What a return to form! After 2013's lackluster Hail to the King, which to me resembled a phoned-in attempt to duplicate Metallica's "Black Album," Avenged Sevenfold returned in 2016 with....well, a vengeance, abruptly unleashing their....well, seventh album The Stage. The release of this AI/outer space-centric concept album was handled with a bit of calculated misdirection; to coincide with the release of the first single (and title track), pro wrestler and A7X chum Chris Jericho "leaked" on his podcast that the band's album would drop in December and would be called Voltaic Oceans. Then suddenly on October 27th photos of the actual album sprung up on the internet, confirming that its surprise release was in fact scheduled for the 28th, and also revealing its real title.
Regardless of the album's unconventional publication, Avenged Sevenfold have crafted a melodic, progressive metal masterpiece that repeatedly rewards the listener over multiple spins. M. Shadows described the record as "a grower, not a shower," and I couldn't agree more. My first impression was roughly, "Hmm, okay there's some good stuff here - nice to hear A7X doing what they're good at again." The complexity and versatility of the music impressed me but only a few songs really jumped out at first, like the Alice in Chains-y "Creating God," and the vocal harmony-rich, almost baroque-sounding "Higher." Then after three or four full listens it finally clicked. These songs get better and better with each listen - you pick up little nuances and bits of ear candy you didn't catch before, and despite the technology-driven subject matter the album has a real personal, human touch to it.
For one thing the band and their producer Joe Barresi bucked the trend of making the album as loud and compressed as possible. The Stage has a dynamic range and sonic intricacy I haven't heard on a metal record in years, if not decades. Here's an album that demands the listener meet it halfway; it's not going to bludgeon you over the head with "state-of-the-art" walls of compression to make sure you're still paying attention. There's a real depth of sound that harkens back to classic metal from the 70s and 80s. The band is also in incredible form here. Guitarists Zacky Vengeance and Sinister Gates deliver some of their best-ever lead work on this album, crafting passionate but technically pristine solos, while new drummer Brooks Wackerman fits the A7X paradigm like a custom-made glove. On top of this, singer M. Shadows has forgone any pitch correction on his vocal tracks. What you hear is the real deal - unaltered, human performances by a frontman intensely invested in the subject matter.
Shadows perused loads of material about artificial intelligence, space exploration, simulation theory, and philosopher Giordano Bruno, and wove all of these elements into a complex, 74-minute musical journey that spans multiple genres and moods. The album begins and ends in epic fashion, the opening title track a tempered rumination on humanity's self-destructive tendencies, and the closing track "Exist" a prog-metal opus intended as a musical interpretation of the beginning of the universe.
A few words about "Exist" - this is a fifteen-minute song that feels like eight; its numerous, distinct sections fly by, from the whirlwind Philip Glass-inspired guitar arpeggio showcase and thrashy syncopated rhythmic front section, to the pensively serene, almost folky vocal movement halfway through, and finally to the galloping extended outro over which Neil deGrasse Tyson delivers a thoughtful monologue about our place in the universe. I can't explain exactly why, but this song leaves me choking back tears every time I listen to it. Perhaps it's the spectacularity of the music, the tranquility of the vocal section, or the strange hopefulness of Tyson's words. Or all of it. This is a truly affecting piece of music and a major achievement from an already accomplished band still finding new ways to stretch its legs.
Other standout songs include the aforementioned "Creating God," the vocals of which bring to mind not only AIC, but John Corabi's work with Motley Crue, "Higher," which harkens back to some of the material on Diamonds in the Rough, and the succinct but tremendously hooky "Paradigm."
But this is not an album about individual songs. The Stage is a collective work of musical art, meant to challenge our ideas about humanity and the consequences of our achievements. As an album it is greater than the sum of its parts, one that a listener needs to really spend some time with in order to fully absorb and appreciate. The Stage almost defies a conventional review because it would be scarcely possible to speak intelligently of it after only a cursory listening experience. It's kind of paradoxical that such a meticulously crafted, multifaceted piece of music was released as a surprise. "Oh, by the way, here's our new album and it's gonna blow your freakin' mind if you let it."
With The Stage, Avenged Sevenfold have delivered a timeless prog-metal album that by all rights should stand the test of time as one of their greatest triumphs, and an all-time genre classic.
I give the album ****1/2 out of *****.