It’s the latest chapter in one of the more fascintaing narratives from the world of heavy music in recent memory, one characterised by soaring highs and devastating lows. Formed in Huntington Beach, California in 1999, over the course of their career the band has seamlessly transitioned from metalcore upstarts to main stage mainstays to genre-splicing sonic innovators with an empire that encompasses music, NFTs, blockchain and much more.
In 2009, tragedy struck the band when drummer Jimmy ‘The Rev’ Sullivan died, aged 28, from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs and alcohol. Their 2010 album Nightmare was completed in tribute to their fallen bandmate – and remains their best-selling album in the UK to date on sales of 185,952.
With each subsequent record since, the band have undertaken increasingly ambitious musical steps and innovative means of sharing their music with an audience. They have been rewarded, too, even scoring a No.1 album in the form of 2013’s Hail To The King.
Even with a track record of big statements and whiplashing left turns, Life Is But A Dream… still manages to be Avenged Sevenfold’s most audacious creation yet – a sprawling, unpredictable odyssey inspired by Albert Camus, psychedelic drugs, existential crises, and the universe’s biggest questions.
Here, frontman M Shadows takes Music Week further into its creation, talking the art of making long songs in the age of limited attention spans, and what the genre needs to do to get more traction…
Life Is But A Dream… is a wholly unconventional metal record, introduced to the world via a six-minute single Nobody. How much pressure is there to conform to something more readily palatable for a mass audience?
“We haven’t really thought about doing anything other than what we’re trying to put out there, which sounds like such a generic answer. We know that we’re going to have the label meetings and the analytics, but when you have the mindset that chasing the ambulance is never really the right thing to do, you don’t want to get pulled downstream into areas of your career you’re going to regret. It’s about being very cognisant about what the situation is: a lot of these really good people who work at labels have boxes to check, because they’re trying to figure out new ways to get music to people. Music has changed how it’s consumed, but there was a tipping point when that happened. We don’t want to be chasing that trend.”
It’s a very modern record, though, isn’t it?
“I think we did a lot of modern things on this record – it’s concise with its left turns, where it goes, and how it’s put together. It’s still Avenged Sevenfold. You just have to do what you do, and if the tide turns your way, then hell yeah – but if it doesn’t, it’s all good.”
Is the reduced or overstretched attention span of listeners a concern for you?
“There used to be a time when you could go to the record store, pick up one record, and there was literally nothing else to do but literally play it until it was scratched up and ruined. Now, though, I come home and have the internet and video games and due to people only having so much time in a day, it’s harder to fit music in. For us, that means there’s no pressure and we can make the music we want. I don’t expect rock festivals to go on forever – I expect things to evolve into something else. I don’t expect to get a bunch of record sales or No. 1 songs.”
You work with a great deal of collaborators outside of the world of metal. Do people make assumptions about you because of how you look and the way they think you’re going to sound?
“Oh, 100%. Most people aren’t clued into our genre at all and they put everyone in a box. There are even people in our own genre who haven’t really listened to Avenged Sevenfold records – they may have heard the singles and it’s not their thing, but don’t know that something like A Little Piece Of Heaven [from 2007’s self-titled album] or Save Me [from 2010’s Nightmare] exist. We’re friends with a lot of people outside of the genre, and a lot of them grew up and were influenced by Avenged and now they’re DJs or make emo rap or whatever. But if you get outside that, people who don’t know who we are don’t take the band or the genre that seriously. That’s because this genre doesn’t have its hands far enough out. Hopefully a record like [Life Is But A Dream…] will open people up, though it’s hard to get people to listen.”
Due to your many musical evolutions, it’s fair to say there are many different contingents within your fanbase with a complicated relationship with your music…
“We have a record now that may not be liked by the people who loved old Avenged Sevenfold, but could be loved by people who don’t like old Avenged Sevenfold because they put it in the metal box. I’ve been asked a lot recently how we get people to come back and listen to this record. I just don’t know, and you could probably drive yourself crazy thinking about it. Until [Life Is But A Dream…] is in the world, we’re just not going to know how much reach we can get.”
I don’t expect rock festivals to go on forever – I expect things to evolve into something else
The success of your records suggests your creative gambles pay off. What was the first moment you felt the band was vindicated in making a bold choice?
“The biggest one I can think of was opening [2005’s third album] City Of Evil with Beast And The Harlot as a follow-up to [2003’s second album] Waking The Fallen. When we first released Beast And The Harlot, everyone was laughing at us. Everyone who liked Waking The Fallen thought it was some weird europop shit and complained I wasn’t screaming. Fast forward to now, however, and it’s in Rolling Stone’s Top 100 Metal Albums Of All Time.”
Are there any gambles you think haven’t paid off?
“I think The Stage was a success but didn’t have that sense of vindication. We did something that put us on this journey of, ‘If it fails, that’s OK, but you have to do it in a very public way’, but people saw that as a failure as it didn’t reach the numbers that the previous record [Hail To The King] did. My argument would be, ‘No one was selling big at that point’, as it was four years later and everyone was going down. But if you defend yourself, then you look defensive. There have been so many things along the way that have allowed the band to open up more doorways, which I feel is a vindication because it’s given us more options.”
Which tracks from the new album would you single out to illustrate just how you’ve pushed things this time around?
“The three tracks G, (O)rdinary and (D)eath, which come one after another on the record. One thing you have to do as an artist is remember those moments when you get goosebumps or feel weird about something and make a note of it, because there will be a time when that feeling goes away and things start to feel normal. There was a moment when the album was being finished when I was driving to the studio with Syn [guitarist Synyster Gates, aka Brian Elwin Haner Jr.] and I asked him, ‘Did we go far enough [with the record]?’ He assured me we had, but the songs had started to feel normal to me. A couple of weeks later, I got [Life Is But A Dream… producer Joe Barresi] to take G, O, and D and put them together. The transition between those tracks made me sit up and make my heart race in a nervous, crazy way. That’s when I called Brian and said, ‘OK, we went far enough!’ I knew then it was going to be a shock to people, because it was shocking me and I’d had it for three-four years.”
Interview: James Hickie Photo: Brian Cattelle