Review Summary: "The Stage" is a new lease on life, and a significant step in the right direction for a band that has been needing both for ages.
When it comes to new music released this year, I'm finding myself having to swallow my pride a fair bit. 2016 has seen a rather... unexpected (to say the least) resurgence of unexpected comeback attempts by bands who have been in the woodwork for a while, or who haven't released a decent album in a while. Yes, 2016 is a year where the likes of Green Day and Sum 41 release unexpectedly decent albums, and with the year two months shy of being over, anything is possible at this point. So when in the middle of this month, Avenged Sevenfold drop a single out of thin air that runs exactly 8 an a half minutes long and turns out to actually leave a good impression on the majority of listeners (although still manages to be divisive), it's both a surprise and something we all saw coming. 3 years ago saw the band hitting musical rock bottom with Hail to the King
, a mess of Metallica ripoffs and downright lazy songwriting and musicianship that appeared to be the ultimate sign that this was one band in dire need of reinvention. And it appears they seem to have gotten the memo too. Avenged Sevenfold are back, out of thin air with (yet another) new drummer and a brand new album, simply titled The Stage
, that while far from perfect, is the kick in the ass they've been needing for a while.
If a listen to the past three albums from A7X bring anything to attention, especially compared to City of Evil
, it's that the band appeared to have set the bar way too high for themselves with said album. While it's admirable that they tried to grow and evolve into a more mature sound, the problem is that they did it in one incredibly slapdash and uninteresting way. The songs were simply too slow paced or generic to be taken seriously as statements of artistry, and bizarre decisions like the weird female vocals on "Unbound (The Wild Ride)", the bizarre ripoff of Tim Burton that is "A Little Piece of Heaven" and the hilariously awful choir backing and spoken word on "Requiem" are anything to swear by, they seemed to have hit a creative wall. And so that's why it's refreshing that The Stage
sees Avenged Sevenfold doing three things: going back to their City of Evil
style, successfully managing to fuse said style with a more experimental and mature approach that the band's self-titled could have been had some actual fucking effort
been put into it, and bringing in Dream Theateresque proggish elements to the mix too. The album manages to come off as cohesive in spite of these decisions, mainly due to some actually good songwriting for once, and inspired musicianship. For once, the band actually sound passionate about what they're doing, and it's absolutely wonderful to hear.
Going back to the lead single, which also opens the album, said title track is a good indicator of what to expect. Over the course of 8 minutes and 33 seconds, the band throw some tasty riffs, typical Avenged Sevenfold moments and even some new elements our way, and it makes for a fantastic way to open a solidly entertaining 73 minutes. Easily the best part is the song's bridge, which definitely conjures memories of "The Beast and the Harlot", and to me was the first sign that we're in for the band's first great effort in 11 years. And even more surprisingly, the song ends on a beautiful and soft note with a flamenco guitar outro, which winds down a great musical journey in style. The track manages to showcase all three sides of the band on this album, even with the Dream Theater influences being obvious, and it works incredibly to their advantage. Fortunately, the momentum is kept going with "Paradigm", which gives us a short and sweet thrash number that both reminds us of their "good old days" and that they've still got it. And for the next little while, we've got a good idea what to expect for the rest of the album.
On the whole, this album isn't anything particularly new, but there's plenty of new and unexpected small bits brought to the table, and this is where the album is its most exciting. "Sunny Disposition" is a more traditional A7X track, but with one unexpected addition: a brass section! It's something that really shouldn't work, but an already catchy tune is given a little jolt of extra energy thanks to the brass section, even having a bit of a ska feel too. "Simulation" is tune that's definitely different for them: the verses are rather soft and mid-tempo, but a brief pause and some sound manipulation effects later, doomy riffs, distorted spoken word and evil sounding synths kick in and the song is catapulted into a fast, thrashy chorus. And while "Higher" is definitely nothing you wouldn't expect from the band's self titled, the electronic percussion is a nice touch and shakes things up well enough. And as far as the more traditional songs go, well, they're done well enough to the point that they don't give you that sense of "this again"". "God Damn" and "Creating God" are seriously catchy tunes that will remain in your head for quite a while, with the latter's chorus being stupidly ear-wormish and singalongable, and "Fermi Paradox" is business as usual for the band, with some blistering solos and some of the band's best riffs in ages.
However, a special note has to be given to the album's 15-minute closer, "Exist", and it's definitely a unique track for the band, unlike anything they've done before. Starting with wind blowing and swirling synth arpeggios, the song thrusts into a neoclassical thrash intrumental that shows the band borrowing heavily from their classical superiors for a few minutes before a little break with synth strings. It isn't until 7 and a half minutes into the track that Matt begins singing, joining in with a country-esque guitar riff that transitions into a soulful power ballad that has some beautful and haunting vocal melodies that compliment the song's beautiful riffs and harmonies. However, 11 minutes in is where the song starts to get exciting, where it begins to speed up and at 12 minutes in, goes back to the thrash, with a gorgeous chord progression and permeated by a recording of a monologue from about how the only threat posed to humanity is caused by humans themselves. This shouldn't work, but it adds such a beautiful and nice touch to the song's epic feel and will remain long in your head after, so much that even the guitar drone that closes the track can't spoil it. At risk of hyperbole, this track is definitely a career high for the band and more epics like this are definitely welcome, even if it fails to live up to "The Wicked End".
Of course, the album isn't exactly flawless; "Roman Sky" is a ballad that, while not bad, feels like it should have been the song that comes before "Exist" to prepare the listener, and is unfortunately full of the typical A7X ballad glurge; "Angels" is a track that feels too much like a Hail to the King
cut and very out of place on the album, and the production is expectedly unfortunate, this time having not enough low end and sounding unusually thin for an album as heavy as this. Additionally, while he sounds better on this album than on Hail to the King
, Matt's vocals have seen better days, and are downright grating at times. On the plus side, the band's new drummer, Ex-Bad Religion drummer Brooks Wackerman, is given a chance to shine instead of playing pre-programmed drum parts and being relegated to being "the new Jimmy", and works incredibly well with the existing band members. What matters most though, is that the band are back to sounding energized and consistent, making good music again, clearly loving what they're doing and it's lovely to hear. While The Stage
isn't going to win everyone who jumped ship back, it's gotten the band back on track, and could lead to the band reaching another career high. Let's hope they stay on the track for a good while, at least.