"We want to give people anxiety": how Avenged Sevenfold made 2023's strangest, most divisive heavy metal record with Life Is But A Dream...

Avenged Sevenfold on the cover of the new issue of Metal Hammer
(Image credit: Future)

M. Shadows and his wife, Valary, were having a night out at a local bar when the psychedelic mushrooms began to take hold. A new Avenged Sevenfold album was already in the works, but the singer wasn’t seeking chemically enhanced inspiration at that moment – until the feelings of love and happiness got intense. “Then we got home”, Shadows recalls, “and we just had this connection, being so sure that we had travelled through space and time to be together in every life that we meet up in – the ultimate love story.”

From that experience, Shadows wrote the lyrics to Cosmic, a sweeping ballad with influences from Elton John to Daft Punk and 808s-era Kanye West, and nothing to remind you of metal. It’s also the longest track on the mind-expanding new Avenged Sevenfold album, Life Is But A Dream..., with a romantic vocal that promises: ‘as we chase through the stars beyond forever / I’ll follow you’.

“Do I believe that’s the truth? Probably not. But on some sort of other level?Yes. Maybe”, Shadows says with a grin. “That’s not where my belief system lies, but I thought it was a really compelling song. And I did experience that and feel full-heartedly, 100% that that was the truth when I was living in it, you know? We felt like she was some queen and I was some guy that was in the Roman Army, and it was like a movie. It’s probably [because of] a million movies we’ve seen, and it all festered its way into our brains.”

Shadows looks perfectly relaxed as he describes the track, sitting inside the band’s warehouse headquarters in Huntington Beach, California, clad in a Black Flag T-shirt and black Avenged Sevenfold-brand mesh shorts, his hair cropped short on the sides, long on top. But he knows this is the quiet before the storm, that metal fans will be tested by Avenged Sevenfold’s eighth album.

The music is fuelled by wild experimentation and the occasional psychedelic, balancing heavy riffs with textures and ideas culled from other genres and dimensions. It is the band’s magnum opus, an album of mini-epics and pocket symphonies, absorbing sweeping moments of pop, prog, jazz, gypsy folk, hip hop, Daft Punk-style robotics, classical melody, the Phil Spector ‘Wall of Sound’, and even some crooning from the Sinatra school. Shadows is excited to watch the fallout.

“I want to make an impact. I want to make bold art”, he says of the album. “I think after people get used to it, it won’t be so crazy. And then it’ll be like, ‘Well, what’s next?’ That’s the journey we’re all on.”

That makes Life Is But A Dream... both a confrontation and an invitation, as the band seek to change the definition of what an Avenged Sevenfold song is supposed to sound like. Last December, Shadows tweeted his top five most-played artists on Apple Music, which might have been a clue to his state of mind: The Commodores, Weezer, Kanye West, Queens Of The Stone Age and Billy Joel. And yet, just the other day, he had Slayer’s Divine Intervention on repeat in the car for hours, happily feeding off its raw power.

“I consider us a metal band. We’re definitely influenced by Slayer and Pantera and Metallica and some quirkier things”, he says. “We’re just trying to put our own twist on it.”

The first public glimpse of the new album was its debut single, the nearly-six-minute Nobody, which mixes ominous guitars with a trap beat and a full orchestra, male harmonies more R’n’B than metal and, shortly before an epic guitar solo, a mysterious declaration from Shadows: ‘I’m a God, I’m awake, I’m the one in everything / I’m alive, I’m the dead. I’m a man without a head.’ Initial reactions were mixed – surprised, angry, confused, ecstatic. Some fans embraced the sound immediately; others didn’t get it at all.

“They’re like, ‘That is fucking shit! These guys forgot how to write a song! Why would you put a solo at the end?’” says Shadows. “We were just laughing. That was more fun to us than someone saying, ‘Oh, this is great.’ We always gear towards a little bit of ruffling feathers.”

That song only hints at what the rest of Life Is But A Dream... offers. Working with Joe Barresi, who also produced 2016’s The Stage, guitarist Synyster Gates calls it “a full U-turn. It’s just like a blast off into outer space.”

Its schizophrenic soundscape amounts to the world’s loudest musical variety show of 2023. A key inspiration for Shadows was Disco Volante by Mr. Bungle, and the singer adapted some of Mike Patton’s vocal tricks and techniques – singing through a vocoder, a talkbox, a small Pignose amp, a Kaoss Pad effects device, various kids’ toys, and cranking up the autotune for full robotic effect. Also on his mind was the genre-shattering hyperpop of 100 Gecs, and his adolescent memories of earlier bands crossing their own stylistic boundaries, like Radiohead dropping all guitars on 2000’s Kid A, or Weezer getting raw and uncomfortably personal on 1996’s Pinkerton.

“Those records made me feel uncomfortable about myself at first, but I learned something about myself from discovering them”, says Shadows, putting Life Is But A Dream... in that same category. “I think this will do that to some people, because most of the people I’ve given it to have come back days later and gone, ‘This kind of fucked me up.’”

Work on Life Is But A Dream... began after Avenged Sevenfold cancelled the final leg of their 2018 tour, due to a viral infection that affected Shadows’ vocal cords. The band returned home to Huntington Beach and started writing new songs. Shadows and Synyster would sit together for hours, hashing out their ideas, usually at the latter’s house. The album took nearly five years to complete.

“It feels like an entire lifetime”, says Synyster, whose daughter, Monroe, was born in the interim. “We needed a break after two decades of doing stuff, but we needed to go to work because there was a creative itch.”

On the new songs, there are riffs as tough and heavy as anything from the band’s past, but the context is completely different. A frantic beat kicks off the crazed We Love You, shifting into the grinding guitar that accompanies Shadows as he chants a wish list of society’s insatiable appetites: ‘More power! More pace! More money! More taste! More sex! More pills! More skin!’ There are moments of stuttering electronics and Beatles melody, closing with guitarist Zacky Vengeance sounding like George Harrison on a 1920s acoustic and a bit of bottleneck to create a warm sound of gypsy jazz, as the band’s male chorus of tattooed dudes hums along. 

“Me and Gates get [a lot of] joy out of playing crazy jazz chords that we’ve never, ever incorporated in Avenged Sevenfold,” says Zacky.

Getting the band there was a long, strange trip that included psychedelic experiences for two of them in the form of mind-altering venom from the rare Sonoran Desert toad, aka 5-MeO-DMT.

“When we went deep into the 5-MeO-DMT stuff, it was before Covid”, explains Shadows. “But you don’t just go into that, right? The Stage was already starting to deal with these existential things – like, ‘Gimme all the information of what we know about why we’re here.’”

The Stage, released in 2016, was a concept album about artificial intelligence that closed with a 15-minute meditation on the Big Bang, narrated by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

“I want to form my worldview based on facts and science, which a lot of times is very nihilistic, then reading philosophy or really great novels about this sort of thing”, says Shadows. “And then that record dove into the sort of AI element, which we’re dealing with now. And it dove into the Big Bang. [Life Is But A Dream...] dove into, ‘Now what do we do with all that information as a human that has emotions, that evolved to this spot where we have our upper brain [wired for reasoning] and lower brain [wired for primitive responses] and they’re battling each other?’”

For the 5-MeO-DMT experimentation, which he hoped would pause that battle, Shadows flew in a shaman, whose skills had previously been employed by engineers at SpaceX and Google. He went through three days of sessions, including one with Syn and another with Valary. “I don’t promote this”, he’s careful to say.“I don’t want to say that everyone needs that.”

For Shadows, the trips were eye-opening and difficult, resulting in a “pure existential crisis for a year” and loss of ego at one point, but eventually also a feeling of deep connection to the world.

“You come to terms with how important everyone thinks everything is, and how they work themselves up”, he says. “And none of it means anything. You work your fingers to the bones and everyone tells you you’re great your whole life. And then all of a sudden, you look back on your life and you go, ‘What the fuck was that?’ Ha ha ha! I think of The Rev, Jimmy [Sullivan, Avenged’s drummer who died in 2009], the way that time works – that dude went to bed one night, didn’t wake up, and if he was to wake up today, he would’ve never known that time had passed. At the end of your life, you’re gonna look back on everything the same way you feel now, with maybe a little more aching of a body.”

The big questions that followed were directed inward: “Did you enjoy yourself while you were here [on Earth]? Did you create suffering? Did you create more good than bad? There’s no answer, right? But it’s something I think about a lot, obviously”,  explains Shadows. “The lyrics are straight from that perspective.”

Mattel, a song named after the toy company that produces the likes of Barbie and Hot Wheels, explores the plight of humanity living in an increasingly artificial world. Musically, the song is as varied and extreme as System Of A Down at full boil, ricocheting between divebombing guitars and the jazzy tinkling of piano, until Shadows croons: ‘Now I know this might sound crazy, but I’ve smelled the plastic daisies / And it seems we’ve found ourselves in Hell.’

The idea came to Shadows while strolling around his neighbourhood as he was microdosing for months at a time – sometimes with a bit more than a microdose.

“I took my dog on a walk, and all I see is plastic grass and I see plastic homes and people outside doing their plastic things. We’re so predictable”, Shadows recalls.“ And I’m like, 'Dude, this is fucking crazy. I’m one of those people, too!'”

Avenged’s 2005 hit, Bat Country, was famously inspired by a comically bad trip described in Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo tale Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, along with the singer’s days thrill-seeking on acid and mushrooms in his 20s. Shadows today craves enlightenment.

“It was the most significant experience of my life”, he says. “And that is on top of kids and on top of everything, because it helped me be better for them instead of being this clueless guy that’s OK with missing a basketball practice or OK blowing them off because I’m trying to do something.”

At 41, he’s a journeyman rocker with a history. The only tattoos he’s added of late tell an especially personal story: on opposite knees, Shadows has two new crypto punks that look like pixellated cartoons, one in dark shades to represent himself, the other blonde and female for his wife. Further down are permanent scribbles inked by his two young sons, who were handed a tattoo machine to scrawl versions of their names. His eldest, 10-year-old River, wrote above his dad’s ankle: ‘RS was here!’

“If I do psychedelics now, I’m a dad”, he explains.“I don’t do drugs. But I will do these medicines. I’m going to explore, and I want to go hard, and if something’s hard I will walk towards it. I want to learn from what’s happening.”

It’s been 14 years since the death of The Rev, with whom Avenged had grown up before together realising their heavy metal dreams. If he was still around, Shadows is certain he would have been onboard with Life Is But A Dream... “He’d be stoked. Me and Brian [Haner, aka Synyster] know that guy better than anyone”, says Shadows. “He was always the biggest proponent of instigation and trying new things.”

In fact, their late drummer and songwriter is on the new album in more than spirit. The bridge on Mattel includes a melody The Rev had created but never found a place for, and on Beautiful Morning is a lyric he and Syn had from their previous band, Pinkly Smooth.

“That’s something him and Brian came up with a long time ago: ‘It’s a beautiful morning, it’s a beautiful day, everybody is smiling, in a beautiful way’,” explains Shadows. “That’s when it gets creepy.”

But perhaps the most ambitious part of Life Is But A Dream... is the trilogy ‘GOD’: G, (O)rdinary, and (D)eath – partly inspired by elaborate hip hop hit Sicko Mode by Travis Scott ft. Drake. The prog-rock/funk G features Shadows as the voice of the Almighty, after creating the universe in six days, muttering: ‘On the seventh day I thought about world peace but I decided just to take it off.’

(O)rdinary then leans fully into the sound of Daft Punk’s 2013 album, Random Access Memories, firing up the funky guitar with robotic vocals and a dance beat. (D)eath – originally a love song Syn wrote for his wife called Alone Tonight – then rises from the mists of a shimmering orchestra, and Shadows croons like Sinatra as the guitars threaten to bring in the storm clouds again. “The reason it says ‘GOD’ is because we thought it was funny that God is like the original G”, saysShadows.

The frontman attended Catholic school until he was in sixth grade, and went to church every Wednesday with school and every Sunday with his parents. As time went on, he realised they didn’t believe in it, and only went out of tradition. Meanwhile, Shadows was more drawn to science, and came to the conclusion that there probably wasn’t a God, at least in the Christian sense. As he’s got older, though, he’s come to understand that faith can be a comfort blanket.

“I used to argue with every person I could about it, and now I’m actually happy for them if they believe”,  he says.“And after I did my 5-MeO trip, I came back to my friend Jeremiah, who’s hardcore religious, and I realised that he was right all along. His belief system of God is right because he’s going to live and die, and will never even know any different.”

But he’s also seen what happens when that belief is tested at the end. A couple of months ago, his devout grandmother passed away, and felt like she had been abandoned.

“She had a very long, painful death”, he says.“My dad told me that she was crying, asking where God was on her deathbed. There’s a stark reality that if you live long enough, it’s going to smack you in the face.”

His other grandma had passed away five months before that. She was never religious, and was scared to die.

“I tried to get her in at Johns Hopkins [university] to do some end-of-life psilocybin testing, which has shown incredible results”, he explains.“People that come out, they’re not afraid of dying anymore; they understand they’re one with the universe, and they see it as a portal to move on. It’s hard to get people into those. And she died extremely afraid of death and the unknown. That was sad to see, too.”

Having stayed in Orange County (drummer Brooks Wackerman is nearby in Long Beach), Avenged Sevenfold are close with their families, and with each other. After Synyster married Valary’s twin sister, Michelle, in 2010, the guitarist and Shadows became brothers-in-law.

Closing the album is the title track, an instrumental piece of music that Synyster wrote 10 years ago to celebrate the birth of Shadows’ first son, River. He originally wrote and recorded it digitally on a MIDI, a version that Shadows still loves. When Joe Barresi suggested Syn play it on piano, it seemed like a joke; the accomplished guitarist didn’t have that level of confidence. So, he spent months practising on his baby Steinway piano.

The song took four days to record, fuelled by coffee, while Syn’s wife and kids were away on a trip. It was the last thing he completed for the album. The result is an understated carnival of piano melody and compound chords, played like a master. Aside from his family, he considers the performance “my greatest accomplishment personally”.

Avenged know they will be criticised for Life Is But A Dream... (“I realise that when I look at any comment section, they’re gonna say, ‘The band died with The Rev’,” says Shadows at one point), but they don’t care. Not only did The Stage lay the groundwork for musical experimentation and raise existential questions, by confronting them further, Shadows’ perspective and the band’s sound have changed dramatically. They also have big plans for their live shows.

“This time around, it’s like we want the guitar to be used to create textures, to give people anxiety”, says Zacky. “We want these parts to sound like a chainsaw going through your mind.” Meanwhile, Shadows promises “a wrestling/art show meets spiritual/psychedelic experience”.

During the process of recording, the band occasionally lost perspective on what they were doing. Near the end, Shadows asked Syn, ‘Did we go far enough?’, and the guitarist assured him that they had. So, he put on headphones, and listened to the three ‘GOD’ songs and the piano title track placed together for the first time.

“My heart started racing and I felt really weird”, recalls Shadows. “I called Brian, and I’m like, ‘We went far enough.’ I was so happy. But I was also scared: what are people going to think when they get to the end of this thing?’ But that’s exactly what I want.”

Originally published in Metal Hammer #375

Steve Appleford

Steve Appleford is a Los Angeles music journalist who has also written for Rolling Stone, Revolver and the Los Angeles Times. Over the years he's interviewed major artists across multiple genres - including Black Sabbath, Slayer, Queens of the Stone Age, System of a Down, KISS, Lemmy, the Who, Neil Young, Beastie Boys, Beyonce, Tom Jones, and a couple of Beatles.