When Avenged Sevenfold surprise-released The Stage in October 2016, the band were excited to forge new ground. “Nobody has realised the CD is sitting in their store right now,” vocalist M. Shadows told Metal Hammer at the time of release, in regard to why the group decided to forgo a traditional marketing campaign. “We have had the balls to do something different.”
A year later – with the album’s sales still lagging well behind those of its predecessors – the vocalist has started singing a different tune. “It was horrible for the casual fan,” he recently told ABC Radio. “Most casual fans don’t even know about it, or they’ve written it off as, ‘Why would you release a record secretly? It must not be good.’
There are no casual fans here in downtown Los Angeles tonight, though. We’re inside the 200-capacity Clive Davis Theater at the GRAMMY Museum – located about 65 kilometers north of the group’s hometown of Huntington Beach – for what’s billed as “an intimate conversation about their career and new music,” as well as the band’s first-ever acoustic performance. The event marks the band’s first area appearance since they shared the stage with Metallica at the Rose Bowl in July, which was by far the biggest local crowd they’ve ever played to, and pre-show chatter indicates that just about everyone here was in attendance that night.
A few minutes after 8pm, the group enter the theatre to loud cheers, but it quickly becomes clear that they haven’t come alone: in addition to “Papa Gates”, who sits behind the band and provides additional guitar work (and, on one song, even plays a sitar), there’s a five-piece string section at stage left.
As he’s handed an acoustic guitar, Synyster quips, “What is this wooden artefact here?” The group then open a half-hour performance with their recently released cover of The Rolling Stones’ As Tears Go By, which also appears on the upcoming deluxe edition of The Stage. The song sees Synyster harmonise nicely with Shadows, who’s notably not wearing his usual hat, bandanna and sunglasses. Afterwards, the band again introduce Synyster’s father, as well as the string section. “There’s so many talented people up here – and then there’s us,” they joke.
The group then launches into Hail To The King, its arpeggiated riff sounding surprisingly melancholic and borderline noir when played on an acoustic. The strings, meanwhile, effectively accent the song by providing added tension in the chorus. Up next is The Stage track Roman Sky, which Shadows introduces as “a song we’ve never played before”. As Synyster provides falsetto harmonies in the opening verses, a mohawk-less Johnny Christ sips from a glass of red wine while waiting for his bass parts to commence. Although Zacky Vengeance jokes about his guitar work during the song afterward, to the untrained eye and ear, its maiden performance goes off without a hitch.
For the band’s scheduled finale, Shadows introduces “another song we haven’t broken out on tour yet” – The Stage closer, Exist. “We’re not going to do the first seven minutes, or the last five” he humorously clarifies. “We’ll do the part that’s appropriate.” He and Synyster open the song, with additional harmonies on both vocals and guitars added by Papa Gates. The acoustic arrangement is lush and somewhat Floydian, revealing an unexpected psychedelic space rock vibe.
Afterwards, a three-year-old in the front row calls out a request for the Nightmare track So Far Away. Not wanting to disappoint the young fan, the band obliges, although not without a disclaimer. “This is gonna be so bad,” Shadows says before asking the crowd to sing along in hopes of covering up any mistakes they make along the way. Despite the warning, the group acquit themselves admirably, with Shadows’ raspy, anguished roar at the song’s end providing a potent exclamation point to a memorable set.
An hour-long Q&A session follows, with the group discussing everything from backstage catering restrictions on their recent tour with Metallica, to why they chose certain songs to cover, to how they weathered the emotional Nightmare album cycle following the death of their original drummer, Jimmy ‘The Rev’ Sullivan. It’s fascinating to watch the dynamic among the bandmembers when they speak, as most groups who’ve achieved a similar level of success tend to drift apart as they get bigger. Avenged, however, seem to genuinely enjoy each other’s company, poking fun at themselves and frequently using the word ‘family’ (apparently, all that time with Hetfield rubbed off).
Inevitably, a question is posed about the “surprise drop” of The Stage, but Shadows says he has no regrets.“We were looking for ways to stimulate ourselves,” he says, adding that the band will “continue to experiment with the way we release music” because they would “rather be disappointed than bored.” Those present tonight, however, are neither.