Metal superstars Avenged Sevenfold: ‘Reading Camus led to psychedelic exploration with a shaman’

They weathered the death of their drummer to score back-to-back US No 1s – frontman M Shadows explains why they’ve now left ‘hockey arena metal’ behind to make an absurdly polarising album

Around 2016, after releasing five back-to-back platinum albums, two of which were US No 1 hits, Avenged Sevenfold’s frontman M Shadows was having the kind of mild existential crisis where you ponder your place in the universe. “I was trying to solidify my worldview,” he says. “Along the way, I read some books by Albert Camus, things like The Stranger, and that introduced me to ideas like absurdism and meaninglessness, which led me into deep psychedelic exploration with 5-MeO-DMT and doing that with a shaman, going deep into it.”

After experimenting with the famously intense hallucinogen, his existential crisis massively deepened for six months. “It was the worst thing in my life but I’m so grateful for it now. I couldn’t go out anywhere, go to the gym, eat meat or drink alcohol. I couldn’t do anything, I was so locked in [my own head]. I’d just walk the streets and contemplate suicide. Then one day, I realised: this is freedom! There is no meaning. I can do whatever I want. Suddenly, it just clicked.”

The result of this open mind is a completely bonkers new album, nothing you would expect from one of the most successful heavy metal bands of the last 20 years. Life Is But a Dream covers an absurd amount of musical ground, with everything from grinding industrial rock and vocoder-powered pop songs, to Steely Dan-esque jazz rock, easy-listening ballads and even a beautiful solo piano piece – the album’s closing title track – played by guitarist Synyster Gates (whose real name is the much less rocking Brian Haner, just as Shadows was born Matt Sanders). Inspired as much by Kanye West and Travis Scott as by more traditional heavy fare such as Alice In Chains and Faith No More, it is deliriously ambitious.

That willingness to thread styles through each other was there from the beginning in Huntington Beach, California, in 1999, where they emerged from a flourishing local hardcore scene. From their Misfits-influenced image to the music itself – an inspired blend of metal, punk and gothic pomp – they already looked and sounded like rock stars when they released their debut album Sounding the Seventh Trumpet in 2001.

“We had so much influence from hardcore and punk but also heavy metal, and that was the big boys’ league, right?”, says Shadows. “The hardcore and punk bands we loved were the bands we could go and see at shows. Then there was Metallica and Pantera and Guns N’ Roses, and things happening on a much larger scale. We were big dreamers; we always had grand ambitions to do things differently. But to say there’s a masterplan when you’re 17, that’d be giving us too much credit. We were just dumb kids who put all their eggs in one basket and said: OK, let’s see how this goes.”

How it went was that the band’s blend of determination and cockiness made them extremely successful. After second album Waking the Fallen was a massive underground hit, they moved to Warner Bros and expanded their sound in numerous directions for 2005’s widely praised City of Evil – though a reputation for rock’n’roll excess, and being obnoxious and belligerent, proved polarising.

Avenged Sevenfold in 2016.
Avenged Sevenfold in 2016. Photograph: Jeff Forney

2007’s excellent self-titled album allowed Avenged to transition from club shows to the arena circuit. Everything was going better than they could have expected, until December 28, 2009, when mercurial drummer Jimmy “The Rev” Sullivan was found unresponsive at his home. He had taken an accidental overdose of prescription painkillers and was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.

“I don’t know how more real it gets than that,” Shadows says. “It definitely felt like the end of everything. But part of human evolution is that we’re able to carry on. At some point you just say that it’s OK to go outside, to talk to people, to write a song.”

Largely written before the Rev’s death, 2010’s Nightmare set Avenged Sevenfold back on an even keel. With drums by noted virtuoso Mike Portnoy (ex-Dream Theater), it won the band their first No 1 album in the US but it was the follow-up Hail To the King that would send them stratospheric. A chart-topper in the US, UK and many other countries, its success was almost in spite of much negative criticism that Avenged Sevenfold had ripped off Metallica, Iron Maiden and Guns N’ Roses rather too flagrantly this time around (in particular, This Means War was far too close to Metallica’s Sad But True for comfort).

M Shadows of Avenged Sevenfold
Frontman M Shadows performing live. Photograph: Steve Thrasher

A decade on, having released the bold AI-themed concept album The Stage in the meantime, Shadows has mixed feelings about Hail to the King. “It was this weird ego thing we had at the time. You’re this big band, but you go into a bar or go to a sports arena and they’re never playing your music. No one really knows who you are. How do you crack the code on that? So we learned all the tricks – and then look what happened. It’s played in every hockey arena and every bar, and it’s No 1. But if you get that kind of success, be careful what you wish for, because then I was thinking, man, is Hail to the King really the best representation of us?”

After his existential crisis, Shadows is eager to establish just how much Avenged Sevenfold have evolved since that commercial peak. For a band that are used to headlining arenas, Life Is But a Dream is a particularly radical and mischievous piece of work. Citing the likes of Radiohead’s Kid A, Kanye West’s Yeezus and Weezer’s Pinkerton as benchmarks, Shadows says he is perfectly happy to alienate swathes of his band’s audience with the new record’s most jarring, juxtaposed moments.

“Those are all records that stand out because they don’t fit anywhere, and that’s exciting to me,” he shrugs. “I’m so sick of people saying they’re doing something new and then it’s just the same old thing. The music that stands out to me now is very abstract and grabs me by the balls and says, ‘You’ve got to pay attention to me!’ This record does that in so many different spots. If everyone says ‘this is trash!’, I’m just going to have to disagree, you know? We don’t want to be that band that keeps trying to capture their heyday in a bottle. I’m not going to be like Prince or Bob Dylan and say fuck the hits – but I don’t want to be stuck in that era.”

As they await an inevitably mixed response, Avenged Sevenfold are eagerly preparing to play the bulk of the album live with a new tech-heavy stage show by an unnamed production company that has collaborated, Shadows says, with “some of the biggest hip-hop and pop artists. We’re going for a much more modern, clean, emotional, spiritual sort of thing.”

Meanwhile, the personal crisis that took Shadows to the brink has been skilfully repurposed into the finest record Avenged Sevenfold have ever made. “We even enjoyed the photoshoot for this album!” Shadows laughs. “We spent the whole day in the middle of fucking nowhere, with our T-shirts off and looking like a bunch of fat 40-year-olds, and we’ve never been happier! This is a positive record, but just wrapped in a very weighty realisation. It’s the reality of what it is to be human – that there is no road map. You’ve got to create your own.”

• Life Is But a Dream… is out now on Warner Records


Dom Lawson

The GuardianTramp

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