Three years ago, Avenged Sevenfold were headlining the rock’n’roll mecca of Download Festival at Donington Park in front of a giant skeleton king and walls of flames. So what the hell are they doing in Prog magazine? Well, having spent over 15 years establishing themselves as one of the biggest entities in heavy metal, the Orange County five-piece stunned the headbanging community last year with their seventh album The Stage – a 70+ minute space age epic that transcends genres and leaves their previous riffier offerings in a quivering pile on the floor.
This isn’t Avenged’s first dalliance with the progressive world. Following the death of original drummer James Owen ‘The Rev’ Sullivan in 2009, Mike Portnoy joined their ranks for live shows and sessions for 2010 album Nightmare. But this isn’t Dream Theater, this is a cosmic journey through the eyes of men who are ready to flee the shackles of metal and dive into the great beyond.
“It was about going back to the fun records that we grew up on, like the self-titled Mr Bungle record,” says frontman M (Matt) Shadows, sitting in a meeting room at Prog Towers, having landed in London just hours earlier. “We learned a lot on [2013 album] Hail To The King in terms of writing and key changes, the nerdy stuff you learn when you study songwriting, and I think that we weren’t ready for it before.”
It’s true that Avenged Sevenfold are a different beast to the fire-breathing monster they were four years ago. Now all in their early to late 30s, their hard partying, booze-fuelled antics have been replaced by marriages, children and going to the gym. Avenged needed a change of scenery after releasing six straight-up metal albums prior to The Stage. But this isn’t the sound of a band slowing down. This is maturity: a desire to prove that there’s more to the band than four-minute riffgasms, and to experiment with sound on a variety of levels.
“I feel that once you get to this point as a musician you just want to play it safe, keep your fanbase and make some money, but we’re never going to compromise the art, and this is where it took us,” says Shadows.
“I knew we always had it in us but now with our age and our songwriting chops being a lot better, we’ve been able to really put something together. I read an interview with Soundgarden and they were completely unaware of all the time signatures they were going through in their songs. They just did what felt right, and that’s what we were doing, following our instincts and our heart.”
Inspired by the band’s newfound interest in astrophysics, artificial intelligence, and the works of authors Carl Sagan and Elon Musk, The Stage’s source and concept lends itself beautifully to experimentation and altering the metal template. Writing all the songs and structures before going into the studio, Avenged started “geeking out” about the tricks and nuances they could introduce into the music – there aren’t many bands that would enlist the members of Fishbone for a horn section in Sunny Disposition.
But it’s the grandiose final song, Exist, that really stands out as the most progressive, forward-thinking and wondrous song that Avenged Sevenfold have arguably ever created. Clocking in at 15 minutes long, embracing the swirling and expansive guitars of Synyster Gates, the album climaxes with a speech from acclaimed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, which isn’t something you would expect to hear from a band who were once found on America’s teenage sweatfest, Warped Tour.
Based around the Big Bang, Exist was originally meant to be wholly instrumental until Synyster talked Matt out of it. “It’s a classical interpretation of what a symphony would be because it just keeps moving,” says Shadows, sipping from his bottle of water. “When you have to write a chorus and a verse you’re stuck to that and it’s going to keep looping, but with this it was a free-flowing visual like the Big Bang.
“We’ve been enamoured since Hail To The King with our songs Planets and Acid Rain, which were heavily based off Gustav Holst and his Mars movement. The notes and those chords are very dissonant and they’re very Star Wars, so when you start playing around with that stuff you start thinking of space. The vocal part I would attribute more to Space Oddity or Rocket Man, an Elton John or David Bowie type feel.”
It’s not just music that Avenged are pushing boundaries with. The album itself was released without a campaign and just appeared online and in stores one day. No advance promotion, no press releases, nothing. And it’s not even the end of the album, as Matt reveals that the band are planning on adding more tracks to it on Spotify and Apple Music, including a couple of covers. Similarly, their live show is taking leaps away from the sphere of metal, working with Cirque du Soleil’s producers to create a spectacle never before achieved by a ‘heavy’ band.
It’s this modifying of the system that calls back to a more exciting, less diluted time, when bands had more freedom to experiment and weren’t being judged on how many Twitter followers they have.
“I look back at the 1990s and there was so much crazy shit coming out, and so many cool bands that were causing a reaction – you just don’t see that any more,” says Shadows. “You see more of a reaction from the things people say in the media than what their music is doing, and I’d rather get a reaction from the music.
“I want music to be that again, when you see an artist who doesn’t cut corners to get a record out right away, they go into the studio, they work really hard at their craft to try and make something special. That’s what this is about, going away for a while and coming out with something cool.”
Prog is curious about whether this foray into progressive music is the start of something new for Avenged Sevenfold, or is it a one-off before returning to the comfort of shredding and mosh pits? Well, Shadows doesn’t seem too confident about the state of modern metal.
“There’s a lot of boring stuff going on, a lot of the same drum sounds, a lot of the same things going on, the same song structures. Put them in a little box with a bow on it and they’ll play it on the radio, then go play at a festival and whatever,” he says candidly.
“We’re bringing a mainstream audience into this world, maybe opening the doors to people who haven’t heard the term progressive before, then they start looking into things. We’re a band that are on the radio presenting something new to our fans, and hopefully it helps the genre and some of these radio bands say, ‘Dude, we can play different stuff.’”
It remains to be seen if Avenged Sevenfold will be the catalyst for change in mainstream metal, or if they will continue to exist as an anomaly among the Iron Maidens and Metallicas of the world, but it feels as though the stars are aligning for something very special indeed. Watch the skies.
This article originally appeared in issue 74 of Prog Magazine.