For their seventh studio album, The Stage, Californian quintet Avenged Sevenfold have drawn inspiration from the writings of Carl Sagan and Elon Musk, and turned their minds towards such lofty concepts as artificial intelligence, the rise and fall of civilisations, and the incomprehensible magnitude of the universe. Fittingly for dealing with these hefty ideas, Avenged Sevenfold have once again introduced progressive-metal elements into their hard-rock sound, while still referencing back to their metalcore origins.
Commencing in grand cinematic fashion – courtesy of a pitch-shifted organ, reminiscent of old school sci-fi or horror films, for the intro – the titular The Stage sets the tone for the album by ebbing and flowing through its eight and a half minutes. It doesn’t take long for the lead guitar of Synyster Gates to take centre-stage – backed by the crunchy rhythms of Zacky Vengeance, the double-kicks of Brooks Wackerman, and Johnny Christ’s work-a-day bass – and he provides a Spanish styled acoustic guitar outro to the song. Musically, The Stage, holds its own, despite some of the changes not quite fitting snuggly, but M. Shadows’ vocals are the part that broke the mood for me, coming across as airy and hollow; lacking the power the music demands.
Sunny Disposition features a solid guitar opening, and the drums and bass mesh perfectly to anchor the songs rhythm. The inclusion of horns on the track is pleasantly surprising, acting as a perfect payoff to the song’s up and down shifts in energy. The thrash-meets-metalcore of God Damn all but demands the listener throw themselves around, and Gates’ acoustic interlude at the bridge contrasts well with the song’s tone without breaking the mood. Shadows’ vocals work better on a song like Creating God which, with the exception of the pre-chorus’s blast of speed, takes on more of a groove-metal/hard-rock vibe.
By slowing down the pace, and taking on duller tones, Angels show Avenged Sevenfold to be capable musicians who don’t need to rely on walls of gain or searing speed to make a point, although the changed musicality highlights a nasal quality in the vocals. With its reference to Nero fiddling while Rome burned, Roman Sky features a string backing and is an unexpectedly soft and restrained song, and one on which Shadows’ vocal approach works best. At fifteen and a half minutes long, Exist is The Stage’s – and indeed, Avenged Sevenfold’s – longest track. Perhaps too long, with its shifts and turns ultimately lacking coherence, although the spoken word section from Neil deGrasse Tyson – written by him, specifically for the record – is a wonderful surprise.
Avenged Sevenfold undoubtedly entered The Stage with ambition, and they deserve to be praised for that, as too many bands don’t seek to push themselves or their audience beyond their comfort zones. Yet as an album, The Stage drags on by the end, waxing and waning a little too much throughout. A commendable effort, just not a standout one.