If you've ever heard Zao, chances are you haven't forgotten what they sound like: extreme, exorcism-like vocals over brutally heavy riffs and big drums. No, this isn't the kind of music I listen to on a regular basis, but I respect it and enjoy listening to it from time to time. After seeing the recent 3 and 1/2 hour documentary on the band called The Lesser Lights of Heaven, I don't know if I find the band's history more interesting than their music.
Other than Napalm Death, Zao is the only other band that I know of that retains none of their original members in their current line-up. Led by drummer Jesse Smith and a number of membership changes over a dozen years, certain members like vocalist Dan Weyandt, guitarist Scott Mellinger and guitarist Russ Cogdell floated in, around and out of the band. Now without Smith in the band, it sounds like blasphemy that the band is carrying on with the Zao name. I don't think it is, but how I feel this way can only be summed up after watching The Lesser Lights of Heaven.
I first read about Zao in Alternative Press in '98 shortly after Where Blood and Fire Bring Rest. The write-up on them was in a multi-page look at the current state of hardcore and it proved to be one of the more influential articles for Post. Ryan J. Downey wrote the blurb and it turns out, he produced and directed The Lesser Lights of Heaven.
At first, it seems natural to ask, "Why spend 3.5 hours on one band?" But I think that's plenty of time. This isn't your standard, chop-chop/get-to-the-point documentary that focuses on the main points and leaves out a ton of stuff in order to have an 80-90 running time. Probably every question I've ever wondered about the band is discussed. Band members, especially Smith, make no bones about personality differences, their views on organized religion and how certain records were thrown together to make some money. Not many bands are this blunt about who they were/are and this makes for a very engaging documentary.
The topic of Christianity and how it plays into organized religion has a big part in this film. Band member's views on organized religion and heavy music have been a controversial part of the band since their beginning. Playing a style of music that is often considered "death metal" because of the detuned guitars, pounding drums and screaming vocals, many have thought that metal band made up of Christians is an oxymoron. For Zao and a whole slew of bands, it's about creating good and powerful music, and not about being a ministry. As someone who doesn't subscribe to one set of beliefs under one organization, this attitude is something I really relate to. There is no way I can get into crappy, mediocre music, secular or non-secular.
Overall, this is a great DVD. A 3.5 hour documentary on a band is a tad long, but with it being on DVD, no one is holding you down to watch it in one sitting. Maybe this will start a trend of band documentaries and how length isn't that big of a deal. I get a little annoyed with documentaries that cut out so much stuff so they can make for a user-friendly running time. If the band's story is that interesting, take all the time you need.