Since abandoning the “Christ-centered” focus of their early material, Pittsburgh-via-West Virginia’s Zao spent much of the 2000s forging ties between experimental metalcore and heavy metal, just as their contemporaries were beginning to gain mainstream attention for that same bond. Zao’s records — issued by everyone from Solid State to Ferret — thus cataloged this balance and struggle; where 2004’s The Funeral of God told the shadowy story of the heavenly father abandoning his creations, Awake? seemed to shout from the destruction a departure like that would promise. The Well-Intentioned Virus is the first record from the band in over seven years and one from their own imprint, Observed/Observer Recordings, signaling a shift in authorship that isn’t just a winking reference to the band’s ever-changing lineup or thematic elements. This is a record that thrives in being both culturally relevant and unapologetically personal, which depending on one’s understanding of Zao, can be a fitting starting point or welcome reintroduction.
In the realm of fake news and questionable administrative decisions, “Xenophobe” might seem too on-the-nose as a self-described appeal for the truth. With soloing guitar that gets spliced with a melodic midsection, the first half of the song — a frenetic, uneven mess characterized by jerky, buzzsaw rhythms — and its second, where magma flows from every inch of Zao’s thrashing anxiety, get unraveled for a brief moment of pause in order to let the gravity of the situation settle. And that’s the basic principle of The Well-Intentioned Virus, where songs chronicling broken suicide pacts (“Broken Pact Blues”) and the good/evil dichotomy (“The Well-Intentioned Virus”) are heightened by somersaulting instrumentals, but also unpacked and softened by a commitment to retaining melody. Even “The Sun Orbits Around the Flat Earth Trials,” with its ascending madness, has a half-time breakdown which inhales before diving head-first into squealing notes and torched vocal tones. As ideologically stuffed of a band as Zao has been, the boldest statement on The Well-Intentioned Virus is matching their time-tested spitfire with a more measured approach to letting it burn.
A single credit on The Well-Intentioned Virus stands out more than any other: “Lacquers cut by Josh Bonati.” A quick look at the vinyl mastering guru’s official website shows that he’s done the same for everyone from Mac DeMarco to Wild Nothing — decidedly more indie-focused artists. How does Mr. Bonati’s work transfer here? The album’s more cinematic moments, including the opening siren calls of “The Weeping Vessel,” pierce through with crispness. The band’s three-pronged vocal attack — melodic cleans, unbalanced singing like that on the wounded “Broken Pact Blues,” and throat-ruining screams — are given equal say in the mix, and never crumble under the tension of acrobatic guitar tapping and solos wielding acid rain. There are ripples of surface noise bookending each side — which is another feature to note. The 42 minutes fit on one, 12″ 140-gram (or 150-gram, depending on color) disc without any major compression issues or loss in quality. Wow.
Below is the full gatefold cover art for The Well-Intentioned Virus, designed by Matt Kerley. This tapestry is given prime real estate as the vinyl version’s outer casing, with the inner gatefold featuring a different vantage point of the ghastly scene. The gatefold prints all lyrics for deeper exploration of the band’s smoldering social and personal commentary, and the vinyl is housed in a printed inner sleeve offering a larger lens into the record’s center labels – the final touch guaranteeing a premier packaging job. (Also consider the love given to the cassette and CD versions of the release, including a eight-panel foldout for the former and custom packaging for the latter).
The Well-Intentioned Virus is available on vinyl and CD via the band’s webstore. A cassette version was once made for sale, but is now sold out.