Be honest, who expected this? Who expected that, just a couple of weeks after the release of its title track, Avenged Sevenfold would drop The Stage with just a day’s notice? To be fair, there was definitely something coming before the end of 2016 – Chris Jericho’s Instagram post about ‘Voltaic Oceans’ (the details of which remain unknown at the time of writing) suggested a new album in December, but like their natural predecessors of Beyoncé and Skrillex, the curtain has been opened on The Stage for the world to fully see. And the verdict is…
Well, that depends. It’s difficult to say whether The Stage will even appeal to Avenged Sevenfold fans, as this is such a drastic shift from any full body of work they’ve done before. Forget the Elfman-esque theatrics of City Of Evil or even the fanatical Metallica worship of Hail To The King, The Stage factors in tonnes of prog into its mix for a hugely sprawling, instrumentally dexterous album that’s more likely to appeal to guitar nerds above anyone else. Couple that with the some of the band’s most adventurous instrumental compositions to date and an overarching narrative concerning the presence and subsequent takeover of artificial intelligence in the modern world, and there’s the feeling that Avenged Sevenfold are using The Stage to channel their greatest Dream Theater impulses. And just like Dream Theater, the final product is often pompous and ridiculously self-indulgent.
Though before getting into that, it’s worth noting that the one element of The Stage that can’t be faulted is the instrumentation. This is very much The Synyster Gates And Zacky Vengeance Show, with the extended lengths and more progressive nature of tracks like Simulation or the title track giving their duelling guitars more room to run and expand. That implantation of more progressive touches also allows the band to experiment with a wider sonic palette, leading to the cinematic orchestration of Roman Sky or the sliding horns placed on the top of Sunny Disposition. It’s definitely a more sonically diverse album than the stomping classic rock of Hail To The King, and on a purely compositional level it’s one of the most daring albums to come from a mainstream metal band in some time. There’s a lot to unpack, and though some of their heaviness has been sacrificed in favour of more grand, complex output, The Stage is an immaculately put together piece of work from start to finish.
But good instrumentation doesn’t necessarily translate into good songs, and that’s ultimately The Stage‘s damning fault – for an album with eleven tracks that clocks in a seventy-three minutes in length, there’s maybe about five or six actual songs here. Sure, the playing is undoubtedly impressive, but when it leads nowhere it feels as though the pomp and grandiosity overtake any actual substance. The worst offender is probably Angels which rarely picks up from being a mid-paced snoozer that just meanders along, but it’s a whole chunk of this album that follows the same pattern, displaying technical flash without any payoff. When the only part of the nearly sixteen minute long closer Exist that actual has some resonance is the guest speech from Neil deGrasse Tyson discussing the universe and the human condition rather than any musical contributions, it feels as though the experiment of going more experimental is a failed one.
That’s why tracks like Paradigm and God Damn are by a fair stretch the album’s highlights, keeping to a more concise package while still keeping some of the flashes, but never overdoing them. The latter especially comes imbued with some weight, given its lyrical focus on the US’s currently dire political situation, one of the solitary grounding moments away from The Stage‘s highfalutin concept. That particularly creates a Dream Theater comparison that stems deeper than just aesthetics; The Stage is nowhere near as pretentious or self-satisfying as Dream Theater have become notorious for being in the past, but it suggests that that’s the path that Avenged Sevenfold want to take in the future. It’s a slightly worrying thought too – the worst moments on this album are the ones where the band try to emulate prog with a similar level of upper class posturing. The Stage manages to avoid getting bogged down too heavily with these, but exacerbating them into a full album is likely to divide even more than this album will already.
Because make no mistake, The Stage is bound to be a polarizing listen. As a compositional body of work, it’s phenomenal; as an actual collection of songs, it’s anything but. But The Stage is one of those albums that has so much going on that it’s almost impossible to convey it all in a review, and it’s one that really needs to be experienced for a full grasp of just where on the spectrum you fall. Our advice? Take this review with a pinch of salt – everyone’s view of The Stage is likely to be radically different, and that’s its beauty. It’s nowhere near Avenged Sevenfold’s best, but it’ll get people talking, something this band have always excelled at.
For fans of: Dream Theater, Metallica, Iron Maiden
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘The Stage’ by Avenged Sevenfold is out now on Capitol Records.