Album review: Avenged Sevenfold – Life Is But A Dream…
Huntington Beach heroes Avenged Sevenfold hurl themselves off the deep end for sublimely batshit eighth album…
From 2001’s Sounding The Seventh Trumpet to 2016’s The Stage, we rank Avenged Sevenfold’s best tracks...
Now just over two decades in, Avenged Sevenfold have enjoyed the sort of career that doesn’t seem to come around in heavy music much anymore. By transitioning from the rough-hewn but unapologetically indulgent metalcore of 2001’s Sounding The Seventh Trumpet through a series of genre-redefining classics that ruled the 2000s, the steely Californians set themselves as a band apart. In building further to the stadium-crushing might of 2013’s Hail To The King – then spiralling off down a gob-smacking prog-metal wormhole with 2016’s The Stage – they revolutionised their scene and raised the game to another level entirely.
Whether grasping unlikely triumphs (alongside Audioslave, My Chemical Romance and Biffy Clyro, A7X are one of only four Download headliners whose debut LP dropped after the year 2000) or overcoming bitter tragedy (the death of drummer and key songwriter The Rev on December 28, 2009 will forever remain a melancholy milestone), they have never failed to excite and innovate. When album eight arrives, vocalist M. Shadows, guitarists Synyster Gates and Zacky Vengeance, bassist Johnny Christ and drummer Brooks Wackerman will surely have made another quantum leap.
Of course, with such a diverse catalogue exploring myriad styles – and when exactly any given fan came aboard – make negotiating this Top 20 a particularly precarious task. Hit us with your hot takes in the comments!
How’s this for a firestarter? The first single released from 2005’s game-changing City Of Evil wasn’t just an exuberant signal that Avenged were leaving metalcore behind in favour of a more gleeful brand of heaviosity; it’s one of the most breathlessly enjoyable cuts in their catalogue, full stop. Slamming together the 100mph six-strings and harmonised vocals of ’80s power metal, the sexiness of Sunset Strip sleaze, and the sort of fist-pumping groove Pantera could get behind, Burn It Down was an unequivocal statement from youngsters finally ready to step out from the shadows and get the party started.
Although they’ve excelled in complex, calculated, high-sheen songwriting as the years have passed, you can’t beat revisiting Avenged’s sophomore release to remember when they sounded truly rabid. Emerging out of 45 seconds of sheer sonic chaos, this relatively deep cut goes on to drag the listener through a melee of stomping riffage, winding leads, and thrashing percussion to a richly melodic outro that foreshadowed the more theatrical darkness of the years to come. Its abstractly troubling lyrics depicting children apparently condemned by their own parents (‘Tormented young with no souls, haunting me / Pain in their lives, all they know is misery’) are also some of the band’s most skin-crawlingly sinister.
It might not feature heavily on this list, but there’s still a distinct enjoyment to be taken from going back to the album that encapsulates A7X’s very beginnings. Showcasing their vision and ambition in early, unrefined form, Sounding The Seventh Trumpet can feel slightly schizophrenic in its switches between full-blooded, goth-tinged metal and fist-swinging hardcore aggro, but there’s a delicious purity in their unhinged intent. This piano-led ballad remains a highlight (occasionally still touched on by the band live), still unashamedly cheesy yet impossible not to get sucked into.
If there was ever any doubt about A7X’s ability to deliver a convincing conclusion to their vertiginously high-minded progressive masterwork The Stage, Exist was the track to lay it to rest. A 15-minute musical interpretation of the Big Bang and the beginning of universal existence, gunning for the profound grandeur of classical masterpieces like Holst’s The Planets as much as anything from the history of heavy music, this was mainstream metal on another plane. Expanding from synthy weirdness through a storm of shred and crunchy riffage to a hypnotically meditative conclusion capped off by a monologue by acclaimed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, there has quite simply never been another song like it.
‘Shhh! Quiet, you might piss somebody off…’ begins this audacious banger from the self-titled era, its tongue thoroughly in cheek, before catching fire in a vitriolic rage. ‘I’ve had enough. It’s time for something real!’ Although the sub-Call Of Duty mindset of its Iraq-war era politics – calling out those with the temerity to criticise American foreign policy on the domestic stage – mightn’t look all that righteous in retrospect, the bold musical motifs (an organ intro that evokes Ozzy classic Mr. Crowley), outside-the-box songcraft (The Rev nailing a mischievous chorus) and the sheer courage of its convictions mean that Critical Acclaim remains an unmissable listen.
If Unholy Confessions remains Waking The Fallen’s trademark tune, Chapter Four surely runs it a close second. A stomping heavy metal banger (barely) masquerading as metalcore, its duelling leads, bludgeoning riffage and lyrics as unapologetically mighty as ‘I've come here to kill you, won't leave until you've died / Murder born of vengeance, I closed my brothers eyes tonight!’ would’ve fit as well on the main stage at Wacken as the cramped clubs they were about to explode out of. Even amongst a vintage generation in metalcore, this stands out as a track still ready to spin you headlong into a circle-pit. If only they’d drop it back into the regular set!
Sure, Avenged had exhibited the audacity, skill and dexterity to be metal’s next big thing for the best part of a decade, but by 2013 many doubted whether they could distil their deceptively complex formula enough to claim their place in metal’s top tier. Shepherd Of Fire was an album opener that promised stadia were there for the taking. Throwing gasoline on the hellfire and brimstone of their early work, a chorus of groaning brass and tolling bells bursts into a snarling masterclass of classic metal: guitars alternately stabbing through the heart and stripping flesh from bone as a hammering percussive performance rises up from the depths below. ‘Lets take a moment and break the ice,’ grins a never-better M. Shadows, ‘so my intentions are known.’ A legion of followers duly hopped aboard.
It’s testament to the incredible depth of quality on show throughout City Of Evil (hell, bangers like Seize The Day and The Wicked End don’t even make this list) that an epic like Sidewinder is so often overlooked. Chock full of insidious attitude, its portrait of a serpentine villain is one of their most venomously vibrant. ‘I slide through the wasteland that's my world,’ Shadows hisses. ‘My hunger takes your life, preyed on to keep me alive.’ It’s the shapeshifting, seven-minute song structure that lands it lucky number 13, though. Escalating from steel-toe-capped stomp through a barrage of fret-melting pyrotechnics to a conclusion that veers into outright flamenco flamboyance, rarely have Avenged sounded as joyously unshackled as they do here.
Written by The Rev just three days before his passing and initially titled ‘Death’, Fiction is both deeply haunting and achingly beautiful. Allowed to unfold as a simple ballad – drums and piano to the fore – it sounds at times like an emotion-drenched Ozzy Osbourne track, and at others like something more daringly progressive and yearning. The inclusion of Jimmy’s demo vocals add yet another layer of spine-tingling poignancy. In the end, the song stands as a final monument to A7X’s lost hero and a heartbreaking farewell to the fans, which will never be forgotten. ‘Left this life to set me free,’ it goes, ‘took a piece of you inside of me / All this hurt can finally fade, promise me you’ll never feel afraid.’
For many, the obvious influences of vintage Metallica and Black Sabbath were writ large across A7X’s sixth LP, but the vibe of latter-day Iron Maiden surges through one of its finest tracks. Soaringly upbeat yet delivered with galloping urgency, this is exactly the sort of swashbuckling sonic adventure Bruce Dickinson and the boys have specialised in since his return to the fold for 2000’s Brave New World. Depicting a heightened version of life on the road (M. Shadows described the fantastical Life Of Pi sensibility that went into songwriting on release), this recalls some of what were already their most outlandish outings – including staying in Saddam Hussein’s palace whilst performing a USO show in Iraq. Ironically, the song is far more bombastically convincing than Maiden’s own Coming Home, released a couple of years earlier.
If the most notorious parts of Waking The Fallen hinge on A7X’s progression from melodic metalcore into more traditional heavy metal, Second Heartbeat offers an alternative crusted up with snotty punk influence. Despite a sprawling, seven-minute runtime, there’s barely a moment’s respite as the 100mph guitars and thudding percussion provide the foundation for Shadows’ alternately snarled/soaring lament of lost friends – perhaps referring to departed early bandmates Matt Wendt, Justin Sane and Dameon Ash. Although there’s plenty of unbridled ambition at play on the album version – the unhinged composition blueprinting a vision that wouldn’t be fully realised for a few more years – the shorter, sharper demo version featured on 2011’s WTF: Resurrected might be even better.
Although A7X have toyed with more than their fair share of ghoulish imagery over the years, Afterlife delivered a more reflective take on what it might mean to cross the veil and look back on unfinished business and the wages of one’s life’s work. One of The Rev’s standout compositions – on which he also contributed vocals – the subsequent tragedy lent the song extra layers of poignancy in the years that followed, but there was something special right off the (death)bat. Incredibly layered, with a pop sensibility and luxuriant orchestral composition piled on top of massive singalong hooks and wildly virtuoso guitar work, this could hardly not have ended up an anthem. Be sure to check out the extended album version, which verges on symphonic metal majesty.
If fans thought Avenged had cemented a lucrative game plan with the stadium-smashing swing of Hail To The King, they really should’ve known better. When it came to introducing seventh album The Stage, the lads didn’t hold back, with an eight-and-a-half minute, concept driven prog-metal epic fixated on the lack of critical thinking from a human race being blindly led towards the precipice by their callous leaders. Less immediate than its direct predecessor, The Stage also proved that A7X could still conjure an atmosphere of pomp and ceremony on demand. Inspired by The Lonely Goatherd from The Sound Of Music, the stunning, marionette-inhabited music video – highlighting the human appetite for bloodshed and cyclical self-destruction – is probably the finest of their career.
The second single from 2007’s self-titled opus feels like a perfect balance of all the elements that make the band great, with piano and soaring six-strings slingshotting into one of the munchiest riffs they ever unleashed before rising through an uber-memorable vocal hook (‘I’M NOT INSANE! I’M NOT INSAAANE!’) into one of their grandest choruses. Originally intended for the 2007 Transformers soundtrack but not finished on time, its abstract themes of internal torment, familial disconnection and the pain of loss feel like an odd fit for the robo-mega-blockbuster. In another subversive twist, the typically spooky music video, featuring a dazed crowd walking towards what appears to be a portal into hell, was actually based on a commercial for burger chain Wendy’s.
If Shepherd Of Fire laid the template, the title-track of Hail To The King delivered heavy metal in something close to its purest form. Cutting away every ounce of fat and indulgence and keeping its mid-tempo on the leash, it feels like the sound of a band at the top of their game. Although, aesthetically and sonically, parallels with Black Album-era Metallica were irresistible (and wholly warranted on other tracks like This Means War), HTTK was less about aping their Bay Area forbears than tapping into the same classic rock simplicity they mined. Focusing on the five core elements of their sound, deliberately pumping the brakes to allow time to breathe, then polishing them to the point of perfection – all the while delivering a regal concept every bit as extravagantly grandiose – Avenged delivered a metal anthem for the ages.
‘He who makes a beast out of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man!’ Opening with a quote from legendary English man of letters Samuel Johnson, the breakout single from City Of Evil is actually a tribute to infamous American gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Indeed, the title is a a direct reference to Hunter’s 1971 masterpiece Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, where, en route to Sin City under the affect of hallucinogens, Raoul Duke – a pseudonym for the writer himself – insists, "We can’t stop here. This is bat country." There’s something a little woozy about the song itself as an avalanche of riffs, vocal hooks and sleazy swagger cranked to 11 saw the band ram-raid their way into the metal mainstream and own summer 2005.
As both album opener and lead single for their fifth album – a record loaded with expectation and emotion, dropping just seven months after The Rev’s untimely passing – Nightmare felt like a definitive roll of the dice at a point where Avenged were on the precipice of superstardom. It didn’t disappoint. Reportedly first conceived by Shadows on his wedding day, the track portrays the antithesis of that happy culmination, thrusting the listener into the point of view of a sinner condemned to hell for a lifetime of misdeeds. With an unapologetically creepy xylophone opening the gateway to a dark, Ozzy-esque soundscape, and with stand-in drummer Mike Portnoy in full pomp, it fired up their first ascent to Number One on the United States’ Billboard chart.
For fans back in 2005, Beast And The Harlot was emblematic of the rapid progression A7X had managed in the two short years since beginning the break-out with Waking The Fallen. Although a shortened single version was released, the near six-minute opener on City Of Evil was a non-stop showcase of the complexity, colour and ambition of a third album that was less about breaking free from the constraints of the Californian metalcore scene that had spawned them than changing the course of heavy metal for good. Taking the runaway power metal of bands as gloriously cheesy as Hammerfall and Helloween, injecting a more streetwise swagger and daubing on deeper shades of black, they created a monster that simply would not be stopped.
Although their constant, self-propelled evolution makes it difficult to pinpoint a pivotal turning point for Avenged Sevenfold, it’s hard to deny that Unholy Confessions was the point at which they separated themselves from the pack. The standout track from their breakthrough LP remains an infectious marriage of their metalcore roots (its screams and breakdowns feeling like relics from a more primitive time) and the grander metal influences they would strive towards, with runaway guitar leads, harmonised choruses and melodramatically overblown lyrics (‘Constrict your hands around me, squeeze till I cannot breathe / This air tastes dead inside me, contribute to our plague’) the order of the day. Tellingly, its the only song from the era that remains a staple of their live set, with each new generation of fans still delighting in that old-fashioned excuse to throw down.
Could any other band have seen a A Little Piece Of Heaven so steadfastly through from twisted concept to its bold, beautiful realisation? We think not. More Broadway musical than mosh-pit beatdown, this isn’t just A7X’s most thematically unforgettable composition; it’s one of the most musically distinctive in all of pop culture. Drawing liberally from the palette of soundtrack maestro and regular Tim Burton collaborator Danny Elfman (and bringing aboard his preferred players: ex Oingo Boingo guitarist Marc Mann and keyboard whiz Steve Bartek), they unleash a suite of classical instrumentation and wailing choral vocals in service of a truly fucked-up eight-minute vision that sounds largely unlike anything else in their songbook. The actual narrative – involving a spurned lover who murders his girlfriend before spiralling into necrophilia, undead revenge and a truly unholy matrimony – is best experienced through the Rafa Alcantra directed music video. One viewing and it’ll burrow permanently into your brain. A sick, symphonic masterpiece.
Huntington Beach heroes Avenged Sevenfold hurl themselves off the deep end for sublimely batshit eighth album…
The Cover Story
Avenged Sevenfold have become one of modern metal’s biggest bands by forever doing things their own unique way. In a world-exclusive interview, frontman M. Shadows and guitarist Synyster Gates lift the lid on new album Life Is But A Dream… and the band’s fearless, fantastic latest chapter.
Avenged Sevenfold have shared the next single from Life Is But A Dream… and this one is a breathtakingly wild ride.
Avenged Sevenfold are expanding their touring plans in North America this year, announcing an autumn run in support of new album Life Is But A Dream.
Avenged Sevenfold have announced the first leg of their Life Is But A Dream tour, which will hit 13 cities this summer and will feature special guests Alexisonfire.
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