THE STAGE by Avenged Sevenfold
Genre: Heavy Metal
Favorite Tracks: “Exist”
In preparation for taking in THE STAGE in its full context, I decided to check out HAIL TO THE KING, the album I missed during my, admittedly, good time away from Avenged Sevenfold. Look, if I’m gonna honestly give THE STAGE the fully fleshed out review that it deserves, I have to revisit those good ol’ boys of A7x: M. Shadows, Zacky Vengeance, Johnny Christ, and Synyster Gates — also known as Matthew Sanders, Zachary Baker, Jonathan Seward, and Brian Elwin Haner Jr., respectively. But you know what, their drummer, their core, Jimmy “The Rev” Sullivan was it, man. After he died they should’ve ended it with NIGHTMARE, the absolute maximization of what A7x was all about, even if that reality was a 14-year-old’s motorcycle-Ibanez wet dream with some skulls thrown in for effect. HAIL TO THE KING is that same wet dream gone lucid, but rather than being given free reign to be the fully buff, tricked-out Ghostrider manboy of A7x legend, it’s really just a sweaty evening of sleep paralysis — no narrative, no beastly, tongue-waggin’ riffs, and no Rev. THE STAGE, however, with its goofy artwork, inane premise, and replacement drummer for the drummer that replaced the replacement drummer, promises a new stage for the band to make their statement with. Nick Mason better watch the fuck out.
The final two tracks on HAIL TO THE KING gave some foreshadowing for a space-metal record. “Planets” and “Acid Rain” make a case for A7x being the modern-day Pink Floyd. The modern-day Pink Floyd; after grinding out the screamo route, the hardcore metal route, the batshit insane route, the Christian (?) metal route, the nightmare metal route, and the mastubatory route, the only logical step forward is Pink Floyd. And by golly, if that weird organ synth intro reeking of THE ENDLESS ROAD’s “Autumn ‘68” is any indicator, they might be striking a new (Pink), better (Floyd) chord here. The multifaceted opener, “The Stage,” makes their strongest case for contributing parts 10-15 of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” by riding from section to section on a deeply awkward and limited range of lyrical themes that seem to directly reach out to angsty Christian-but-not-really adolescent boys. Don’t worry though, you can set your weary heart at ease by soaking up “The Stage’s” organ synth intro, its heavy double bass, that dual guitar flurry, its strangely pleasant chorus-guitar bridge, the signature Haner Jr. final solo backed by Sanders crooning “Don’t worry it’s just a simulation eh hehe,” and even a surprise acoustic ending that calls back to CITY OF EVIL’s “Sidewinder.”
Don’t get too excited though, as “Paradigm,” and ultimately the bulk of THE STAGE, prove that these boys are still gonna pull the same shit whether you like it or not; really, it’s just like any other post-Rev effort, except for the few times when Sanders’s eerie whisper-in-your-ear moments have a cool spacey chorus-effect layered on top — it’s space themed you guys. I digress; the choruses in “Paradigm” and “God Damn” are pretty bomb and directly correlate to DARK SIDE OF THE MOON’s “Breathe” and “Time,” respectively, and in proportion. That’s right, I did the math. As I write, the zany whammy-pedal solo on “God Damn” is going off, and that final bridge, “Pledge allegiance / no flag / God nation / Goddamned,” has hit me like a train; do I feel bliss, or shame?
In all seriousness, THE STAGE is an absolute abomination, and 100% confirmation of the band into the same ranks of shame and disgust as felt by the members of Pink Floyd and their fans when THE ENDLESS RIVER came along. Through and through, it is a regurgitation of the formula that Capitol Records and the good ol’ boys know will keep those darn kiddos in the stadium, though unlike HAIL TO THE KING, there are kooky themes about artificial intelligence and space exploration thrown in the mix. The only semblance of progress for the group and, by god, for music altogether, seems to be their pairing of some absolutely bonkers horns and Halloween-ready synthesizers with their brand of thrashy, sweeping, nasal chaos. They are fully a parody of their previous selves, so to say — or at least a parody of their self-titled and CITY OF EVIL selves. Don’t even talk to me about SOUNDING THE SEVENTH TRUMPET. The real questions now are if they’re still Christian — were they ever? Do they reference Christianity because they seek to critique it? And what of their apparent social politics? “Critical Acclaim” was an obvious protest to the George W. Bush presidency and its actions in the Middle East. How do they feel about intervention in Syria, Yemen, or Palestine? Which members voted Trump? I know Zacky Vengeance has a zebra head in his house — definitely Trump. I can tell Synyster Gates would be With HerTM with a name like that though — you can say the same about Roger Waters. Though after observing their embarrassing interpretation of modern life since they left the screamo territory of WAKING THE FALLEN, one must ask, have they heard Pink Floyd’s 1994 critique on modern communication, THE DIVISION BELL?
It is important to point out that a few songs at least manage to stick out — like any good Pink Floyd Record (as if anyone kept listening after “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)”). For example, “Simulation” is a really fucking insane song. “I know this may be hard for you to believe in all / But you only exist because we allow it” is spoken to the listener before Z.Vengeance launches into some hardcore thrasher chuggies. M. Shadows manages to berate, uh, you? Himself? He’s certainly playing the schizophrenic-acid-trip voice he’s been trying to channel since his days dropping LSD in high school. The narrative sound effects, however, take away from the pure, visceral, Barrett-esque psychedelic experience of this track due to their terrible mixing over the band. Luckily, the weirdness continues in a more easily consumable fashion with “Higher” and “Roman Sky,” the former opening with some rather cozy synths that don’t really stick around, but hey, they tried. The real kicker here is the cool texture going on with the drums — new drummer (!), studio musician choir (studio musician choir over here! “Great Gig In the Sky” anybody???), and complementary piano stumbles.
God, okay, I know “Roman Sky” is just another “we’re near the end so we gotta make a moody clean-guitar/acoustic track with some strings,” but I gotta say it is certainly one of their more tasteful bits (“Wish You Were Here,” anyone?), and is at least less cringey than “Seize The Day.” The solo portion of the track features some interesting modal changes that at least have some kind of effect on the listener, leaning more towards the Pink Floydian awe of “Dogs” than whatever “Seize The Day” was trying to make you feel. In all honesty though, like most of THE STAGE, “Roman Sky” could be thrown out. In fact, if they really wanted to achieve full, total, all-encompassing Pink Floyd status they would have just released the final track, “Exist.” The longest track in the A7x discography, at 15-and-a-half wholly realized minutes, it is an epic like no other, incorporating all the tricks, cliches, and gimmicks of the past 57 minutes and 56 seconds.
The total, unadulterated bliss being conveyed by each and every moment of “Exist” is nearly impossible to describe. Never before has a band distilled exactly 17 years of musical experience and leitmotif into one, singular piece of music, except of course when Pink Floyd masterfully crafted THE WALL. It incorporates blast beats, horns, intense triple guitar performances, organ synth, select string features, sweeping crescendos, stratospheric ambiance, and the pièce de résistance: a dance-rock synth-arpeggiated finale narrated by the one and only Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I urge you to listen to this spectacle in its entirety. Just try to come to terms with this monologue on an album by the guys that made “Nightmare”:
We have one collective hope: the Earth. And yet, uncounted people remain hopeless, famine and calamity abound. Sufferers hurl themselves into the arms of war; people kill and get killed in the name of someone else’s concept of God. Do we admit that our thoughts and behaviors spring from a belief that the world revolves around us? Each fabricated conflict, self-murdering bomb, vanished airplane, every fictionalized dictator, biased or partisan, and wayward son, are part of the curtains of society’s racial, ethnic, religious, national, and cultural conflicts, and you find the human ego turning the knobs and pulling the levers. When I track the orbits of asteroids, comets, and planets, each one a pirouetting dancer in a cosmic ballet, choreographed by the forces of gravity, I see beyond the plight of humans. I see a universe ever-expanding, with its galaxies embedded within the ever-stretching four-dimensional fabric of space and time. However big our world is, our hearts, our minds, our outsize atlases, the universe is even bigger. There are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on the world’s beaches, more stars in the universe than seconds of time that have passed since Earth formed, more stars than words & sounds ever uttered by all humans who have ever lived. The day we cease the exploration of the cosmos is the day we threaten the continuing of our species. In that bleak world, arms-bearing, resource-hungry people and nations would be prone to act on their low-contracted prejudices, and would have seen the last gasp of human enlightenment. Until the rise of a visionary new culture that once again embraces the cosmic perspective; a perspective in which we are one, fitting neither above nor below, but within.
Word has it, there are seven more tracks that are going to be added to THE STAGE in the near future. This record is a triumph against all reason and could only have been released in 2016. The boys are fucking back in town.