As they embark on a brand new world tour in support of their incredible new album, ‘The Stage’, we tell you all you need to know about Avenged Sevenfold.
The Early Days
Avenged Sevenfold’s career began in 1999 in the their hometown of Huntington Beach, California; originally a four piece comprised of current vocalist M Shadows, guitarist Zacky Vengeance, late drummer Reverend Tholomew Plague (or ‘The Rev’ for short) and former bassist Matt Wendt, the band released their debut record ‘Sounding The Seventh Trumpet’ in 2001. Best known for their grand arrangements and flamboyant instrumentation, this facet of the band’s sound was less apparent here. Despite being dominated by Vengeance’s punkier approach to guitar playing, ballad ‘Warmness On The Soul’ showed a band keen to rise above the burgeoning metalcore scene they were born into.
Shortly after its release, the band recruited close friend Synyster Gates, and by the Zacky’s own admission, Gates’ playing was beyond anything he could play at the time. This personnel change made itself apparent on their sophomore release, ‘Waking The Fallen’.
With more clean singing, more melody, progressive structures and their now signature dueling guitar lead lines, ‘Waking The Fallen’ was also the first record to include bassist Johnny Christ, thus ushering in the band’s classic line-up era. Shortly after this album was recorded, M Shadows underwent voice altering surgery, leaving of its most popular cuts unplayed save for set stalwart ‘Unholy Confessions’ and a truncated version of ‘Second Heartbeat’. However, in recent times Avenged have reintroduced several tracks from this era including the awesome ‘Chapter Four’ and ‘Sounding The Seventh Trumpet’’s ‘To End The Rapture’.
‘City Of Evil’ and beyond…
Following Shadows’ vocal surgery, Sevenfold’s sound underwent a considerable change, a trend that would go on to define each release moving forward, and in 2005 they unleashed ‘City of Evil’, their first major label release with Warner Bros Records. With a more goth-tinged image and a more accessible but still wildly ambitious sound, Sevenfold would go on to reach a brand new audience and make their first steps towards ation. However, these steps were not quite as promising as the rock giant’s current status would have you believe, as according to the band, the record failed to meet its first week sales targets. After a shaky start, things didn’t pick up until LA radio station KROQ picked up ‘Bat Country’ and subsequently MTV, exposing them to legions of new fans.
Buoyed by ‘City Of Evil’’s success, the five-piece took the executive decision of self-producing its self-titled follow up. Released in 2007, ‘Avenged Sevenfold’ was the five piece’s most collaborative release yet. More condensed than anything the band had released before but with more eccentricities than ever, the record was the last to feature ‘The Rev’ on drums prior to his death; featuring more of his writing than any album previous, ‘The Rev’ has has writing credits for all bar one of the tracks here, and full writing credits on ‘Almost Easy’, Afterlife’ and ‘A Little Piece of Heaven’ – some of the band’s most popular songs. His vocals can also be found littered throughout the album such as on the chorus of ‘Critical Acclaim’ or backing on ‘Scream’: a rawer contrast to Shadows’ smooth croon.
‘Nightmare’ and the death of James ‘The Rev’ Sullivan
However, it was in the lead up to the band’s fifth album that tragedy struck. On December 28th, James ‘The Rev’ Sullivan died at the age of 28 due to an “acute polydrug intoxication due to combined effects of Oxycodone, Oxymorphone, Diazepam/Nordiazepam and ethanol”. A fiercely talented individual revered by his peers and fans alike, his death sent shockwaves throughout the rock and metal community. Such a key part of what made Avenged Sevenfold who they were, the remaining members considered disbanding the band. However, with a fifth record already written, the band decided to carry on, and announced in February of 2010 that they had entered the studio to begin tracking a new record entitled ‘Nightmare’, with the help of now former Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy.
With such extreme circumstances, it isn’t surprising that ‘Nightmare’ isn’t the strongest record in the band’s back catalogue. With all lyrics being dedicated to ‘The Rev’, the record is without a doubt the most emotionally heavy in their back catalogue as songs like ‘Victim’ and ‘So Far Away’ give a direct insight into the remaining member’s emotional state at the time of recording. Portnoy gives a nuanced performance worthy of the Rev’s legacy, but without a doubt the most striking moment on ‘Nightmare’ is penultimate track, ‘Fiction’. Presented to the other members as a demo written and sung by The Rev, the piano driven ballad, originally entitled ‘Death’, hauntingly signs off with the lyric “I know you’ll find your own way when I’m not with you”. Fleshed out by the rest of the band with organ, guitars and additional lead vocals by M Shadows, the track is a beautiful, poignant send off for one of this generation’s greatest musical talents.
Following the album’s release, Sevenfold were able to partake in some much needed catharsis on the ‘Nightmare’ world tour with Portnoy behind the kit. An intense experience for fans and band, it was made clear that no matter the future of the band that these shows would serve the purpose of remembering and celebrating The Rev’s life. However, in January 2011, the band announced they had parted ways with Portnoy, replacing him with brand new full-time drummer Arin Ilejay.
‘Hail To The King’ and ‘The Stage’
Now bigger than ever and on the cusp of joining the genre’s greatest acts, Avenged Sevenfold released ‘Hail To The King’ in 2013. Another enormous sonic leap and practically devoid of the usual breakneck pace and dueling lead guitars that the band had become known for, this record felt like a conscious effort to sound more like an arena sized band, and to tap into older generations of heavy music fans who grew up on Metallica, AC/DC and Guns ‘N’ Roses. ‘Hail To The King’ may have received a fair amount of flak for wearing its influences on its sleeve, but the album’s title track remains their most played song on Spotify by some ten million plays, and one only needs to see the amount of fists in the air when the song is aired live. While it’s debatable whether the band even needed a record like this to secure a place at the top table, it certainly didn’t hinder their progress, and the following year, Avenged Sevenfold headlined Download 2014.
After ‘Hail To The King’’s extensive touring cycle, the Avenged Sevenfold camp went quiet once again until July 2015, when the band announced that due to creative differences, Arin Ilejay was no longer a member of the band, and in his place former Bad Religion supremo Brooks Wackerman would replace him behind the kit. After a considerable period of silence, eventually stirrings of a new record – possibly entitled ‘Voltaic Oceans’ according to close friend of the band Chris Jericho – began to surface. Shockingly, the band decided to buck the trend of an extended promotional campaign, and released a brand new album entitled ‘The Stage’ on October 28th with only a couple of days warning. Taking cues from the likes of Beyonce and Kanye West, the record appeared two months earlier than first hinted by Jericho, leaving the music press struggling to keep up. A return to the progressive leanings of the band’s earlier work, ‘The Stage’ is a record conceptually based around artificial intelligence, and even featured a cameo from prominent astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson on the album’s final track ‘Exist’.
As you read this, the band are embarking on the UK leg of ‘The Stage’ world tour. With a setlist that spans their entire career to date, and a truly stunning stage show, these dates are events that should not be missed.
The Essential Album: ‘City Of Evil’
One of the standout metal records of the 21st Century, Avenged Sevenfold took the expansivity of ‘Waking The Fallen’ in a more colourful hard rock direction, creating the 72 minute juggernaut, ‘City Of Evil’, an album that would leave many of their metalcore compatriots in the dust. Progressive, anthemic and technically dazzling, the disc features some of the band’s biggest hits including ‘Beast And The Harlot’, Bat Country’ and ‘Seize The Day’, while at the other end of the spectrum, the wonderfully overblown ‘Strength Of The World’ and The Wicked End feature full orchestras within their already hectic arrangements.
‘City of Evil’ also established Synyster Gates as a guitar hero for a new generation, his blend of blues licks, flat out shredding and flamenco-influenced sections dominating a record already bursting with ideas.
Despite such a presence, every member of Avenged Sevenfold brought their A-game to ‘City Of Evil’, with M Shadows in particular sounding gone were the raspy screams, replaced with phenomenal range and melody at a time when “every Warped Tour band was throwing a couple of screams in there” according to the man himself. ‘City of Evil’ did what all the best bands do, taking a sharp left turn as the rest of the pack started to catch up.
For Die Hard Fans: ‘Avenged Sevenfold’
Released in 2008, and the last studio album to feature The Rev on drums, ‘Avenged Sevenfold’ might seem like a poor choice for this particular section at a glance. True enough, ‘Afterlife’ and ‘Almost Easy’ are among the band’s biggest singles, while the eight-minute epic A Little Piece of Heaven’ is perhaps their most experimental track, bringing their macabre humour and Danny Elfman inspired horn sections. Despite these moments of strength, this record is unfortunately a rather patchy affair, and the band’s focus on experimentation was often to their detriment. ‘Unbound (The Wild Ride)’’s and ‘Lost’ give us child choirs and bizarre autotune respectively, while the eye-wateringly corny country ballad ‘Dear God’ makes Nickelback sound like Nails.
As mixed a bag as they come, ‘Avenged Sevenfold’ often gets a pass on the merit of its solid gold singles, but it is likely that casual listeners wanting more of the same would have been disappointed upon picking up the record.
One To Avoid: ‘Hail To The King’
While it is unclear whether or not they needed the extra push, the band decided a more simplified, traditional approach was needed to earn them a seat alongside Maiden and Metallica. Sure, there’s plenty of decent material on this record, but so much is blatantly lifted from the annals of the genre’s history. ‘This Means War’ is Metallica’s ‘Sad But True’ almost beat for beat, and while it’s no secret that M Shadows worships at the altar of Axl Rose, ‘Doing Time’ is just a little too brazen in its reverence.
Still proud of the album, the band cite the title track’s impact in a live setting as proof of its effectiveness. The album was also the first and last album to feature Arin Ilejay: a suitable successor for The Rev in the live arena, it was unfortunate that ‘Hail To The King’ required far more restraint than the average A7X album, and one only needs to take a look at the in the studio footage to notice his barely disguised chagrin.
While M Shadows and Synyster Gates have featured on several prominent releases from the likes of Good Charlotte, Fozzy and Slash, the band’s most well known side project is the heavy metal/avant garde band Pinkly Smooth.
Fronted by The Rev on vocals and piano, and featuring Synyster Gates and former Avenged bassist Justin Sane among its ranks, the band released their debut ‘Unfortunate Snort’ in 2002. Packed with many of the same eccentricities that littered Avenged Sevenfold’s self titled release, ‘Unfortunate Snort’ may be even further down the “For Die Hard Fans” rabbithole, but it’s no less interesting to hear the Rev’s unique personality embodied in this short release. Album highlight ‘Mezmer’ feels like ‘A Little Piece of Heaven’s’ weird cousin, and although the production quality is somewhat lacking, The Rev’s knack for hooks makes this essential listening for those wanting to delve a little deeper into Avenged Sevenfold’s collective psyche.
Those looking to understand the band’s prowess in a live setting need look no further than their ‘Live At The LBC’ DVD. Easily found on YouTube, it documents the band playing to a (sort of) home crowd in Long Beach, California. Although predominantly featuring material from the self-titled record discussed above, the footage perfectly showcases the original line up at their peak.
Elsewhere, the band have consistently released behind the scenes snippets for each record from ‘Waking The Fallen’ onward (excluding ‘Nightmare’), providing fascinating insight into their writing and recording process.
To End The Rapture
Warmness On The Soul
I Won’t See You Tonight Part 1
Beast and the Harlot
Seize the Day
Blinded In Chains
A Little Piece of Heaven
So Far Away
Shepherd of Fire
Hail to the King
‘The Stage’ by Avenged Sevenfold is out now on Capitol Records.
Avenged Sevenfold are currently touring the UK and can be found at the remaining dates:
13 Genting Arena, Birmingham
15 Arena, Sheffield
16 Arena, Manchester
18 Motorpoint Arena, Nottingham
19 Motorpoint Arena, Cardiff
21 The O2 Arena, London
22 The O2 Arena, London
Words by Josh Graham (@jollyboyjosh_)