded all of the music for Zao's fifth album titled (Self-Titled), with Dan coming by for a few days to contribute his lyrics and vocals. The album is notable for Smith's dark pop interludes, the V-Drum sound and the song "Five Year Winter", which remains a signature Zao song.
Corey Darst replaced Weyandt for the majority of the touring in support of the album, with Horner returning, and second guitarist Matt Auxier joining up. Darst never appeared on a Zao album although this version of the group (Darst, Smith, Mellinger & Horner) did cut a three-song demo during a Seattle tour stop. The group talked about signing with either Sanctuary or Century Media Records, but Zao "broke up" on stage at a December, 2001 show in Pittsburgh (later documented on their DVD). They were to embark on a tour with The Juliana Theory and Weyandt had joined Darst onstage as a special guest, but an incapacitated Jesse Smith couldn't make it through the show and long-brewing tensions boiled over.
Solid State / Tooth & Nail funded the next Zao projects: a brand new album that like (Self-Titled) featured just Smith, Mellinger & Weyandt, called Parade of Chaos, as well as a re-recording of the original Zao's All Else Failed played by the same trio. In the documentary The Lesser Lights of Heaven, the band disavowed the re-recording, admitting they did it because they were broke and needed to fulfill their record contract with Solid State, even though it turned out to be a solid release.
Weyandt, Mellinger, Smith and a returning Cogdell set-out on the "Burn It Down and Walk Away Tour", billed as Zao's "final" tour, with support from special guests Underoath, Unearth, Dead Poetic, and The Underwater. Although technically a tour in support of "Parade Of Chaos" as well, no songs from the album were featured in the set-list.
After the 2002 tour, the group's members focused on other projects, most notably Cogdell & Mellinger's more rock-oriented Jade Meridian and Horner's two-year stint with the Wheeling, West Virginia sci-fi metal band The Minus Tide.
The Third Era (2003-2006):
Living Sacrifice drummer Lance Garvin filled in for Smith when the rest of the guys could not find him for a couple of 2003 festival dates. However, the Liberate era lineup reconvened in Greensburg around the promise of a new record label that offered to fund a new Zao album. The label ended up falling apart before a note of music was ever recorded, prompting Smith to reach out to Ferret Music who agreed to sign the band to a two-album deal. After cutting some new demos, Weyandt left the group.
Society's Finest singer Josh Ashworth was asked by Smith to join the group. This version of Zao did a few shows and recorded a couple of songs. However, by the end of 2003, Cogdell & Mellinger realized they did not want to make a Zao record without Dan on vocals. Smith & Horner quit Zao and joined up with Kevin Moran to focus on their new band, Gods. Ashworth stepped aside. With Dan back on board, the remaining three "core" members recruited the rhythm section from Jade Meridian (bass player Shawn Koschick, drummer Stephen Peck) to round-out the Zao lineup.
In 2004 Zao released The Funeral of God--a concept album that imagined a world where God had chosen to abandon mankind. Ferret heavily advertised the album, the group made their first music video (for "The Rising End"), and went on several tours of the US, resulting in the biggest selling Zao album to date. Though they had played a few shows there before, Zao did their first ever extensive European headlining tour with this lineup.
Shawn told the band he would be leaving just before the "Praise the War Machine" US headlining tour, 'though he did complete the tour. The sold-out show at Glasshouse in Pomona, CA was filmed for the band's in-the-works DVD.
Longtime friend and tour manager Marty Lunn took over the bass position before Zao co-headlined the "City of Champions" tour with The Juliana Theory. The following year, Stephen Peck told the band he was quitting two weeks before they were set to leave for the UK to tour with Bleeding Through. Scrambling to find a replacement, the group hired local drummer Jeff Gretz, the first outwardly and outspokenly non-Christian member in the history of the band. The UK tour was followed by the "Strhess Tour" across the US in the summer of 2005 with Bleeding Through, Darkest Hour and Misery Signals. The Los Angeles and San Diego shows were recorded for the upcoming DVD.
During a handful of dates on Vans Warped Tour that summer, Cogdell aggravated a knee-injury he had sustained doing one of his trademark knee-smashing jumps while filming their music video the year before. He sat out that fall's tour with Dillinger Escape Plan and Every Time I Die as well as dates with Unearth and Shadows Fall before exiting the band officially. That fall saw the release of the two-disc DVD set The Lesser Lights of Heaven.
In January, 2006, Weyandt, Mellinger, Lunn & Gretz traveled to Chicago to record their new album with one of their collective heroes, Steve Albini. He had recorded some of their favorite albums by Nirvana and Neurosis, to name a few. The making of The Fear Is What Keeps Us Here was documented for a limited edition DVD.
Directly after recording, Zao hit the road with In Flames, Trivium and DevilDriver. After that, they co-headlined their second "Ferret Music Tour"; they were forced to head home early after Dan severely injured his hand. The Fear... was released in June while Zao was on tour with Demon Hunter. The band filmed a video for "My Love, My Love (We've Come Back from the Dead)", a self-described "zombie love story", during that tour.
The fall of 2006 saw Zao touring with Throwdown, Evergreen Terrace and Maylene and the Sons of Disaster. During the tour, Mellinger & Weyandt both agreed that Zao should embark on a long-break after the tour. Eager to continue touring, Gretz left Zao not long after and became the drummer for From Autumn To Ashes.
The Fourth Era (2007-2009):
On January 23, 2007 Zao announced in a lengthy statement that Russ Cogdell had rejoined the band after recovering from his knee surgery. Zao stated also that they would not fill the drum position officially, but rather, ex-Juliana Theory drummer Josh Walters would fill-in if/when the band next appeared live. The band said they had completed their two-album deal with Ferret Music but did not say who would be releasing their next album. There is no news on whether they intend to re-sign to Ferret or seek a new label. Not long after the statement was released, the band said that Walters would in fact not be performing with them. A local friend named Dean Minerva was said to be their new fill-in drummer although he never ended up recording or performing with the band.
In the summer of 2008, Zao played their first show since 2006 with Demon Hunter at Mr. Smalls in Pittsburgh, PA. The lineup for the show was Weyandt, Mellinger, Lunn and Gretz.
In late summer 2008, Zao began recording their new album, Awake?, with Scott Mellinger, Daniel Castleman and As I Lay Dying singer Tim Lambesis co-producing. The band finished vocal recording in November 2008 with engineer Dave Hidek at Treelady Studios, located in Pittsburgh, PA. The band released the album on May 5, 2009, on Ferret Records.
Russ Cogdell played pre-Fear material at 2 shows in October in California. It is unclear if he has rejoined the band or not. Zao has also announced they have demoed 11 songs for a new album. It is also unclear when recording and release of this album will be.
The Fifth Era (2010-Present):
The band recently took to the web updating the world on the status of the band, as it stands, ZAO is Daniel Weyandt, Scott Mellinger, Russ Cogdell, Marty Lunn and Jeff Gretz.
Currently they lost the URL to their own site due to the fiasco of their previous label (Ferret/Warner Music) and are rebuilding a new site because they want it to be the main source for anything that has to do with Zao or any of its members, they also pointed out that they feel that all the social sites should be considered extra saying, "Hence, why we aren't too concerned about having all sorts of trinkets and bobbles on this thing anymore."
Among other things in the recent update, the band said they were extremely surprised on how well their last album, Awake?, did in the market considering it had no tour support by them and that it was thrown onto Ferret's label in the 11th hour. Zao said the best thing to come out of it is that they learned a lot of the last release and it showed them that fans still enjoy their music and this inspired and motivated them to continue making music.
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