Does Avenged Sevenfold's first concept album find the band going all prog-metal? Nope.
"[The Stage producer Joe Barresi ] was like, ‘Why would you ever tune your vocals? You can sing!’
-- Avenged Sevenfold vocalist M. Shadows
Here's a point of contention when it comes to Avenged Sevenfold. Can M. Shadows sing? Certainly, he does sing, and it’s pretty easy to find fans online declaring him to be the greatest vocalist of all time. In reality, though, Shadows is, at best, an acquired taste. When Avenged Sevenfold largely abandoned metalcore screaming after their first two albums, Shadows started defaulting to a passable Dave Mustaine-style sing-sneer. That singing voice remains passable on The Stage, the band’s seventh album, but when he stops belting it out, Shadows gets very thin very fast. When Shadows tries to croon, it sounds like he’s gulping air and swallowing his voice. Sort of like Tenacious D’s Inward Singing skit, but for real.
This could theoretically be a barrier to entry for new fans, but since their brief flirtation with mainstream success in the mid-‘00s, Avenged Sevenfold hasn’t had to worry about attracting new listeners. They’ve settled into their niche of being one of the most commercially successful metal bands of the 21st century, even if their combination of Iron Maiden and Guns 'N Roses doesn’t move the needle much critically. Besides, heavy metal fans have had to acquire the taste for loads of challenging vocal styles over the past 20 years, so a subpar vocalist isn’t that big of a deal. Not when there are guitar and drum pyrotechnics aplenty.
The Stage opens up with the title track, and it delivers everything Avenged Sevenfold does well. It’s bloated at eight-and-a-half minutes long, but it’s sturdily written enough that it never really gets bogged down. Distorted organ chords open the song, followed by a solid minute of Van Halen-style guitar arpeggios (or a blatant rip-off of Daft Punk’s 2001 track “Aerodynamic”, depending on your musical touchstones) and pounding double bass drum. Shadows comes in with his signature vocal style, belting out lyrics that mention undead vampires, Jesus Christ, and the band themselves performing on the stage. There are some fiery guitar solos that slide in and out of guitarmonies, and a point in the middle where the song stops dead for a different kind of guitar feature before gradually pushing forward into a bridge where Shadows starts to croon a bit. Somewhere in the background, a spoken voice says “This is only a simulation”, which tenuously connects “The Stage” to the album’s concept of artificial intelligence.
Yes, The Stage is ostensibly a concept album. Apparently, M. Shadows got super-interested in the idea of AI during the writing of the record and inserted a whole bunch of lyrics about it. This is a loose concept, though, as there’s no narrative, just a lot of songs that cover some ideas. “Paradigm” is about nanobots keeping people alive indefinitely, and how much human is left in a person who is filled with tiny robots. It features a couple of pleasingly heavy riffs and a guitar solo and tone that comes right out of a Castlevania game. New drummer Brooks Wackerman gives the song a different feel by relying heavily on his toms. “Creating God” takes on the idea of the singularity and producing a computer that is so much smarter than humanity, and it's lyrically one of the more incisive songs on the album. Too bad it's also musically inert, with a limp chorus and monotonous riffage. “Simulation” conflates Elon Musk’s contention that our world is indistinguishable from a high-tech simulation with a viewpoint character who is apparently in a mental institution. The song ping-pongs back and forth between a laid-back groove and one of the fastest and heaviest riffs on the album.
When the band sticks to its standard metal blueprint, The Stage is usually effective. Even when the songs aren’t great (“God Damn”), they at least get the job done. When they stretch musically is when Avenged Sevenfold gets into major hit or miss territory. “Angels” is a nearly seven-minute power ballad that puts the thin crooning on full display, even as it mostly works musically. “Roman Sky” is meant as the change of pace track before the album’s big finish, but slow string-and-timpani-laden epicness is not where the band excels. On the other hand, “Sunny Disposition” succeeds wildly thanks to its canny use of horns and it's a dark song that gets more mileage out of its minor key melodies and riffs than its down-tuned distortion. There are several genuinely catchy bits here, and the horn line fits right in. This could easily have just been a second guitar part, but using the horns gives the song a unique color, and their judicious placement keeps the brass and saxophones as a cool feature and not something that overwhelms the track.
Then there’s the aforementioned big finish. “Fermi Paradox” starts as a full-on thrash assault, complete with blast beats and sixteenth-note guitar riffing. It’s quickly overlaid by a soaring vocal melody that Shadows almost pulls off, but not quite. The other riff in the song is boosted by Wackerman’s syncopated drumming, which gives the track a stronger groove than is normal for Avenged Sevenfold. That leads into the 15-minute “Exist”, in which Avenged Sevenfold takes on the Big Bang and enlists vocal help from celebrity astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson. “Exist” sounds like a big swing for the band, but it really isn’t. Because instead of one huge song, it’s essentially three individual songs presented as movements.
A quiet, synth-laden opening quickly gives way to a blazing instrumental workout that plows through several different riffs with superfluous horns and synths in the background. When Shadows finally comes in, it’s after the song has ground to a musical halt. This second movement starts with him singing over gently strummed guitar. It gradually builds into full band power ballad territory but avoids getting heavy or fast. Once Shadows finishes singing, the song builds, getting louder and faster. A synth-like guitar arpeggio serves as the melody when Tyson comes in, speaking about the cosmic perspective. He gradually builds his speech, talking about human suffering and going outward into the universe as the band gets faster. The music isn’t especially compelling, but Tyson is. It's a good speech that gets at the epic scope of the concept much better than the band does.
Despite being a concept album, The Stage doesn’t break much new ground for Avenged Sevenfold. They sound like the same band doing pretty much the same thing. Guitarists Synyster Gates and Zacky Vengeance lay down similar riffs and solos, while Wackerman does some creative stuff here and there while fitting in nicely with the rest of the band. And bassist Johnny Christ is, one assumes, present somewhere in the mix. Longtime fans should be happy, but for people curious to see if the band has suddenly gone all prog-metal, the answer is a definite “Nope.”