After 3 years of near silence, Avenged Sevenfold returned to our conscience on October 13 with a comeback 8-and-a-half minute single, ‘The Stage’, which to the surprise of absolutely no-one, divided opinion in a big way. One striking feature, however, was that after the uninspired Hail To The King album, the band were back to taking chances. Musically, the song was a lot more sprawling and diverse, the drumming in particular was much more accomplished and in keeping with a more familiar Avenged Sevenfold sound. Soon thereafter came news of a new record, albeit through no more than a very cryptic marketing campaign (Chris Jericho’s soon-deleted tweet notwithstanding). So no more Voltaic Oceans, no more December release date, but straight to the point, unleashed at the nearest available opportunity – quite the statement in itself, but does the album follow suit?
Well, quite simply: yes. What Avenged Sevenfold have done here is rediscovered the ambition that grew to shape earlier releases like Waking The Fallen and City of Evil – not perfect albums by any stretch, but fuelled by experimentation and grandiose ideas, things that were lost entirely on 2013’s Hail To The King in favour of a more straightforward sound-a-like of their influences which ended up famously dull and contrived, with the strongest praise befalling it’s bare-bones competence in delivery.
Avenged Sevenfold are treading new ground with new purpose, and re-discovering their sense of fun. From the baffling, but strangely welcome brass section on ‘Sunny Disposition’ to the System Of A Down-ish opening riff to ‘God Damn’, and from the black metal styled shredding and percussion that adorn the verses of ‘Fermi Paradox’ to the almost ambient dub (come on, I said almost) closing to ‘Higher’, the Avenged Sevenfold of 2016 are not even close to resting on their laurels and re-hashing uninspired techniques. Where they do pick and choose elements of their own back catalogue, it is only to the benefit of the record: we revisit Waking The Fallen territory on the post-chorus screams in ‘Paradigm’ and City of Evil-esque string-infused balladry of ‘Roman Sky’ (but don’t worry, this isn’t just a simple ‘Seize The Day’ rehash). By the time fifteen-minute, mainly instrumental closer ‘Exist’ rolls around, one thing is certain: everything about The Stage is covered in a welcome pomposity and swagger that had been disconcertingly absent for far too long. It is undoubtedly tongue-in-cheek in its delivery – and we’re treated to the trademark Shadows sneering chuckle in the opening track – but it all comes together so… convincingly. No, this isn’t a return to their roots in the all-screaming, all-heavy sense, but neither is it concerned with being radio-friendly hard rock. This is a different beast entirely.
Truth be told, if Nightmare and HTTK hadn’t been released, The Stage absolutely feels like a natural progression from City of Evil. I intentionally leave out the self-titled album from this list as there are a few elements from it on show here, but the instrumental twists and turns on Avenged Sevenfold served only to aid fleeting ideas (such as ‘Brompton Cocktail’, ‘Lost’ and ‘Dear God’). On this latest offering, however, we are presented with a magnum opus – prepared to weave and shapeshift, prepared to embrace the unknown with reckless abandon, utilising strings, keyboards, world percussion, synthetic soundscapes – all of which amplify the melodrama but the band also acknowledge their theatrics (something that the video to the lead single attests to). In short, these songs are absolutely massive and immaculately performed. The addition of Brooks Wackerman on drums is also a huge boost to the record – whether Arin Ilejay was dismissed as a result of the negative reception to HTTK is a mystery, and it is definitely a shame that he was not able to show his true potential on these songs (which assuredly need a more advanced approach than on the predecessor) – but Wackerman has shown himself to be a more than capable filler of The Rev’s shoes.
The Stage is not without criticism, far from it, and nor is it an album for the cynical – and Avenged Sevenfold have (probably quite fairly) earned an abundance of that in their 17-year history. From being painfully too high in the mix on Nightmare, Johnny Christ’s bass is barely anywhere to be heard on this record, which is a shame as the stomping riffs on ‘Creating God’ and ‘Simulation’ in particular are crying out for just a little more low-end to really growl as ferociously as intended. Furthermore, despite the improvement to M Shadows’ voice – vocals are still verging on a distraction. This is undoubtedly an improved performance by him in comparison to previous efforts, but he does still possess the off-putting nasal quality that has afflicted every single album post-Waking The Fallen. On this record, he opts for strength over layering, which is admirable and produces some of his strongest output in some time, but as a result he does feel a little under-produced in comparison to the rest of the record, which doesn’t help when arguably he needs the biggest boost of all the members. Finally, ‘Angels’ at the mid-point of the record serves only to slow down the pace, and is a little unnecessarily dreary given the energy of the rest of work on display here.
To sum it up as succinctly as possible, The Stage is not likely to gain Avenged Sevenfold any new fans, but it is liable to trigger a collective thought of ‘ah yeah, I remember what these guys were about’ – and for fans like myself, it is assuredly a return to form that a lot of hope had waned for. It chooses progression over stagnation, risks over comfort, and flair over ease. The real problem that they face here is they’ve posed an almost impossible question: why should anyone care about Avenged Sevenfold in 2016? The Stage is far beyond a worthy answer, but whether it enables the band to overcome the parody of themselves they became remains to be seen. If they are capable of bodies of work like this, it makes Hail To The King all the more of a baffling mis-step, and not everyone is forgiving enough to afford them another chance.
The Stage is however a fitting title. Avenged Sevenfold are once more front and centre, keen again to prove what showmen they truly are.
Another interesting one is Parkway Drive, as is Cynic with Focus, Manic Street Preachers and Emo.