If you're like me, the words "Christian metal" bring to mind visions of Stryper's Michael Sweet strutting around the stage in leopard-print spandex, belting out hair-metal hymns. ZAO, however, ain't your father's Christian metal.

Since its debut album in 1996, the group has created hard-hitting, truly heavy music with often oblique spiritual and religious references. Though labeled a "Christian" band, ZAO has never been that easy to pin down. Immensely talented multi-instrumentalist Jesse Smith captains the ever-changing lineup, drawing on the unbridled aggression of Carcass, the ferocious speed of Napalm Death and the jammy experimentalism of Neurosis to unleash a brutal metal-core concoction that goes far beyond the boundaries of any single genre. On its most recent efforts, ZAO has even thrown elements of ambient electronica into the mix. The overall effect has little to do with religion, and everything to do with punishing, visceral and technically complex compositions.

Over the years, the act has been lauded for its live set, with intensely emotional and relentlessly heavy shows that resemble an Assembly of God meeting at Aleister Crowley's house. The members whirl around the stage in a kind of ecstasy, simultaneously connecting with both the crowd at their feet and the ethereal muses that inspire this divine, diabolical noise. While speaking in tongues isn't mandatory, it's certainly encouraged.


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