It’s the Wednesday before Halloween, and the lucky people of Huntington Beach, California, are relaxing in the autumnal 20ºC heat. Surfers ride the waves, dog-walkers stroll under the pier and tourists sit in cafes overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It’s an idyllic scene. But inside the quiet, upmarket Shorebreak Hotel, Avenged Sevenfold’s frontman M. Shadows is explaining to Hammer how he’s about to pull off the biggest trick of the year – a trick so devious it would make Lucifer blush. In less than 36 hours’ time, the band will release surprise album The Stage, but all they’ve told fans is that they’re playing a gig on the roof of Hollywood’s iconic Capitol Records building.
“Nobody has realised the CD is sitting in their store right now,” says Shadows with a wry, mischievous smile. “We wanted to set up a smokescreen so the guy at Best Buy doesn’t notice the album. Everybody is thinking about this other event instead.”
But why have Avenged Sevenfold orchestrated such an elaborate plan? How did they make it so far without spilling the beans about the new album? And how the fuck do one of the biggest bands in metal make a record in secret anyway?
Fresh from the gym (but thankfully showered), Shadows is all smiles, looking noticeably slim after losing what he describes as the “dad weight”. Following a ball-bustingly intensive promotion and touring cycle for 2013’s Hail To The King, Avenged Sevenfold decided to take the beginning of 2015 off to chill out and focus on their families – Shadows has two sons, rhythm guitarist Zacky Vengeance has a son, and bassist Johnny Christ is awaiting the arrival of his first child. With the album reaching Number One in the US and UK, and making a metric buttload of cash in the process, the decade’s hottest metal band finally found themselves content with their lives.
“I was cool with taking my kids to school, and trying not to do music unless we became inspired again,” says Shadows, as we sit under the canopy of the hotel’s exclusive outdoor bar. “The idea of doing something to just do it seemed like a bad idea, so we decided to hang out and let the world spin without us for a while.”
“I certainly didn’t feel like writing a record just to write a record,” agrees lead guitarist Synyster Gates later on, as we chat in a meeting room on the top floor of the Capitol Records building, a few hours before the momentous gig’s due to start. “Once we started hanging, taking it easy and jamming, and once [Brooks Wackerman, their new drummer] was in the situation, you start hearing these incredible drum riffs that inspire the fuck out of a human being.”
Writing for their seventh record began in July 2015, when the band also announced that they’d fired drummer Arin Ilejay after just one album. It was a decision driven by Shadows, who’d felt dissatisfied with their chemistry for a while.
“We weren’t looking for a drummer,” he reveals, seeming nonchalant about the whole thing. “I knew Brooks from the Warped Tour days and I’ve always respected him, and I was looking for something different. I didn’t feel like we were clicking with Arin on a creative level. We didn’t write with him, it was just, ‘Here’s a riff, play a beat over it.’ A long process preceded it, ’cause I had to convince everyone in the band. We were either gonna be stagnant as Avenged Sevenfold and tour the world, and that’s great, or if we wanted to take it to the next level we had to talk to Brooks. He said he’d been looking for a change in his life and would love to do it. It was the best idea ever. When things aren’t working, you can’t let the whole ship go down because you feel bad about something… We can’t live in misery for the rest of our lives thinking records could be better.”
The new lineup began crafting new kinds of songs, inspired by the former Bad Religion sticksman’s looser sound. Once their more exciting and, above all, interesting approach was locked down, Shadows began taking control of the lyrics, introducing ideas from the astrophysics books he’d been reading. The former hard-partying, drug-taking maniac was now a certified family guy, spending his evenings indoors, reading about alien life, space travel and futuristic technology (slippers and pipe optional). Infamous philosophers and inventors, such as Carl Sagan and Elon Musk, heavily influenced Shadows’ newfound appreciation for the great beyond, and as he enthuses about his new intellectual discoveries, his eyes light up like he’s just seen a free bar.
“The album is based on artificial intelligence and our need to ask big questions as human beings,” he explains. “Some of the more sci-fi questions are, ‘Are we in a simulation?’ But some of the more realistic questions are, ‘Where is other life in the universe?’ and ‘Can artificial intelligence help us reach a new level of intelligence, or will it destroy us in the process?’ The whole record debates a lot of those questions, but one foot is based solely in science and another is based on the human element. It goes to nuclear war and politics, but it also goes to nanobots.”
The glistening metal ballad Fermi Paradox takes its name from the theory that alien life must be out there, while the soaring, choral Higher tells the story of an astronaut spending the rest of his life in space to feel closer to his colleagues who died in a failed launch. The album closes with the 15-minute, grandiose, grade-A eargasm Exist, which includes a monologue from acclaimed astrophysicist, cult icon and, let’s be honest, basically the reason YouTube was invented, Neil deGrasse Tyson. He talks of the homelessness, famine, war, religious conflicts, terrorism and dictatorships that plague our world, driven by the absolute selfishness of the human race, and how the enormity of the universe puts all our wrongs into perspective. ‘Dare we admit that our thoughts and behaviours spring from a belief that the world revolves around us?’ Neil asks. “When you’re staring at each other arguing, you’re not going to see the meteor coming from above to kill you,” Shadows says bluntly.
Aside from grappling with mind-bending scientific theories and wishing the global population would chill the fuck out, Avenged Sevenfold have also been re-establishing their personal politics. In the early days of the band, Shadows was a proud, outspoken Republican, who even made comments condemning gay marriage – which he has since retracted. In 2016, he wants people to know that they’re no longer the conservative-thinking kids of the past; time and family life have softened their views on society. Title track The Stage tells the story of someone growing up and becoming wise to the corruption around them. ‘Stay woke’, as the internet would say.
“We’ve been misunderstood a long time, because we don’t really share our politics,” says Shadows, still refusing to reveal which way he leans. “We did in the Warped Tour days, but we’ve changed as people since then, and I felt that instead of coming out to prove to the world that we’re different people, I should just put it into a record.”
The Stage’s video shows an audience watching a series of marionettes re-enact the entirety of human history – from a caveman walking on ‘naked and cold’ to the eventual reveal of the real people pulling the strings, including Vladimir Putin and Hillary Clinton. This striking – and depressing – vision was directed by Chris Hopewell, the man behind Radiohead’s Trumpton-esque Burn The Witch video… although surprisingly, it came from the mind of Zacky, the quietest and most reserved member of Avenged.
“I believe it’s better than any music video I’ve ever seen,” says Zacky, shyly staring out of the window, reluctant to make eye contact. “I think our fans will be able to watch it for years to come. That’s what matters to me. At this point, it’s not about accolades. I couldn’t care less – I just want our fans to be happy, and I wanna do art the way that we do it.”
The statement comes at a time of heightened political tension in the US; a few hours before we talk to Shadows, Donald Trump’s Hollywood Walk Of Fame star is destroyed by a pickaxe, in an act of protest against the orange-faced, candyfloss-haired buffoon. Weeks later, he’d be President.
While tackling life’s big issues, Shadows contemplates the answer to the question that keeps insomniac agnostics up at night: is there a god? He uses a trio of songs – God Damn, Creating God and Angels – to condemn organised religion and explore his anxiety towards the idea of artificial intelligence taking over and becoming a new type of god.
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“I’m not a religious person, so for me a song like God Damn is looking above the Big Brother scenario where all these people in the world believe in conspiracy theories. There is no nation, there is no god that you believe in, we are all one people. The issues that we have are much bigger than, ‘You look different to me’ or ‘I don’t believe in your book.’ There’s a real problem, and that problem is us not being able to get along.”
These are grand themes for a band who have previously written about pretty girls, rebellion and fantasy, often using theatrical metaphors that mean sod-all below the surface. Have Avenged finally grown up?
“I don’t know if it’s maturity yet, but these themes spoke to me,” muses Shadows, humbly. “I didn’t want to write about the same stuff we’d been writing about. I didn’t wanna pull from some story and make some magical thing. I liked having one foot in the realism with what’s really going on in the world.”
There is certainly evidence of growth in Avenged’s songwriting. The addition of new drummer Brooks has energised the whole band, with each member praising his contribution. Coming from a punk background, his frenetic approach is a welcome gear change from the ploddy Hail To The King, and his creative flourishes add a more dynamic dimension to A7X’s most progressive album yet. Brooks is hyped to be in one the most vital heavy bands on Earth, and already feels like part of the brotherhood rather than a hired gun.
“My time is devoted to this band, and that’s what I wanted,” says Brooks, sitting at the end of a conference table in a swanky board room, looking infinitely less metal than the rest of the guys. “I didn’t want to come in as a session guy; if I’m giving blood, sweat and tears to this project, then I wanna be a part of it, I want to see it grow. And they were looking for someone permanent as well. Luckily, it just clicked.”
In April, the band began recording at Serenity West Recording in Hollywood and JHOC in Pasadena with Bad Religion producer, and friend of Brooks, Joe Barresi. In the summer, they mixed the record in New York with Andy Wallace (who has worked with Avenged since 2005’s City Of Evil), taking time out to support Metallica at the opening of the US Bank Stadium, the 70,000-capacity home of NFL team the Minnesota Vikings. It would have been Brooks’ debut gig with the band, if they hadn’t quickly booked a warm-up show for two days before, in front of 650 people at the nearby First Avenue club. But it didn’t quite go according to plan…
“The first song started and Brooks wasn’t quite to his seat yet – he was meant to be playing the drums, and it didn’t happen,” grins Johnny Christ, sporting a very fucking metal patch jacket and studs. “We all started busting up laughing. It was right after the intro for Nightmare, with the bells going off and everything. We turned to look at him, and he was looking over at us, but he didn’t have his ear monitors in and didn’t hear the count, so we were like, ‘OK, let’s try that again, buddy!’ It couldn’t have been a more perfect way to bring Brooks in. Things like that used to be devastating to us, but we can laugh them off now.”
At that point, nobody knew the band had been in the studio, let alone that they were preparing to unleash an album. Then, one October evening, ghostly Deathbat projections started appearing on buildings across the world, from London to Berlin to Toronto. Suddenly, the internet was ablaze, and speculation was rife… what the hell were Avenged up to?
“We loved what Kanye West did, what Beyoncé did, what Radiohead did, and we found that a lot of people who aren’t necessarily interested in those artists were interested because of how their albums dropped,” explains Shadows.
“I like that we’re still trying to keep a little bit of our mystique, in this day and age where not many bands are,” agrees Johnny. “To me, it’s just another step in doing something different.”
Synyster puts it more succinctly: “Do you wanna show black-and-white footage of the mixing board again? That’s not fucking exciting, that only pisses people off!”
So are Avenged Sevenfold the heavy metal Kanye West?
“I think there are a lot of similarities,” says Shadows, “and I know that people will see that and it’ll be some kind of quote so someone can get some clicks off it, but the way we do merchandise, the way that we’re going to be doing our live show, the way we’re gonna release our records, the way that we’re gonna get music to people, is very much in that vein. We’re not going back to the old ways.”
Almost 10 years ago, Nine Inch Nails trailed fifth album Year Zero by using clothing and USB drives to dripfeed messages over months, but this is the first time a giant metal band has gone from 0 to 60 in a matter of days using such guerrilla tactics. This secrecy and subsequent breaking of the internet is more common in pop and hip-hop, when artists will sell a squillion copies on iTunes regardless of their marketing campaign. In contrast, Avenged sell more physical copies than digital downloads, and they’re the first band ever to release an album simultaneously on both formats without prior warning. A monumental risk, sure, but a no-brainer for a band who are adamant about breaking the shackles of old-school thinking perpetuated by industry fossils.
“I saw what a lot of bands in our genre were doing, and it was really wearing on me,” sighs Shadows with a degree of annoyance toward his contemporaries. “I don’t need four or five singles before a record comes out, I don’t need the snippet of the video – I don’t need any of that. Being completely bored with releases, and then finding that there were artists breaking the rules and doing whatever they wanted, really intrigued me and Zack especially. We said if we’re gonna do a record, then we’re not putting it out the same way.”
“It’s going to harbour a different level of respect from our fans,” says Zacky. “I think they’re going to take a look and think at least we had some fucking balls to do something different in a sea of rock bands that are completely complacent. It’s never been done. It’s one of the riskiest things to do – we’re liable to not sell a single album. But as long as our fans are happy, I couldn’t care less.”
It’s a motto they’ve since stuck to rigorously. One week after The Stage was dropped on the world, it was revealed that it sold under half of what Hail To The King clocked up in its first seven days on sale. Undeterred, Shadows posted a lengthy blog mocking the idea that “76k records sold in the first week by a heavy metal band, on a surprise release, with zero promotion, and a single with a running time of 8:30” could be deemed anything other than a success. More importantly, he stressed once again that Avenged “did this for our fans, we did this for our sanity” and that “regardless of this, we will not change.”
Such measured analytics are for another time, though. Tonight, it’s pandemonium on the ground floor of Capitol Records, as 18 months of writing, recording, planning and trolling finally comes to fruition. Five hundred fans sporting Avenged t-shirts and Deathbat tattoos have been queueing outside since lunchtime, after winning a competition entered by more than 5,000 people. They’ll not only watch the rooftop show on a big screen in a secluded area in the car park, but can strap on headsets to make them feel like they’re 13 storeys up, in the first ever live virtual reality gig. Fancy, huh?
For the next half hour, it’s Avengedfest 2016, as fans of all ages meet each other for the history-making moment. Deathbat projections adorn nearby buildings, a giant Deathbat flag flies on top of the building like a heavy metal Jolly Roger, and puppeteers are roaming around working the marionettes from the Stage video. Despite the news of the album leaking on the internet (“I don’t give a fuck!” laughs Syn), there’s still an air of confusion and excitement about what’s actually going on. Could Avenged be trolling everyone?
Then the band steam through a four-song set, including newie The Stage, which is streamed to millions of fans around the world. Immediately after, the cosmic Deathbat from the album cover appears on the giant screen outside, with the words ‘on sale now’. And just like that, a merch tent opens, and hordes of fans rush to pick up their copies like black-shirted locusts, before joining the much-longer queue to meet Shadows and co, who stick around for over an hour to take photos with everyone. Meanwhile, label representatives start shouting random numbers, which we realise correspond to the band’s place on the iTunes album chart. Not that Avenged care.
“If it fails, the music industry is failing anyway,” says Shadows candidly, almost chuckling at the idea. “People have to try new things to break that mould and hopefully find a light at the end of the tunnel, because going out there and selling 40,000 records in your first week, and then dropping down to 2,000, and then 500 and no one cares, is just as bad as putting out a record by trying something fun and cool that goes over like a fart in the wind, ha ha ha! At least we tried something new. No one wants the dinosaur model because it just doesn’t work.”
Their plans for their upcoming tour, which hits the UK in January, sound nothing short of epic. The band have hired the production company behind Cirque Du Soleil, with Shadows contemplating restructuring entire venues to meet Avenged’s brain-boggling blueprints. With the old model in flames and the vast, emptiness of space in front of them, Avenged Sevenfold are standing proudly at the edge of a new dawn, going boldy where no bands have gone before.
“We’re an oddball,” he says. “A lot of bands live, breathe and die the 2016 metal scene, but we just live in our own world and try to do things different than everyone else. I don’t ever feel like we fit in. We’re going to be whatever we feel is right, and if it changes the industry, then great.”
The stage is set. The possibilities are limitless. What happens next is written in the stars.
The Stage is out now via Capitol. Avenged Sevenfold tour the UK in January
Stumped by some of the theories on The Stage, we asked the European Space Agency’s Senior Science Advisor, Mark McCaughrean, for an explanation
What’s the Fermi Paradox?
Mark: “It says that if the universe is full of stars, and if planets are common around those stars, there’s a chance that there will be other worlds where the conditions necessary for life to arise must also be common. For some of those worlds, life should have evolved to a point where it has technology capable of broadcasting signals across the universe, as we have, and perhaps travelling between the stars, too, which we are at the start of.”
So where are the aliens?
“We’ve found no sign of life elsewhere yet, let alone intelligent life. That life could be ‘wetware’, i.e. biological, or it could be self-reproducing machines made by wetware, but that can then spread themselves semi-infinitely. The statistical chances of intelligent life in the universe apart from us are coded into the Drake Equation. Some terms – number of stars, fraction of stars with long-lived stable properties like the Sun, fraction of stars with planets – are fairly well known. But others – chances of life arising on a planet, chances of that life becoming intelligent and capable of broadcasting – are not.
If there are lifeforms, why haven’t they contacted us?
“There are many other issues at work: perhaps soon after life becomes capable of broadcasting, it realises that that might be dangerous, if it’s signalling its presence to other superior life forms. At that point, it may decide to go silent again. One broad way of resolving the Fermi Paradox is to postulate a so-called ‘Great Filter’ that operates to ensure that intelligent life is actually extremely rare – something that stops life arising in the first place, or that snuffs it out rapidly after it becomes intelligent.”
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Why did you decide to troll the world with made-up information?
“Matt was worried that it was going to leak, so I said that if you start feeling the heat, let me know, and I can put out a fake date and take it down like I fucked up. He called me two or three weeks before the record was coming out saying we had to do this. We decided to go for December 9, as it sounded like a good date to put the album out as a red herring. Two hours later, I took it down, but that’s all we needed. It actually made it to Wikipedia as fact!”
Where did the title, Voltaic Oceans, come from?
“I was going to call it ‘Warmonger’, but thought that might be too clichéd. I was listening to The Cult song Electric Ocean, and I thought that was a cool title, but another word for electric might suit better. I went to Thesaurus.com, saw ‘voltaic’ and thought, ‘Fuck, that’s great!’ It even sounds like an Avenged album. Matt thought it was pretty funny. I almost feel like this is my record too, ’cause I was always checking in to see if there’d been any leaks. Not that I made it, but that I was involved so closely in preserving the sanctity of it.”
How do you feel about the surprise release?
“I respect Shadows because he’s not looking to Maiden for ideas, he’s looking to Kanye and Beyoncé. Did it affect sales? It might have, because people weren’t prepared, but the longevity of the album will be longer. The cool factor and utilising social media is a smart move. It might have cost them a Number One, but I don’t think that’s as important today as it was three years ago.”
What do you think of The Stage?
“It’s their best record since City Of Evil. Hail To The King was a cool change, but I didn’t like it as much as Nightmare, ’cause it lost some of that progressive element, some of that crazy playing. It’s like my A7X is back. The Stage will hold up as City Of Evil for a new generation.”