It's shaping up to be a busy fall for Avenged Sevenfold. Following a live-streamed virtual reality performance on Thursday night, the Orange County metal band officially unveiled The Stage, their seventh studio album, and the follow-up to 2013's chart-topping Hail to the King. Except for some mysterious projections of the band's DeathBat mascot throughout October, and the subsequent release of the album's eight-and-a-half-minute title track as a single, there had been little advance publicity for the LP; many fans weren't even expecting it to drop until December.
The band's first album for Capitol Records after over a decade with Warner Bros. – and their first with former Bad Religion drummer Brooks Wackerman, who replaced Arin Ilejay in 2015 – The Stage is also Avenged Sevenfold's most ambitious album to date. Co-produced with the band by Joe Barresi (Queens of the Stone Age, Tool, Melvins), The Stage is an epic concept album about artificial intelligence, featuring the most aggressively bonkers music of the quartet's career. An adventurous departure from the straight-ahead hard rock of Hail to the King, the album concludes with a 15-minute musical interpretation of the Big Bang, capped by a monologue from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Rolling Stone caught up with Avenged Sevenfold frontman M. Shadows in advance of Thursday's show to discuss The Stage, his fascination with AI, pushing the envelope with their stage show and how they got one of America's most famous scientists to make a cameo appearance on their record.
Why suddenly release an album with no advance notice? Well, man, a lot of it has to do with boredom [laughs]. Everyone else is dropping the breadcrumbs, having four or five singles before their record comes out. It completely takes away the mystique of the record; by the time it actually comes out, you've already done 50 interviews about what the record's about and is going to sound like. It's 2016; people's attention spans are so short at this point, who has time for three months of lead-up?
You've got five guys over here who are very bored of that; so for us, it was about keeping the hype very short and sweet, and then executing on all levels. Here's the record – we spent a long time on it, and it's available for you now. And now we can all learn about the record together, after you hear it, instead of hearing all these things about it as we're dribbling crumbs at you. We just said, "No BS this time – we're just going to do everything that we want to do, from the live show to the merchandising, to how we present this thing and how we release it."
Your previous label, Warner Bros., announced last week that they'll be releasing an Avenged Sevenfold greatest hits collection in December. Did you move up the release date of The Stage in reaction to that announcement? No – I learned about the Warner album for the first time last Friday, the same as you. That was a surprise to us, but this whole thing was put into motion back in August. Chris Jericho did a fake [Instagram] post about this album coming out on December 9th, just to throw people off; he and I were laughing about it the other day, because everyone picked up on it like it was fact.
It has been very difficult to do it this way, because we understand that rock fans really want physical releases, as well as digital – they want to buy the CD, they want the vinyl. We originally said, "Just release it digitally. Everybody's got Spotify; everybody's got this streaming service or that." But we realized that it would really upset some fans, so we decided to pull off a release unlike Radiohead, or Beyoncé or Kanye, where there's actually a physical product in stores on Day One. So, props to Capitol for even trying to undertake this thing, especially internationally. It's just insane.
Musically and lyrically, The Stage is far more ambitious than Hail to the King. Was that the intention going in? We kind of reached this point in life where we don't really want to put out anything just to put something out. We really don't want it to be like, "Two years are up. You've had your break; now do another record and get it out there." We needed to wait until something really inspired us, and that's why the record took a long time to get done.
The album's songs revolve around the subject of artificial intelligence. What got you interested in that topic? Someone sent me an article on AI that was written by Tim Urban on the website Wait but Why – that was kind of where I stuck my toes in the puddle, and I said, "OK, I've gotta learn about this!" I felt like this is one of those things that our generation is going to have to answer for, eventually, and I just wanted to educate myself on it. So I decided to read a lot of articles – I was going through a lot of Sam Harris stuff, and hearing some podcasts that he had done about artificial intelligence and what it could mean. I started seeing different opinions, from Mark Zuckerberg to Elon Musk to Stephen Hawking. …
The more I read about, the deeper down this rabbit hole I got, I thought, "You know what? I really want to talk about this!" It's something that's going to be an issue in the future, for our kids and our kids' kids; and if we have a voice that can be screamed from the top of a mountain, I wanted this to be one of those things where we can maybe educate our fans a little bit – or maybe inspire them to educate themselves. I talked to the other guys [in the band], and we all started talking and thinking about these big questions. We were like, "Man, this is the record! We're going to put out a piece of art, and it has to be about this, because this is really speaking to us right now!"
So the other guys weren't like, "Dude, enough already with the AI shit!"? No [laughs]. I think when I came to them from a realistic and scientific point of view, it was a lot less threatening than if I came to them and said, "Hey, let's write a record about Bigfoot!" Or, you know, some crazy conspiracy-theory-type thing. The more I showed them things, everyone started reading up on it. And then all of a sudden, it was inspiring riffs, it was inspiring original kind of song structures; it gave us the freedom to pursue a lot of things. …
So, yeah – we wanted to write about artificial intelligence, not really in a sci-fi way, not in a Terminator sort of way, but in more in, like, a scientific way. The album is talking about things that are right around the corner that could potentially be changing the world. We have this yearning to know the answers to the big questions about space and why we're here; we can't evolve fast enough to figure these answers out on our own, but we can do it through artificial intelligence. But there's also some very scary downsides that could come if we don't put the right safety precautions in there.
Can you give me an example? The song "Paradigm" talks about nanobots – and how they can potentially be used to cure diseases and help you live forever. But how much of a human being would you be at that point? If you're 70 percent machine and 30 percent human, are you going to lose yourself? Or a song like "Creating God" – computers are getting smarter and smarter, and all of a sudden they're becoming your god; they're so much more intelligent than you, you seem like apes to them, or ants. And then the second half of the record jumps into space, and space exploration, and how we treat each other as human beings – how we never really look at someone else's perspective, because we just see our own.
Neil deGrasse Tyson makes a cameo at the end of "Exist." How did that come about? The song came from the idea of wanting to replicate the Big Bang in a heavy-metal sort of way, like, "OK, this is what it would have sounded like when this happened!" It's like a huge classical piece. We love Gustav Holst's The Planets, but no one's really hit the Big Bang, so we did it! I wanted it to be all instrumental, and then Brian [guitarist Synyster Gates] was like, "Well, I think there should be some vocals on it." So we ended up with a compromise where it's like, "OK, when the vocals come in, that's Earth – that's the first time that life starts after the cooling-down period of the Big Bang." Originally, we wanted to use a recording of Carl Sagan reading an excerpt from The Pale Blue Dot, but [his estate] isn't really letting people use that. So we reached out to Neil.
Did you have any difficulty talking him into it? No, he was very cool. We explained to him that we wanted to educate our fans, and we wanted to a voice of science in another art form, and he was like, "Yep – if it's for education, let's do it!" He asked us to read through a bunch of essays that he'd used at the Hayden Planetarium, and find any portions that we wanted him to take and expand on. We found some stuff we liked, and went back and forth on the phone with him about it to the point where we were all happy with it, and then he laid it down for us.
What was it like working with producer Joe Barresi on the record? We loved him. Everything that he brought to the table was very insightful; he was like, "Why would you ever tune your vocals? You can sing! Why would you put samples on the drums? Brooks can play!" And we were like, "Yeah! You're right!" And so we went with his style, and I think it's our style now. I love it – it's raw and it's crazy, and it's real! There's no drum samples on there, there's no vocal tuning, there's none of that stuff.
It's rather ironic that an album about artificial intelligence is actually your most "human" record in over a decade. Totally! [Laughs] I think when people hear that this is album about AI, they'll think, "Oh, they went all electronic and techno!" But musically, we wanted to make sure it felt live and raw.
Will many of the songs from The Stage be featured in your upcoming tour? Absolutely. We have been been building a stage based around this thing since July, or maybe June; we hired a company that has done stuff for Cirque du Soleil, and we're trying to do things that we've never seen a band do. We're going to try to get away from fire and blowing stuff up, and make a show that moves organically in and out of these ideas that we have for this record. We're trying to take this album and turn it into our version of Pink Floyd's The Wall – it's an event, not just a show.
It sounds like you guys are really having a lot of fun with this. Man, it's been so great. Vocally and musically, we went "out" a lot on the record – if we came up with something that made us laugh, we put it on the record. We laughed the entire way through [the making of 2005's] City of Evil, so I think that's a good sign; it's like, either people are going to love it or they're going to hate it, but you've gotta put it out. I mean, all of my favorites are like that. Listen to that new Bowie record – it's a brilliant record, but it's so fucking out there, and that's why it's art! It's so exciting to us to put out something like that and be completely, 100 percent satisfied with it. And then to do this whole secret thing, it's really fun. We're having a blast!