Avenged Sevenfold released their 8th studio album last Friday. Five years in the making, Life Is But a Dream... is boldly experimental, exploring those places where humanity interfaces with its terminus without sacrificing any of the romantic sensibilities at the heart of the band.
We knew we were in for something strange from the lead single, "Nobody." All I'd heard going into the track was that the band cited Kanye West as a key influence. Even more surprising, the album artwork was actually good (props to Wes Lang for the cover art and evocative visual direction). "Nobody" and its ADHD-brain followup "We Love You" previewed LIBaD's more experimental direction, showcasing a studio-as-instrument philosophy that they've never really developed before. The band (who boast production credits) have incorporated synths, effects, vocoders, and abrupt changes in instrumentation from the ground up, as essential to the form of each song. Vocalist Matt Sanders (AKA M. Shadows) was even rocking a vocal FX rig at their comeback shows in March.
Thematically, LIBaD picks up where The Stage left off. Its lyrics address alienation, existentialism, and the meaning of humanity in the face of social technologies. The sound of the album is itself a reflection on transhumanism, with everyone in the band fighting to be heard as their instruments are distorted, pitch-shifted, replaced with synths, and generally mutated into digital mirror-selves.
The band was reportedly inspired by Albert Camus's philosophical novel The Stranger, as well as their experiences with psychedelic drugs. In an interview, Shadows says the album is about "human consciousness and the idea that the reason we are different from everything else that lives on this planet is that we understand that we're going to die someday." This is Heidegger's dasein, a being thrown into the world, able to enact its will on the future, and torn apart from itself by its anticipation of that inevitable nonbeing.
The diversity of the band's influences are on full display, jumping from hardcore and metal to jazz and mid-20th century pop, often without warning or explanation. "We Love You" is a jarring collage of irregular thrash riffs and repetitive EDM sections that never reach an obvious synthesis – everyone I've heard talk about this track was confused on the first listen and utterly enthralled by the second.
"Beautiful Morning" builds on the prog vector that the band explored on The Stage. There's some interesting rhythmic and modal interchange, spliced with a bridge that sounds like something from Pet Sounds. Guitarist Brian Haner (AKA Synyster Gates) shows off his singing with hauntingly innocent lyrics written during the band's childhood and originally intended for their Pinkly Smooth side project. The idyllic instrumental is produced like the early days of stereo, back when they thought it was cool to hard pan the drums. And of course the solo, where Gates hits only wrong notes in the best way possible.
LIBaD is structured like a psychedelic trip, which might be why the band is so keen on listeners experiencing the whole thing in one sitting. It starts out as unpredictable and anxiety inducing, with most of the heavy hitters packed on the first six tracks. The sublime 7-minute expanse of "Cosmic" is the peak, and the back half gives you some time to breathe and process.
On the comedown we get fun ditties like "G," a quirky rock song with female guest vocals and Shadows adopting the sensual baritone of God hungover on the 8th day. "(O)rdinary" stands out as the unexpected third act banger. The band's take on future-disco has provoked plenty of (valid) Daft Punk comparisons, but while the track may be begging for a mashup with "Get Lucky," but it's the quintessential romanticism that gives "(O)rdinary" a life of its own. I'm not too versed in Daft Punk, but I haven't heard the French automatons ever ask to be given a soul.
For all the experimentalism and bold artistic choices, what really sells LIBaD is exactly that romanticism and the melodic throwbacks to their 2000s sound. "Cosmic" feels like something straight off City of Evil, back from the dead in a cyborg shell. The nostalgia reaches its bittersweet pinnacle in my favorite track, "Mattel." Deeply pessimistic lyrics reflect on artificiality and consumerism (complete with The Truman Show references), while the music beautifully embodies the "heavy verse / melodic chorus" trope. The song's bridge overflows with emotional intensities that we haven't heard since Nightmare, and was originally written by their late drummer James "The Rev" Sullivan but never used.
The elephant that's been in the room for the last 13 years is how essential The Rev was to their sound, and how the band might maintain its identity after his death during the production of Nightmare. 2013's Hail to the King and 2016's The Stage were both experiments, grasping for a line of flight. HttK produced several bops but failed as a possible trajectory. The Stage laid some solid groundwork, in part by giving drummer Brooks Wackerman due time to find his place in the band and in part by delving into philosophy and existential subjects, signaling a more thoughtful and mature A7x. While The Stage's proggy sound felt somewhat forced – like they had something to prove after the simplistic and derivative HttK – seven years later the band is embracing the full range of their musicianship in a way that challenges listeners to try and keep up.
The obvious takeaway from this album is... it's pretty weird. Fan reception has been intense and mixed, but predominantly enthusiastic. Shadows expressed surprise at the warm reception, saying the album is "shocking but in 2023 people seem to like shocking." It's a fair assessment – my other contender for AotY so far is 10,000 gecs, which is an even weirder album. All that to say: this is not the accessible butt-rock A7x that we all know and love. This is music that'll scare the hoes.
An experimental turn shouldn't be too much of a shock, given their history. The band's made their fondness for Mr. Bungle pretty clear over the years, canonizing it in 2016 with a cover of "Retrovertigo." LIBaD drips with influence from California-era Bungle, with its jazz chords, '50s-'60s pop callbacks, and schizophrenic navigation of mood and genre.
Likewise, the chaos and genre hopping on LIBaD brings to mind Pinkly Smooth – The Rev's and Gates's short-lived supergroup with members from Ballistico. Self-described as "goblin metal," their 2001 album blended the chaotic ska metal of Mr. Bungle with the dark theatricality of Danny Elfman. Avenged Sevenfold's fan favorite "A Little Piece of Heaven" came from an attempt to emulate that sound with higher production value, and I can't help but hear the same energy and bold genre play in this new record (albeit more synths and fewer goblin noises).
So far, the 2020s have been a great time for experimental rock. Acts like 100 gecs are getting mainstream attention, as are the recent hyperpop and trap metal crossover movements more generally. Mr. Bungle's back, but now they're a straight up thrash band with Dave Lombardo and Scott Ian, which may be the most radical thing they could have done. Danny Elfman got rippped and tatted and returned to his rock roots with 2021's Big Mess. In metal, visionary contemporary artists like Zeal & Ardor are bringing together genre fragments to paint vivid worlds.
We're at that point in sociotechnological development when people are actually forced to grapple with notions of artificiality and the limits of technology, and realize there is no turning back – reality is fractured, the present is always a violent confrontation between past and future, and it's possible to reconcile these concerns in part through unapologetically creative music.