Avenged Sevenfold was a by-the-numbers screamcore outfit on its first two albums. The Orange County band was one of the first groups to make the unexpected connection between death metal and emo -- and followed this template it helped create with mathematical precision. Vocalist M. Shadows grunted verses like Cookie Monster atop chugging, mid-tempo metal riffs and crooned pop-punk chorus hooks over harmony guitar leads.
This weird mix of adolescent goth melodrama and extreme metal aggression helped Avenged Sevenfold build a solid underground reputation, and they appeared twice on the mainstage of the Vans Warped Tour. But just as the band seemed poised to become a major act in a very particular sub-sub-genre, things took a weird turn.
Two years ago, while out on tour to support the band's second disc, Waking the Fallen, Shadows noticed that he couldn't quite hit those hooks the way he had before. "We were on tour so much, I could tell my high range was depleting," he recalls. "When we got off tour, I went to see a doctor in Boston, and he told me I had a blood vessel on my vocal cords that kept bursting."
After a successful surgery to remove the blood vessel, two months of voice rest and a series of sessions with a vocal coach, Shadows could easily have returned to his guttural vocals. But he and the rest of the band -- guitarists Synyster Gates and Zacky Vengeance, drummer The Reverend and bassist Johnny Christ -- decided that it was time to move on. Feeling constrained by the limits of screamcore, the band had been considering a change in direction since recording Fallen in 2002. And Shadows' injury gave them the perfect opportunity to break out of this formula.
"We decided to just go for it, balls out," Shadows says. "On the last record [Fallen], there was more singing than there was on the one before that. [But] screaming wasn't what we wanted to do anymore."
City of Evil, Avenged Sevenfold's major-label debut, is an audacious speed-metal album with explicit aspirations for the top of the charts. It's a Saturday-morning cartoon version of albums by bands like Mastodon and High on Fire, pummeling in a ProTools kind of way through songs about ancient Babylon, serial killers, Hunter S. Thompson and the end of the world. The riffs plunder from everywhere: Judas Priest, Dream Theater, Pantera, classic rock, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Def Leppard and even Green Day.
In fact, no idea that came up during recording seems to have been discarded. There are strings, acoustic interludes, choirs, synthesizers and spaghetti-Western guitar workouts. "Strength of the World" and "M.I.A." are each nearly ten minutes long; the shortest song on the disc, "Burn It Down," is just under five minutes. With most songs played at fist-pumping intensity, City is an exhausting ride. But it's also a thrill: The band reaches towering heights of almost embarrassing emotional intensity and technical proficiency all the way through the record.
"We don't force anything in our music," Shadows says. "We really don't. We listen to so much Guns 'n Roses and Pantera -- which also has a heavy groove -- more rock & roll stuff, that it comes out kind of naturally. We don't try to blend a bunch of styles; everything just kind of gets in there."
As shameless as the appropriation seems, there's a surprising innocence and a lack of guile in Evil's epic scope. The band members are all in their early twenties; they're not old enough to know how corny hard-rock anthems and power ballads are. That doesn't excuse an obvious prom-night theme song like "Seize the Day" ("Seize the day or regret the time you lost/It's empty and cold without you here...Please tell me what we have is real"), but a guitar solo cribbed straight from "November Rain" offers the track significant redemption.
"We've kind of gone the Iron Maiden route," Shadows says of the band's taste for overkill. "We definitely don't play down rock stardom or being entertainers. We love putting on big shows. The bigger the venue, the bigger the show. And not because we feel like we have to. Because we just like to. At Irvine, we have a couple of [string] quartets come out and play with us; we have a bunch of background changes and screens and ramps. It's a big rock show, which you don't really see much anymore. You just watch a band standing up there playing."
Avenged Sevenfold's refined sound has been a long time coming, but Evil still took fans by surprise. Message boards were initially lit up with accusations of selling out. But the first few stops on this current headlining tour have sold out, the video for "Bat Country" has been in rotation on MTVs Headbanger's Ball for weeks, and the album is closing in on 500,000 copies sold.
"At first [the fans] were a little standoffish because there's no screaming," says Shadows. "Then I think a lot of them came around. There are a lot of kids at the shows who know all the records, not just the new stuff. Everyone knows everything. We could tell at the beginning that a lot of them were weirded out by it, but they're coming around.
"When we wrote it, we knew they wouldn't get it at first.... Even if this record wasn't successful, even if it weren't selling, it's a record we're really proud of. Even when it came out and there was some skepticism about it, we knew it was better than the last one. We never said, 'Oh, we fucked up with this one.'"