Review Summary: It's not that bad.
There was no doubt this album would stir-up a lot of buzz, but the amount of bashing Hail to the King has received (especially here) is just mind-boggling. Is Hail to the King really that bad? For me no, but I definitely do see where all the negative feedback is coming from. First-of-all Avenged Sevenfold have never been critical darlings or the favorites of the so-called "trüe metal" fans. A lot of the times Avenged have been pigeonholed as the modern Metallica (not in a good way) for the Hot-Topic crowd. And, to some respect, that's very true. I'll give you an example. I remember when Nightmare came out. At the time, I was very much loving the record, loving the band, all that ***. But then I remember watching a Youtube video of one of their concerts in the US (I live in Finland, so I really didn't know how big the band actually were in the States). When I saw the amount of teenage girls and people who had no idea of what "metal" was, it finally hit me! This must be how Metallica fans felt after the Black album came out! All of the sudden all these people who had no clue of what the band were really about started loving them, and the band started feel less my own and more "mainstream" (keep in mind I live in Finland and up until this point the band weren't too well known here). So yeah, there was a time when I was a big Avenged Sevenfold fan. Bring on the hate mail! But having said that, I will say that Avenged Sevenfold is by no means one of the worst bands out there. Sure I don't listen to them too much anymore, but there is a lot good in this band. M. Shadows is a very powerful vocalist, the guitar playing is very competent and the Rev was a monster drummer for sure. But where do the band stand now? Is Hail to the King just more of the same for the Hot-Topic crowd, or does it try something different that might appease the "trüe metal" crowd? It's actually a bit of both.
Okay, so like most probably already know, Hail to the King is very "influenced" by classic metal and hard rock of the 80's and 90's. I put "influenced" in quotation marks, because as you'll notice on tracks like "This Means War", "ripping-off" would be a more suitable phrase to use. Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably heard all the accusations of Avenged Sevenfold ripping-off bands like Metallica, Megadeth, Iron Maiden etc. And yeah, there really isn't any excuse for this one. A message to the guys in Avenged Sevenfold: There is a difference between taking influence and just plain copying! But thankfully "This Means War" is the only point on the album where this becomes almost unbearable. Sure there are other moments on the album when we can definitely hear the band being "influenced", like "Shepard of Fire" sounding very similar to "Enter Sandman" and the cues "Heretic" takes from "Symphony of Destruction". But if you're willing to look past these problems, you might find yourself really enjoying what the album has to offer. Hell, if we're willing to let Airbourne (who are awesome by the way) get away with virtually replicating AC/DC, why can't we do the same with Avenged? Well OK, maybe comparing Avenged Sevenfold to a band like Airbourne isn't the best way to go. But when looking at other reviews for the album, the problem doesn't really seem to be the fact that Hail to the King is ripping-off other, better albums, but how unoriginal it is. And I can definitely understand that. But seeing how the band made very clear how the album would sound, no-one should really be going into Hail to the King looking for something innovative or new. It's doing exactly what it's supposed to do, which is to replicate what made heavy metal so great in the past. And to some extent, Hail to the King succeeds, which might appease some of the metal fans out there who did't consider Avenged "trüe" enough.
Looking at the album musically, Hail to the King is very different from the Avenged Sevenfold of the past. Previously the band's music was characterized by dual-harmony guitars, orchestral arrangements, and multi-layered vocal harmonies. In a word, it was over-produced. While all these factors sometimes worked within the music, over time they became a major turn-off. But with Hail to the King, Avenged have done what most bands do at some point in their respective careers: they strip it down. Hail to the King is about big riffs, big choruses and big drums, nothing more, nothing less. Going back to Metallica, Hail to the King feels very much like Avenged Sevenfold's Black album. It's bigger, it's simpler, it's slower, and it will probably be the band's biggest success to date, which will (unfortunately) reinforce the size of the Hot-Topic crowd in the audience. Like it or not, Avenged are the modern Metallica. Uh, am I the only who cringed after reading that?
Performance-wise Avenged have always been very competent, but nowhere is this more clear than on Hail to the King. Having stripped down to the bare basics, it's much easier to appreciate the playing, when there aren't a million instruments going off at once. Guitar playing is solid as always, Shadow's delivers probably his strongest vocal performance to date, and the bass playing is doing exactly what it's supposed to do. But the other big thing a lot of people are talking about is the drumming. Hail to the King is the first Avenged album without any contribution from the Rev, who passed away in 2009. Filling his shoes we have Arin Ilejay. Ilejay is a very competent drummer, and is very capable of playing stuff that could be considered "hard". But seeing how Hail to the King is all about stripping down, Ilejay doesn't really get a moment to shine. Instead his job is more about keeping the beat and providing a groove. And while the drumming can get a bit boring from time to time (the title-track being the prime example), Ilejay does a very fine job, given his job description. On a side note, if there's anything to be said about the production, it's that the drums are way too high up in the mix. Just saying.
If there are any highlights to single-out on Hail to the King, they would be the title-track, "Requiem" and "Heretic". The title track provides a chorus bigger than any other on the album, "Requiem" features choral- and orchestral-arrangements, that reinforce the epic nature of the song, while "Heretic" provides a simple straightforward, heavy metal tune, with an infectious riff and chorus. On the flip-side, the tracks you should probably avoid are "Crimson Day" and "Acid Rain". The less said about those the better.
Hail to the King is definitely an album that will divide a lot of people. Some people will love it for what it is and some will hate it for the exact same reason. Me, personally, I liked it. Admittedly it took some time to grow on me, but once it did, I had blast listening to it. Is Hail to the King a worthy contender for album of the year? No, not by a long shot. But it is a terrific hard rock/metal record, that does keep you entertained.