There were no radio spots planned out months in advance. No expensive launch party inside a Hollywood theater. There weren’t any announcements made, no long list of singles, no extended period of anticipation.
There was simply a surprise single, released on Oct. 13. Then, just 15 days later, Avenged Sevenfold, a heavy metal quintet from Huntington Beach, California, shocked fans around the world with their seventh studio album, The Stage.
Avenged Sevenfold has seen a lot in the 14 years since their debut album was released. What started out as a thrash-punk hybrid soon transitioned into a radio-ready, yet still unique hard rock act that found commercial success in the mid-aughts with hits like “Bat Country”, “Afterlife” and “Almost Easy” before the death of drummer Jimmy “The Rev” Sullivan in 2009.
With The Rev gone, so was the band that many fans had gotten used to for almost a decade. Following the 2010 release of Nightmare, which was nearly completed at the time of Sullivan’s death, the band began making music that more transparently emulated artists the band grew up listening to. The band’s sixth studio album, Hail To The King, is the most straightforward of the band’s career, and is heavily influenced by Black Sabbath, AC/DC and other originators of the metal genre.
The Stage is that record’s follow-up, and runs parallel to its predecessor in nearly as many ways as it runs perpendicular. The classic influence is still clearly present, but instead of the hard rock of the '60s and '70s, anthemic styles of Iron Maiden and Dream Theater soar throughout The Stage’s 11 tracks.
The content of those tracks is unlike anything Avenged Sevenfold has attempted before. It is the first concept album the band has ever done, and revolves around artificial intelligence while making detours through cosmic perspective, extraterrestrial beings and the afterlife. The album even concludes with Cosmos host and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson delivering a three-minute monologue about the place human beings have in the universe.
It is fitting, then, that the record musically feels like a trip into outer space? The guitar work by Synyster Gates and Zacky Vengeance is some of the strongest work they’ve ever done, alternating between heavy riffs and high-flying solos that carry the record from start to finish. It also serves an incredibly strong debut for newly added drummer Brooks Wackerman, who aside from a few sloppy bits provides the best percussive work the band has seen since their breakout City of Evil album with Sullivan.
The band has been open about Sullivan being the best hook-writer in the group, and that absence remains apparent on The Stage. Listeners won’t find the sing-along ready choruses that populated City of Evil, Avenged Sevenfold and Nightmare, but that doesn’t mean the lyrics buried behind the mind-bending guitar solos and heart-stopping drum fills won’t stick with you.
“The Stage,” the title track and one of the strongest songs on the album, is an eight-minute epic of an album opener, and does a fantastic job setting up the rest of the record. The back-to-back combo of “God Damn” and “Creating God” are a punishing duo, with “Angels” and “Roman Sky” serving as two of the album’s slower pieces, with each of the latter dealing with the afterlife in some capacity.
Clocking in at 77 minutes, the album is an exhausting, yet incredibly satisfying trip through uncommon themes using the typically brilliant musicianship we’ve come to expect from Avenged Sevenfold. By the time you finish Tyson’s speech at the end of “Exist” – a 15-minute heavy metal interpretation of the Big Bang that sounds precisely as wonderful as you’d expect – you may just want to go back and listen to the whole thing again.
With The Stage, Avenged Sevenfold aimed to create an album the size of a galaxy. It might just have to settle for having the best concept album of 2016.