AVENGED SEVENFOLD’s return in the latter part of last year was exciting and intriguing for more reasons than just having a great new album to spin. The surprise album drop out of nowhere might not be a totally new tactic in the wider music industry but it certainly is far rarer in hard rock and heavy metal, when so many of its biggest bands are ageing and content to play things by the book. AVENGED SEVENFOLD, arguably the biggest success story in metal post-SLIPKNOT, threw caution to the wind with The Stage, band members keen to highlight superstars like Kanye West as key influences for the way they control and deliver their art and the surrounding aspects. Much was made of sales numbers compared to its chart-topping predecessor Hail to the King (frontman M. Shadows quite rightly pointed out that 76,000 first week copies in the US for an album that had almost no promotion leading up to it and a single breaching eight minutes long really isn’t bad at all), but what has to be applauded is the willingness of a band of their size to take risks and want to do things differently. Far from derailing them, interest surrounding their headline tour with DISTURBED and IN FLAMES in tow seems through the roof, and AVENGED SEVENFOLD are more than ready now to kick into gear.
Despite their long history and position as one of the single most influential bands in modern metal, IN FLAMES are well aware that on this particular package they will be largely playing to people who do not know them and as such have a golden opportunity to win over fresh faces. It’s something that they clearly relish at this point in their career because they come out with all guns blazing. Any old school IN FLAMES fans in the building proceed to wet themselves as they open with a monstrous Bullet Ride, and while that is the only nod to their incredible classic era they manage to put on the exact kind of show that’s going to make an impression on younger metal fans who may yet dive deeper. The likes of Leeches, Cloud Connected and a humongous Deliver Us (proof that IN FLAMES have indeed written songs in the last decade that should be in their live sets forever) all make an impact, and despite their last two albums being frustratingly lacklustre, songs like The End sound so much more forceful and vigorous in the live environment when not suffocated by painfully gutless production. When Anders Fridén calls for circle pits before a blistering closing punch of Take This Life he gets them, and it’s more than a little joyous seeing such a cherished band playing in this setting and doing so well.
DISTURBED meanwhile are well established in a very different sense and have almost as many shirts floating around the arena as tonight’s headliners, so victory was assured from the start. A year and a half after emerging from hiatus and having been granted a bizarre slice of genuine mainstream success through their cover of The Sound of Silence by SIMON & GARFUNKEL, DISTURBED now are less relics of the nu metal era and more solidified rock behemoths whose universal and unchallenging sound has allowed them to maintain their position near the top of the tree without being toppled by shifting trends. Admittedly The Game’s pulsing intro which wouldn’t sound out of place on a KILL II THIS record is very dated, but most of their mid-2000s and onwards material is weirdly timeless, and similarly to IN FLAMES’ latter day material much of it hits far harder when unshackled from the constricting production of the studio recordings and allowed to rampage. They’re a very easy band to poke fun at and even when on good form like tonight they are still legitimately hilarious, David Draiman storming around in a huge black coat exploding with comedic animalistic vocal inflections and booming evil laughter at the beginning of Inside the Fire, but it cannot be denied that DISTURBED know how to put on an entertaining rock show. Blasts of all-consuming pyro accentuate each meaty groove, and as over the top as he is Draiman has the crowd in the palm of his hand from the start right to the inevitable closing Down With the Sickness.
It’s been three years since AVENGED SEVENFOLD’s last UK headline tour and as chants of “SEVENFOLD” fill the arena the excitement is palpable, so when Synyster Gates’ opening guitar lick in The Stage begins to ring out it’s hard not to be swept up in it. As M. Shadows said about the album sales, a single breaching eight minutes is a risk, but opening with said single is yet another show of confidence. Shadows cuts an imposing figure and conducts the sweeping grandiosity as the song flows from peak to peak. Casually jumping straight from that into a song as undeniably huge as Afterlife sends things stratospheric. AVENGED SEVENFOLD have never quite made an album that sits at their absolute highest level from start to finish, but across seven records they have accumulated more than enough absolute world-beating songs to make a set nearing two hours feel still not long enough. Shadows stating that in order to please everyone they have to play something off every album before To End the Rapture leads into an imperious Chapter Four is one of many highlights, and the fact that they are able to drop a song as incredible as Nightmare slap bang in the middle speaks volumes.
While Hail to the King worshipped a little too much at the altar of AVENGED’s heroes, it compensated for the toning down of their distinct personality by just packing endless hard-hitting rock anthems, and when spliced amongst other more uniquely AVENGED-sounding songs tracks like Hail to the King itself and Planets simply seem to showcase another facet of what SEVENFOLD are capable of. The polar opposite of Hail to the King and almost seemingly in reaction to its predecessor, The Stage is anything but stripped down, featuring their most ambitious and complex material yet in a career which has been defined by ambition whether it’s the raging menace of God Damn and the gleefully wicked horns of Sunny Disposition. New drummer Brooks Wackerman seems to be the best fit for AVENGED since the passing of The Rev in late 2009. Whereas Arin Ilejay lacked the personality in his playing required for such a band and Mike Portnoy, while obviously a mind-blowing drummer, was more doing a very good impression of The Rev in his playing on Nightmare, Wackerman is energetic, versatile and interesting.
The visual staging of the show is impressive too. Interestingly, where SEVENFOLD on the Hail to the King cycle would’ve taken DISTURBED’s route of dousing everything in buckets of pyro, tonight they choose not to utilise it at all. Instead huge screens depicting cosmic rays and earthen skulls are capped off with a huge floating cube adorned with nebulae that glides across the room. The result is rather tasteful, neither leaving the stage empty nor going overboard as if to compensate for a lack of substance that AVENGED clearly do not have to worry about. There’s an air of class surrounding this incarnation of AVENGED SEVENFOLD that adds a forward-thinking sophistication to their usual rock star bombast. Things hit a new peak during an encore of Bat Country, A Little Piece of Heaven and Unholy Confessions. Bat Country is of course stunning, every melody so tantalising that it has people singing along to the guitar solo. A Little Piece of Heaven comes close to stealing the whole show, Shadows prancing around the stage with a huge grin plastered on his face as every twisted word of this demented necrophiliac’s love song is roared back at him, and the final blow of Unholy Confessions sees the centre of the arena swallowed by the biggest pit of the night. AVENGED SEVENFOLD‘s dominance of these venues and festival bills now seems concrete. They’ve had their crowning moment, and the prospect of what they’re going to do now they’re there seems even more exciting. With a clear adoration for rock’s history but an obvious desire to push not just themselves but the genre into the future, AVENGED SEVENFOLD are the exact kind of band we deserve.
Check out our photo gallery from the night’s action in Manchester from Em Coulter Photography here: