“It was either this or nothing - when you get to that point, there’s no fear to have”: Avenged Sevenfold needed to make divisive album Life Is But A Dream…

Avenged Sevenfold
(Image credit: Jeff Forney)

One of metal’s biggest bands has thrown caution to the wind, embracing psychedelics, absurdity and a wilful disregard for the limits of genre. Avenged Sevenfold’s frontman M Shadows gives Prog an insight into the philosophy, sound and pursuit of discomfort that all shaped Life Is But A Dream...

“We were cognisant of the fact that this could get crazy,” says M Shadows about his band's genre-diverse new album. Despite their status as torchbearers for the next generation of heavy metal stadium-fillers, Avenged Sevenfold first revealed their interest in colouring outside the lines on 2016’s The Stage, which ventured into prog metal territory. However, Life Is But A Dream... goes above and way beyond anything they’ve done before.

“As we started the writing, we were really attracted to the music that was making us feel uncomfortable or things that would throw you off-kilter,” says Shadows. The album moves from metal riffs to lullabies, techno and industrial to lounge music, often within the space of a single song.

“We had this philosophy where we didn't want to stay anywhere too long,” says Shadows. “We wanted things to jump around and be more ADHD to get in and out of these ideas quicker. I think it becomes a lot more exciting, interesting, discombobulated. It’s all over the place.”

Many bands might feel nervous stepping so far outside their comfort zone, but Shadows felt it was essential “because the discomfort we were feeling on the other side, from doing the same, was worse.”

While Avenged embraced the concept of using the studio as a creative tool, Shadows wanted to avoid the slick, over-produced sound that's now commonplace in metal. They used real instruments to create the sounds they were seeking instead of samples and plug-ins.

“There’s a 30-second piece in Beautiful Morning where it sounds like Beach Boys meets Beatles and it goes down the rabbit hole. There’s flute, there’s Wurlitzer, there’s a whole other drum kit, there’s all these things but we’re recording 30 seconds,” says Shadows. “During Nobody there are three drum kits. Somebody could say, ‘Well, that's overproduction,’ but to me there are three different sections of the song that have a different feel.

“Overproducing to me would be to lay down one drum kit, then go in and find samples of the tones you want and just stick them in those parts and then you’ve got a glossy, almost sterile environment where everything sounds the same. If you keep it organic, you’re really playing instruments, you’re getting what you want, then that doesn’t cross the line of overproduction.”

One memorable part of the creative process involved spending a week with a shaman and consuming 5-MeO-DMT, a psychedelic that induces hallucinations. Shadows describes the experience as “the most impactful thing I’ve done in my life,” saying that the trip made him realise how short life is, “and how negative the ego can be if you let it get out of control; and also that if you’re going to make art, don’t be a slave to audience capture, where people expect something of you and you keep doing that because you’re too afraid to let them down.

Shadows says he’s a classic Type A personality, but wanted to strip away his ego. “What it really taught me was to be bold and just do the things you want to do, and once you are free in that sense, it helps with everything,” he says. “It helps with not worrying about if people like it or not, worrying about how it’s going to go over live. You’re just doing, you’re just creating, and so it had a bunch of positive effects in my life in dealing with my family, my friends, love, understanding people better and empathy. Lyrically, the whole record is based around the purpose and meaning of life, or the meaningless life that we have, how you find purpose and make sense of this place.”

One significant influence was the writings of Albert Camus, the French philosopher who explored existentialism and absurdism, ideas that permeate Life Is But A Dream... and set it apart further from its predecessor.

“Albert was an influence definitely on things like Game Over and (D)eath,” says Shadows. “The Stage doesn’t have a lot of human experience in it; it has bigger ideas, like the Big Bang and the starting of life on the planet, but it doesn’t explain how it feels to be a human.”

What attracted Shadows to Camus was his musings on finding meaning in the face of a universe that’s utterly indifferent. “He talks about how the mundane things in life are actually the beautiful things,” says Shadows. “When you’re doing the mundane – watching a show with your family or getting lunch – you’re always thinking about the next thing. But one day you’re going to be 80 years old and you’ll look back on your life and go, ‘Where the hell did that go? Did I do what I wanted to do? Did I love the people I wanted to love the most? Did I spend the time with them?’

“What I love about his philosophy is that it’s the meaninglessness that creates the meaning, it’s the mundaneness, you should be trying to live in the moment. Smell the roses, it’s the simple things. That’s what I love about it.”

Life Is But A Dream... is divisive among fans as it marks such a departure even from the prog metal of The Stage, but for Shadows, there was simply no other way to move forward. “It was either this or nothing,” he says. “It was either, we’re going to make the things that really inspire us and make us happy, or we’re not doing anything. When you get to that point, there’s no fear to have. Someone likes the record or doesn’t, it’s the same thing. The art is out there, it’s part of the human conversation – that’s all art is anyway – and it’s in the ether and you’re going to let it be.

“For us it was about putting something out there that we really enjoy and something that inspired us. That’s all we can do.”

David West

After starting his writing career covering the unforgiving world of MMA, David moved into music journalism at Rhythm magazine, interviewing legends of the drum kit including Ginger Baker and Neil Peart. A regular contributor to Prog, he’s written for Metal Hammer, The Blues, Country Music Magazine and more. The author of Chasing Dragons: An Introduction To The Martial Arts Film, David shares his thoughts on kung fu movies in essays and videos for 88 Films, Arrow Films, and Eureka Entertainment. He firmly believes Steely Dan’s Reelin’ In The Years is the tuniest tune ever tuned.