Judging by the fact that Avenged Sevenfold’s seventh full-length’s existence was revealed and confirmed not even a day ago, it’s safe to assume that the record must be good. For the band to forego the typical industry process of establishing a “hype” period for the record by launching pre-orders and instead choosing to ship directly to retailers with little to no notice, The Stage is to be a depiction of an incredibly confident band. After all, no group of artists should ever do something so ballsy with minimal lead-off and expect positive results. Avenged Sevenfold though? They can more than get away with this. And they did.
Harkening back to the “throw whatever instrumentation and musical influences we want into a blender and mix it all up” days of the fan-favorite City of Evil record, The Stage deftly combines progressive compositions that would make the likes of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin bat an eye, with the sassy lyricism and ramblings of a particularly politically charged, existentially pissed off M. Shadows and the darkened atmosphere of a record like Nightmare. As a matter of fact, it would seem that every Avenged Sevenfold record fits into The Stage‘s complex puzzle somehow – Hail To The King‘s tendency to throw in prog-influenced guitar work and synths, Waking The Fallen‘s fierce percussion and violent grooves and even Sounding The Seventh Trumpet‘s melodrama all find a place here. Instead of pinning this record into a corner, however, it is anything but predictable. For instance, the sudden flamenco elements of the early records have returned and now dominate entire SONGS (“Sunny Disposition”). Fast snare rolls give way to well-timed heavy onslaughts of fret fury (“Paradigm”). Eeriely psychedelic clean sections erupt into releases of angered outpourings. This is certainly not the Avenged Sevenfold of any particular era. Rather an entirely new beast with a penchant for making roller coasters out of songs. It’s too easy to say that this album sounds like any particular record from the band. Instead of strictly looking back, the band looked to themselves as their biggest influence as well as the musical path they were walking before The Rev’s untimely passing and expanded on their own sound 110%. Limitation is actually the one thing you won’t hear on this album.
This bares the question – does this album sacrifice structure and flow for an overwhelming capacity of ideas? Not exactly. While it’s true that the first and maybe even second listen-through of The Stage, a seventy-one minute record whose shortest song is just over four minutes and longest song is nearly sixteen minutes, will be head-spinning, polarizing even, the listener is rewarded with an immense amount of depth. This is one album that will be considered a grower, particularly due to the seemingly overblown nature of its content. Due to this, the choruses aren’t as immediately appealing or highlighted as on past records, specifically Hail To The King and self-titled where the instrumentation was significantly more controlled so as to allow the choruses to really stand out. That’s not to say that the choruses are bad. Rather, they need to be taken in a few times to really ‘get’, as this record as a whole does. Hooks are traded in for substance and it’s a trade-off that works. With the instrumentation being surprisingly prevalent, the vocals almost feel like another album alone. While this could be an easy criticism, it’s more-so a compliment to just how much this record packs in without feeling like a sonic mess.
To Avenged Sevenfold’s benefit, no two songs are alike. If you were thinking The Stage lead single was grand and massive, just wait until you hear the likes of the soaring “Angels” and especially the ballsy finale, “Exist” (complete with a Neil Degrasse Tyson audio analysis written specifically for this record), the kind of reach-for-the-stars composition most bands would never even try to pull off. Only three tracks in, “Sunny Disposition” utilizes influence from the biggest moments from the self-titled record and Nightmare (“A Little Piece of Heaven” and “Save Me” respectively) to create a sprawling, inventive musical trip. “God Damn”‘s in-your-face political sneering belongs on City of Evil right after “Sidewinder” and “Simulation” is a jaw-dropper in the course of this sci-fi (Read: Not Sy-Fy) epic. “Creating God” possesses one of the record’s best choruses and “Roman Sky” is a gorgeous respite that especially shows off Matt’s improved vocal range, ala “Acid Rain” from Hail To The King. Speaking of Mr. Sanders, his vocal delivery owes more to Axl Rose’s gritty grinding voice than it ever has before. That’s not to say he is pigeon-holed into being a clone. He keeps his bag of tricks ever-growing by adding in falsetto crooning for the first time in his career and reaches the highest notes of his career as well. His growls are still fierce and have hardly been used with better timing. While this record does have some aggressive tendencies, particularly “Paradigm” and “Fermi Paraodox”, the harsh vocals take a backseat but still appear more than they did on Hail To The King. No, The Stage opts for the music to feel heavy rather than constantly sound heavy. And it’s an effective direction.
What will really keep seasoned fans and new listeners alike coming back to this record is truly the instrumentation. It is far from predictable and takes cues from several forms of metal, hard rock and classical. The record has an incredible contrast between the gothic, vengeful darkness Avenged Sevenfold are known for and the eerie brand of light, wandering atmosphere 70’s prog rock often touches on. Synester Gates and Zacky Vengeance hardly have to prove themselves as guitarists at this point, but it’s clear that they do this for personal satisfaction as they only continue to grow as musicians. Solos permeate this entire record and they are never not welcomed when they’re this adventurous. The aforementioned “Exist” is especially impressive, a journey fans will clamor to hear live for years. And even if riffs have never been Avenged Sevenfold’s calling card, “God Damn” sure has a nice one. As a matter of fact, there isn’t really a musician in Avenged Sevenfold’s current line-up that didn’t absolutely fucking deliver on this record. Johnny Christ gets the opportunity to lay down some really atmospheric bass lines and even gets the spotlight a few times, particularly in “Simulation” and “Higher”. The biggest question about the line-up remains on the shoulders of new drummer Brooks Wackerman and even three songs into the album, any long-time listener won’t be able to deny he is reminiscent of the band’s fallen drummer, Jimmy “The Rev” Sullivan. Wackerman excels behind a kit, becoming the driving force behind Fermi Paradox kicking the track into overdrive with blast beats, a first for the group. His fills and penchant for odd rhythms makes him the most interesting and personality-fuelled drummer of the post-Rev days. He more than fills in those big shoes and is a highlight of the record.
The greatest compliment to The Stage is that it is able to marry elements of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s metal scenes into one packed record. A hard rock stomp is prevalent throughout, but the usage of drawn-out glam-style vocal melodies, spacey clean sections and keys, death metal-styled tremolo-picked ascending riffs, heavily-distorted grooves, punk chugging and rambunctious thrash makes for a listen that cycles down through the ages in creative ways. Choosing a producer who is known more for emphasizing psychological heaviness and rougher-edged tones was a smart decision and Joe Baressi’s aid is audible artistically. The mix never sounds too clean, rather it’s as heavy as it should be without being cumbersome.
So, is The Stage worth its secrecy? Yes. It’s a fulfilling and downright intriguing listen that successfully marries several musical forms, expands the sound of a band known for incorporating the unexpected and marks a first in the band’s career as a thematic record based around the potential evils of scientific advancement. Even if this record wasn’t obnoxiously good, the story of Avenged Sevenfold being the first band in the rock/metal world to abruptly drop an entire new album with absolutely no notice would circulate for years. To any doubter of this band, The Stage may only come off as pretentious, but it’s undeniably a showcase of what modern virtuosos of the heavy music world can do. Avenged Sevenfold play to their strengths here, breaking away from the overblown pack of active rock and metal bands, and in doing so, have crafted 2016’s biggest musical surprise. The Stage is, unlike many contemporary records out there, a unique direction to its creators, Avenged Sevenfold.