10. The Stage (The Stage, 2016)
How do you throw a fresh curveball to a fanbase that has been gobbling them up for over a decade? Kick off your new album with a high-concept, eight-and-a-half minute progressive metal epic. That The Stage wasn’t even the centrepiece of Avenged Sevenfold’s seventh studio album spoke once again of their steadfast refusal to play by the rules (more on that later). And yet, it still managed to totally wrong-foot a metal scene that had just adapted to the simplistic heavy metal shenanigans of Hail To The King. Just as it seemed that Avenged were dialling back their musical ambitions, along came a song so outside of the template for modern metal singles that it took fans and critics alike a while to fully process what the hell was going on.
“If they’ve been accused of mixing it up a bit too much in the past, The Stage sees Avenged putting their foot on and off the pedal more often than your nan in a traffic jam on the M1,” opined Metal Hammer Editor Merlin Alderslade in a first reaction posted the day of the single’s release.
Lyrically, the song hinted at M Shadows’ increasingly philosophical worldviews – something that would be expanded upon when the album was surprise-released soon after. “It’s based on our need to ask big questions as human beings,” he confirmed to Metal Hammer. “It goes to nuclear war and politics, but it also goes to nanobots.”
Once the initial shock of the song itself had abated, however, one thing was clear: Avenged had gone and written themselves another classic. And they’d done it by tearing up their own rulebook once again.
9. Fiction (Nightmare, 2010)
‘Left this life to set me free, took a piece of you inside of me. All this hurt can finally fade, promise me you’ll never feel afraid.’ It wouldn’t take much for Fiction to pummel the heartstrings the most out of anything on Nightmare. Not only is the song the album’s true emotional climax, but it served as The Rev’s final, parting gift to the band and their fans. Written by him and featuring his vocals alongside those of Shadows – Jimmy’s demo versions deemed good enough to use on the final product – it offered an unintentional goodbye from a man taken from us far, far too soon. Opening with haunting cascades of gothic piano, it sets a sombre mood that never lifts, the lack of guitars and emotionally raw yet lovingly poetic lyrics making this one of the most truly affecting songs in Avenged’s arsenal.
In a strange twist of fate, the band would later reveal that the song was completed and handed to Shadows by Jimmy just days before he died. Even more bizarrely, they claimed that the drummer originally wanted the song to be called ‘Death’. Syn would explain that The Rev’s ponderings over mortality were not designed to be any act of premonition, but simply a reflection of his interest in morbid themes. Still, few could deny the spine-chilling sense of prescience hanging over the song, and to this day it remains one of metal’s most poignant and beautiful parting shots from a true artist.
8. Hail To The King (Hail To The King, 2013)
It didn’t seem possible. Avenged Sevenfold: a band who had made a career out of shoving every single idea they thought they could get away with into every crevice of their music. Avenged Sevenfold: a band for whom the term ‘restraint’ was pretty much limited to seatbelts and handcuffs. Avenged Sevenfold: writers of the best pure, classic, no-nonsense heavy metal anthem of 2013.
The clues on Avenged’s simplistic new direction were there months before. Back in November 2012, M Shadows hinted to Metal Hammer that the band were looking to fully channel the more straight-ahead, rock-the-fuck-out vibe of some of their heroes. “The new album has a lot more of a Black Sabbath/Led Zeppelin feel to it,” suggested the singer. “There’s definitely more Sabbath in what we’re writing.” Many scoffed at the comparison, refusing to believe that Avenged would be able to leave their wild, experimental nature behind them. And then, we all heard Hail To The King.
“We stripped everything down,” confirmed Zacky later of the album’s titanic title track. “We wanted this groove, this energy throughout,” added Syn, and it was certainly an ambition they saw through to fruition. Hail To The King is a methodical, driving headbanger full of menace, packing lyrics straight out of the Manowar playbook and carried along by a relentless, marching drum beat that sounds nothing less than colossal. Despite the unexpected direction, the song proved to be a monstrous success; as of 2019, it’s their most streamed song ever, racking in well over 200 million listens on Spotify. Not bad, lads.
7. Exist (The Stage, 2016)
Avenged Sevenfold were making long songs cool again back when their peers were bashing out cookie-cutter five-minute metalcore tunes, but few would have predicted a song like Exist ever entering their canon. A 15-minute long, sci-fi concept mini-opera designed to replicate the Big Bang and the very beginnings of Earth in musical form? Sure. Oh, and including a bonus, spoken-word narrative outro by everyone’s favourite American astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson? Oh, go on, then. It was, by a distance, their boldest and most bonkers experiment yet, but what’s most amazing about Exist is the fact that under the maddening length, the weighty concept and the impressive cameo, it’s actually, like, really fucking good.
It takes more than seven minutes before we even hear so much as a vocal – and according to the band, that was originally not even on the table at all. Shadows later revealed that he was persuaded by Syn to add his voice to the track after previously pushing for Exist to remain an instrumental. Ultimately, the guitarist was proved right; Shadows’ pained and ponderous lyrics add an extra level of otherworldly emotional depth to the song. ‘High from the heavens, I can’t see the pain, does anybody care?’ laments the singer, sounding every inch the onlooking astronaut, floating through a galaxy still finding itself.
And as for Neil? The band later revealed that he was all-in on the song thanks to its more educational values. That Exist had genuine scientific merit was a bonus. That it was a modern-day prog metal masterpiece was what truly counted.
6. Unholy Confessions (Waking The Fallen, 2003)
Chances are, if you came to Avenged Sevenfold on the Waking The Fallen album, it would be thanks to Unholy Confessions. And with good reason; as well as being the biggest single from their breakthrough record, it’s an absolute, iron-clad anthem, still the only track from that era to remain a live staple and, for many Avenged fans of a certain age, the definitive A7X anthem. While there were certainly still elements of the metalcore tag that Avenged had thus far earned themselves – some screamed vocals here, a chuggy breakdown there – make no mistake about it: this is a heavy fucking metal song. Twin guitar leads, harmonised choruses… hell, even the lyrics were metal, managing to make a story seemingly about a shitty relationship sound like something out of a power metal track: ‘When sin’s deep in my blood, you’ll be the one to fall.’
“I wouldn’t say Unholy Confessions is a well-written song by any means,” offers Shadows today, somewhat humbly. “But at the time it worked, and it became what it is… nostalgia!”
A simple song it may have become, but the fact is that Unholy Confessions struck a chord with a young metal crowd that had so far been weaned on nu metal and shiny, Gothenburg-influenced metalcore. Even at that early stage, Avenged felt just a little different from those around them, and the hype train began to roll.
5. Bat Country (City Of Evil, 2005)
It was the song that truly launched City Of Evil and saw Avenged Sevenfold a band reborn. Gone were the gothed-up, pasty metalcore n00bs of 2003, and in their place were a gang of sneering, lairy rock stars. “It was the song that changed everything for us,” agreed Johnny Christ, before adding with a chuckle: “We became much bigger assholes!” Bat Country’s lyrics and title – and its accompanying video – were inspired by Hunter S. Thompson’s delirious, drugs-bender novel Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, while the music perfectly captured the band’s willingness to incorporate more rock’n’roll into their sound. In fact, for a band starting to really push their own boundaries, Bat Country was built around one of Avenged’s most basic riffs: a simple, heads-down chugger far removed from some of the dense and multi-layered work going on elsewhere on the record. “I remember Jimmy brought me the demo and I was like, ‘What is this?!’” laughed Johnny. “It was the most simplistic thing!”
Ultimately, Bat Country was the song that would define the City Of Evil era and firmly establish Avenged as the 21st century’s most exciting young metal band. “I remember [the album] sold OK the first week; then it started going down, down, down,” recalls Shadows. “We had a lot of people that were upset about the sound changing. A few months in we were like, ‘Maybe people don’t get it?!’ But then this song and video catapulted us into the mainstream. Every person that was listening to Britney and the Backstreet Boys was now listening to Bat Country!”
4. Almost Easy (Avenged Sevenfold, 2007)
Avenged love the ‘kitchen sink and more’ approach, and the second track from their self-titled opus is no exception. “We were just layering and layering stuff on,” laughed Synyster Gates later, and right from the off, it was a track that went completely full-throttle. A galloping intro, pinned together by warm piano strokes and some frenzied guitar leads, kicks into a dirty thrash riff Testament would be proud of, before the song’s unforgettable ‘I’m not insaaaaane’ refrain gives way to one of Avenged’s biggest choruses ever.
Written by The Rev, the band described Almost Easy as the “guinea pig” song for their fourth studio album, created around a piano riff craftily influenced by the score from Terminator 2. While the drummer came up with the bulk of the song, however, there were still contributions from the rest of the fold. Zacky, for instance, suggested adding the choir-like backing vocals that saw all five members harmonising under Shadows’ leads, giving the chorus an extra dimension. The layers didn’t end there; taking inspiration from an unlikely source, the band also added a sub-bass effect that gave the track an obnoxious, rumbling underbelly.
“We were listening to Lil Jon, and he would just punish people with these crazy subs. [We thought] that was a great idea!” laughed Zacky. “You feel it,” added Syn. “When it drops in on an awesome stereo, that shit just rumbles. It’s fucking crazy.”
“Fucking crazy” is definitely one way to describe Almost Easy. We’d also go with “one of the boldest and best songs of Avenged’s entire career.”
3. Nightmare (Nightmare, 2010)
After the shocking loss of The Rev mere months before, many were surprised to see a new Avenged album see the light of day at all, let alone so soon. And yet, after taking time to grieve and regroup, the band knew two things: firstly, that they had to do The Rev’s memory justice by continuing their work, and secondly, that the album they’d been writing with Jimmy deserved to be heard. They just needed the right track to kick off the record and show the world that Avenged Sevenfold were far from done.
Amazingly, the opening moments on what would be such a vital song for the next chapter of Avenged’s career were actually written and recorded using some of the most basic equipment the band had ever put to tape. That’s right: those now iconic opening chimes were actually produced using a crappy old glockenspiel keyboard that M Shadows happened to have lying around. “When we tried to do a ‘real’ version of it, it just didn’t sound as good!” the singer would later admit. Morphing into an Ozzy-esque clash of swaying riffs, imperious stomp and clattering drums that just screamed ‘BIG ALBUM OPENER’, it soon became clear that the song just had to go on first. “It’s pure energy,” remarked Shadows. “It felt like the opening of a record.” The track ultimately became a defiant rallying call for Avenged and their followers. And as for that very first ‘Nightmaaaaaaaaaaaaare!’? “Dude, I remember singing that stupid thing over and over,” laughed the singer. It was certainly worth the effort.
2. Second Heartbeat (Waking The Fallen, 2003)
In hindsight, it’s truly amazing that Second Heartbeat wasn’t put out as a single. Not only does it easily match and, dare we say, surpass fellow Waking The Fallen cuts Chapter Four, Unholy Confessions and Eternal Rest, but even now, 16 years on, it stands as one of the best Avenged Sevenfold songs ever. Perhaps its omission was simply down to the fact that its running time outweighs its wider-known stablemates, but hell, you could cut any three-minute chunk from its breathless seven minutes and it’d slap anything else around at the time right out of the park.
A furious, frenetic clash of snarling punk rock and full-blooded heavy metal, it represented metalcore at its absolute 21st-century apex, stitching together the best of both worlds to create something exciting and new. Despite not making it as a fully fledged single from the album, the band clearly had faith in the song to take them places; they recorded a demo of the track for a 2002 Hopeless Records compilation, and it was picked to send to producer Andrew Murdock as an example of what Avenged were capable of. The Alice Cooper and Godsmack collaborator must have been impressed; he ended up producing Avenged’s next two records.
Astonishingly, that demo version of Second Heartbeat was even faster and more ferocious than the one that ended up on Waking The Fallen, and longtime fans were delighted to see the original cut make a return on a special ‘Resurrected’ version of the album in 2014.
1. Beast And The Harlot (City Of Evil, 2005)
The signs were always there. From their very earliest days, Avenged Sevenfold stood apart from their peers as a band who were so often lumped in with the rest of their Cali metalcore brethren, and yet who had so much more to offer than anyone else of their generation. By the time they had broken into metal’s wider consciousness with Waking The Fallen, the quintet were already well-versed in confounding people’s expectations as they dabbled with complex song structures, twin guitar attacks and track lengths that flew past the four-minutes-and-out mid-00s mainstream metal standard. Of course, what followed took things to a whole new plane of crazy: the City Of Evil album wasn’t just pushing metalcore to new limits, but tearing Avenged’s own rulebook to shreds. And then pissing on it. The centrepiece of this bold new era? Beast And The Harlot: a thunderous, modern heavy metal anthem that would take the template of Helloween’s rhapsodic power metal and drench it in swaggering rock’n’roll. It was unlike anything else going on in contemporary metal at the time – and it was a mighty bold choice to open the album that was set to take Avenged Sevenfold to new heights.
“I didn’t think that Beast And The Harlot would be a single or even a fan favourite, to be honest,” admits Zacky Vengeance today of Avenged’s most unexpected smash hit. “I just thought it was a cool song to start the album.”
Written mainly by his fellow axeman Synyster Gates and frontman M Shadows – but, as Zacky is keen to point out, “really carried by Rev’s drums” – the song wasn’t seen as an obvious lynchpin around which the City Of Evil album would be remembered. Indeed, as a single it was preceded by the similarly successful Bat Country and preview track Burn It Down – two songs that had brought in elements of snarling gutter-rock and Iron Maiden-heavy dual-guitar heroism. Neither mixed the two as urgently or flamboyantly as Beast And The Harlot, though, and as the band began to tour the album, it was immediately clear which track was hitting the spot the most with live crowds.
“I never anticipated how much fans would end up liking the song live!” says Zacky. “I was definitely a little surprised. As I’ve gotten older, I get it. It’s driving, it’s got a great groove and it’s really unique.”
With Beast And The Harlot, Avenged Sevenfold weren’t just having a shit-load of fun. They were taking their place as metal’s next superstars in the making.
Avenged Sevenfold's 2008 compilation album Diamonds In The Rough will be released digitally and on vinyl for the first time on February 7 via Warner Records