If anything can be said for Avenged Sevenfold, it’s that they always like to mix it up. Love them or hate them, one can’t deny that each album has been something different- from the metalcore screams of 2003’s Waking the Fallen to the hard-rock harmonies of 2007’s self-titled, one thing is certain about Avenged Sevenfold: they’re not afraid to push the boundaries and try something new.
That’s why it came as such a shock for the fans when the band stayed in relatively safe territory on their 2013 release Hail to the King. While earlier albums had featured complex instrumentals, full of winding solos, metalcore-esque riffs, and Iron Maiden-influenced dual guitar leads, Hail to the King took a stripped down approach. Following instead in the footsteps of Metallica on their 1991 self-titled album, Hail to the King featured simplistic drum patterns, scaled back the harmonies, and focused on big, hard-hitting riffs. While the album was a commercial success (staying at #1 on the Billboard charts for several months), many fans felt it was too simplistic for the band, and an homage to their heroes in Metallica and Guns N’ Roses that some argued bordered on plagiarism.
No such criticisms can be laid on their most recent work, 2016’s The Stage. The title track and lead single alone features more complex arrangements than all ten tracks on Hail to the King, and clocks in at an impressive eight minutes. The band does not let up from that point, either; tracks such as “Paradigm,” “Simulation,” and “Fermi Paradox” all feature technical riffs and harmonies harkening back to (and perhaps in places, outdoing) 2005’s City of Evil. Tracks such as “Angels” and “Roman Sky” slow it down a bit, offering blues-like ballads that recall the band’s earlier work on Nightmare, and “Sunny Disposition” shows the band trying their hand at demented jazz rock, featuring ominous horns and a swinging beat. Thematically, the album follows the idea of artificial intelligence technology and what that means for the future of the human race; tracks such as “Higher” and “Creating God” raise questions about the morality of creating complex technological beings, and the closing track, “Exist,” is a fifteen-minute epic featuring a voiceover from none other than Neil DeGrasse-Tyson himself.
One thing that does bring down The Stage is the seeming lack of hooks. Avenged Sevenfold is a group known for catchy vocal melodies and sing-along choruses, and that is one area where The Stage falls flat. It’s not so much that the hooks aren’t good; it’s just that there aren’t nearly as many of them this time around. This is a musician’s album through and through, made more for fans that would rather deconstruct the elaborate compositions than scream along to refrains at a concert.
That isn’t a criticism of the album, though- part of the real beauty of The Stage is that it takes longer to digest than past releases. While there isn’t one “big” song on the album to carry it on the radio (a la “Beast and the Harlot” from City of Evil or “Afterlife” from Avenged Sevenfold), the album remains consistent throughout and is akin to reading a good book rather than enjoying a box of chocolates.
Overall, The Stage is a strong addition to Avenged Sevenfold’s repertoire. While sales have been slow since its late October release (due mostly to the band releasing it by surprise with little to no promotion), it is an album that’s sure to please serious fans of the group and possibly gain the band listeners from the more prog-influenced realms of metal. And knowing Avenged Sevenfold, even if The Stage doesn’t catch the ears of some listeners, chances are the next album will be something completely different anyway.
Overall Rating: 8/10
Recommended Tracks: “The Stage,” “Paradigm,” “Simulation,” “Roman Sky,” and “Exist.”