Aaron S. Bayley
When members of Avenged Sevenfold were asked about the musical direction of their follow up album to 2010's Nightmare, they stated unambiguously that they were going back to their classic rock roots. Vocalist M. Shadows talked about the band's desire to write songs with simpler structures while focusing on heavy riffs in the style of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Even more specifically, lead guitarist Synyster Gates stated in the latest issue of Guitar World that the band's new album, Hail to the King, was recorded after
the band immersed themselves in the music of two classic albums: Metallica's Black Album and Guns 'N' Roses' Appetite for Destruction. Hail to the King is the band's first release without any musical input from former drummer Jimmy "The Rev" Sullivan, who was found dead of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs and alcohol in December 2009 at just 28. Sullivan, a brilliant musician and songwriter (see Avenged Sevenfold's "Afterlife," "Unbound [The Wild Ride]," and "A Little Piece of Heaven" and Nightmare's "Fiction" and "Save Me"), was responsible for A7X's more whimsical song structures and spooky, Danny Elfman-style arrangements. The question for many fans--and perhaps the band itself--was whether Avenged Sevenfold could create a studio record of the same high calibre of their previous three releases without The Rev. Or was the band's intent to veer off in a new musical direction a tacit admission that they could never recreate the past?
The album's first track, "Shepherd of Fire", opens with the sound of pouring rain, the ominous tolling of a bell, and a foreboding horn section before Gates comes in with a single-note riff and new drummer Arin Ilejay bangs out a mid-tempo beat reminiscent of Metallica's "Enter Sandman." Shadows, doing his best James Hetfield impression, sounds solid, and Gates wastes no time in tearing into a solo that beckons back to some of his best work on 2005's City of Evil. But the simple, hard rock power chord rhythms and uncomplicated hooks serves notice that AVX were serious about cutting the fat and creating a leaner, stripped down sound for this album. In the Guitar World interview, Gates spoke about focusing more on groove, songwriting, and arrangements. "We wanted to create space instead of just filling every song up to the brim with shit--to keep that same depth, but without having to always have four bridges and three choruses and multiple vocal harmonies and guitar duels everywhere."
The next track, "Hail to the King," kicks off with Gates playing an AC/DC-style open string riff over Zacky Vengeance's chunky power chords. As Shadows sings "Watch your tongue or have it cut from your head/Save your life by keeping whispers unsaid," Gates continues to play single note quadruple pull-offs underneath, producing a cluttered, almost claustrophobic effect. The title track, with its catchy pop-chorus, is a cookie-cutter song built for top 40 radio. On "Doing Time," A7X attempt Appetite-era Guns but end up sounding more like Velvet Revolver. The lyrics--"I got an itch with a loaded hair trigger and a one-way ticket ta fly" and "fucked up and thrown into the gutter gotta fix what don't belong" are ripped right out of the pages of "Nightrain" and Use Your Illusion I's "Double Talkin' Jive." Gates, who usually plans out his solos in advance, throws caution to the wind and improvises a blistering pull-off section, with some Slash-style double stops thrown in for good measure. On "This Means War," A7X are back in Black, with Shadows impersonating Hetfield, Gates playing another single-note riff, and Ilejay pounding out another mid-tempo beat; the result is something that too closely resembles "Sad But True." The oversimplified chorus is lame and lacks the punch the band was aiming for. Gates saves the track with a squealing Dimebag-esque solo. "Requiem" begins with a Latin choir singing an "O Fortuna"-style melody before the theatrics regress into just another mid-tempo hard rock number. "Crimson Day" starts off with a sparkling clean tone guitar, courtesy of Gates' new Schecter Hellwin amplifier. The song is basically a hard-rock ballad that is saved from falling flat on its face by Gates' tasteful and soulful solo. On "Heretic," another single-note riff is accompanied by a slightly up-tempo beat, while the song itself evokes Megadeth's "Symphony of Destruction." "Coming Home," easily the best track on the album, is a throwback to Iron Maiden circa Brave New World and features a mind-numbing solo and the duelling guitars that the band is famous for. The following track, "Planets," with its weak chorus of "Planets collide!," Dimmu Borgir orchestral influences, and a so-simple-it's-offensive single-note riff, is utterly forgettable, and bluesy album closer "Acid Rain" is a not a strong choice to close out an otherwise decent album.
For any other band, Hail to the King is a solid hard rock album. But Avenged Sevenfold is not supposed to be any other band. Some bands thrive off minimalistic structures and bare-bones hooks; Avenged Sevenfold is not one of them. As a result, the music comes off sounding bland and generic. What's worse, there is nothing on the album which is even remotely interesting. From the metalcore sounds of Waking the Fallen to the more mainstream yet epic arrangements of Nightmare, A7X built its brand on hauntingly beautiful melodies, double-bass drums, and duelling guitars. The band opted to put those elements aside in favour of creating more breathing space, but the biggest space worth noting on Hail to the King is the absence of The Rev.