See, I think I've gone on record that I never really had an 'angry white boy' phase, and since I was such a massive nerd growing up, when I did start getting into metal in the mid-2000s, I kind of skipped hard rock radio entirely and dove straight into fantasy-inspired symphonic and power metal. Sure, I heard some of it in passing if it ever crossed over to pop radio, but my musical evolution was taking me in precisely the opposite direction of rock radio: I was listening to progressive rock and metal and later the more anthemic strains of hair metal and thrash, or getting into punk and post-punk that would drag me into experimental and noise rock, all of which would culminate in my continuing exploration of even more abrasive genres like black metal which continues to this day.
But going back to relisten to some of that mid-2000s material now... wow, I can't tell you how lucky I feel about this. I avoided the dregs of nu-metal, the post-grunge imitators, so much of the meat-headed metalcore scene... look, I doubted I would have gotten into this when I was a teenager anyway, but it's very telling that going back to this now how badly so much of it has aged. That's what makes a look back at Avenged Sevenfold kind of fascinating to me, a band that gets dumped on by metal fans for not being heavier and the sort of theatrics that they've rarely if ever been able to pull off convincingly. Yeah, okay, the guitar work and solos did have a certain charm on City Of Evil, but the band followed it with a self-titled release in 2007 that tried to add elements of symphonic rock and fell ridiculously flat. And yes, for the most part I'm going to blame frontman M. Shadows for this - his songwriting has always been hilariously overwrought and his more nasal delivery has never had swell or impact for me.
Now granted, things have improved: after the unfortunate passing of their drummer The Rev, they pivoted into heavier material like their 2010 album Nightmare, which was a decent if unremarkable slice of heavy metal. But by the time they released Hail To The King in 2013, it became apparent that even if Avenged Sevenfold had started to evolve past adolescent whinging, I was struggling to find anything fresh or interesting about their material. I get making a tribute to the past, but when the influences are so blatant without fresher content, I can lose interest. And it looks like Avenged Sevenfold have reportedly taken that to heart: without warning they released their longest album to date, apparently drawing on progressive metal, thrash, and even hints of their metalcore sound they left behind years ago. Now I still wasn't a fan of this band, but this looked to potentially be their most experimental work to date, one of their more 'conceptual' and perhaps even their heaviest, and that looked interesting at least, so I dug into The Stage. Did Avenged Sevenfold redeem themselves?
Well, remember how I said I was the wrong person to be reviewing this? The more I went through this album, the more I released I was incorrect in that statement. Avenged Sevenfold weren't making a record that was outside of my usual purview - they were making a progressive metal album, and I've covered plenty of those! Now to some extent the more I went through this record it does feel a little like a transitional step, trying to straddle the genre lines between more traditional heavy metal and their weirder, more ambitious instincts - to the point where I definitely think there are ideas that feel a little like half measures, but we'll get to that... but in terms of Avenged Sevenfold albums, this is probably the first that's playing in a wheelhouse I like, probably has the most replay value for me, believe it or not.
And to switch things up, I want to start with the content - because this is easily the most ambitious Avenged Sevenfold have ever been on record, and probably the most mature. They're aiming big here, tackling advancing technology and nanomachines, political gamesmanship and deceiving the masses, class struggles, and of course the possibility of nuclear annihilation. And a lot of it plays in the conspiratorial lane as 'exposing the truth', but what gets interesting is that as the album progresses you see the band looking outward at the cosmos, seeking any sense of a possible escape and wondering why we haven't encountered other species in the vastness, even directly invoking the Fermi Paradox that given the extremely likely case there is intelligent life out there, the fact we haven't encountered them yet is paradoxical. Now on some level I'm not wild about this thematic progression either - give up and flee for the stars because it sucks here is pretty nihilistic in its own right - but when you include songs like 'Higher' - dedicated to The Rev - and album highlight 'Roman Sky', dedicated to Giordano Bruno, a 16th century philosopher and astronomer who theorized a universe beyond the solar system and was burned as a heretic for it, the escapism does have some wistful charm to it. And hell, if you anchor the album with a pretty solid soliloquy from Neil de Grasse Tyson about exploration of the cosmos, I'm pretty much on board... which makes it odd global warming doesn't really come up as an apocalyptic force, but again, baby steps. What's a little more frustrating in the writing are the inconsistencies, both of tone and of content. For as much as this album wants to take a strong humanist and futurist stance, the questioning of technology in the 'playing god' mold on 'Paradigm' and 'Creating God' don't really belong. And that's before we get to the conspiratorial tone - I've said it before in my Megadeth review, I find it hard to take this sort of framing seriously, especially when its paired with paranoid rhetoric - the world is far more likely to be destroyed by mistakes and inactivity rather than sinister conspiracies, and that hospital skit on 'Simulation' started to push into campier territory that does a disservice to the actual content.
But then again, I'm surprised this record doesn't step more into that hyperbolic territory - I'm forgiving a lot of the rhetoric because it is metal, but there's a fine line between driving and anthemic and just ridiculous, and Avenged Sevenfold have always straddled that line. And a big part of that is M.Shadows' vocal delivery - and while this is probably his most agreeable performance yet, he's still not a frontman I'm entirely behind. And it's not because of his bellowed or louder tones - he's finally picked up some grit and he's nowhere near as nasal as he once was - but outside of his lower range where it seems like he's channeling Scott Weilland with a vocal melody pulled from a mid-period Ayreon record, it was always the softer vocals where the nasal tone sneaks back in and it's just distracting for me. Granted, that's not counting songs like 'Goddamn' where he's shouting over more acoustic tones and the contrast is jarring as hell, definitely not one of the better tracks here despite a stronger hook.
But really, the sign of where Avenged Sevenfold could make up the most progressive ground would be in the instrumentation and production, right? Well, again, it's tough to gauge. For one, while I did like the more complex and explosive drumwork from Brooks Wackerman, formerly of Bad Religion, the slappy kickdrum tone he uses is mixed closer to the front than it probably should be, and minus any sort of consistent bass presence, I'm often left feeling that the drums, rhythm guitar and vocal line are compensating for a foundational depth that isn't often here in the mix. That, combined with some of the more squealing lead guitar tones from Gates that feel a little lacking in body, leave me questioning whether this is an issue of tonal choice or the production itself. This is their first project with Joe Barresi after the last two albums with Mike Elizondo, and while Barresi has produced albums I liked a decade ago from Queens Of The Stone Age - including my favourite Lullabies to Paralyze - I'm not sure his talents are fully utilized here. But beyond that, that's not saying there aren't some interesting tonal choices here, or that Gates' soloing isn't absolutely ridiculous - although on tracks like 'Paradigm' it feels like the solo can lack overall direction to circle back, in comparison with the stronger 'Creating God' - but some can feel a little awkwardly placed. Take the horns brought into 'Sunny Disposition' - the verses actually pick up more grinding bass presence and there is some riffing that's thrash as hell, but against the softer vocals, the horn section on the hook just feels garish and doesn't really lend the song the atmosphere it needs; not a bad idea, but not quite fully realized. It works a little better on the alternative metal touches in the rougher tones on 'Angels' with hints of lo-fi arranged instrumentation on the hook and pretty damn impressive solos, or the spacey synth touches on 'Higher' that very much feel like they're channeling Muse in the overdubbed vocals and especially the hook - and that's before we get the symphonic vocals - to the tremolo riffing behind parts of 'The Fermi Paradox', but many of these pieces feel like ideas added to the Avenged Sevenfold formula, not quite fleshed out or explored enough to break away from an established sound that is technically impressive but doesn't really stick with me. The one exception is 'Roman Sky' with the strings accompaniment and a pretty damn good melody line on the main guitar - it's a genuinely great power ballad, but it's also something in which Avenged Sevenfold have some experience.
So again, maybe it's just transitional, and maybe if Avenged Sevenfold continue taking steps in these directions, we could get a stronger project down the road - but that's not to disparage what we got here either. Hell, it's probably the most I've ever enjoyed an Avenged Sevenfold album thus far, even if I do feel that on a compositional level they're a band that's more technically skilled than in crafting a consistent narrative or melodically satisfying hook, but there's definitely some growth and potential here. Thus for me I'm giving it a strong 6/10, but I do recommend this, especially to Avenged Sevenfold fans who have been waiting for them to get heavier or more complex. Maybe for now Avenged Sevenfold just isn't for me, but on the path they're going... you know, I think they could get there, so let's wait and see, I'm sure they'll surprise us.