Before Lamb of God, Killswitch Engage and Hot Topic made metalcore a semi-mainstream commodity, Huntington Beach, California, quintet Avenged Sevenfold were combining caustic riffs and hardcore howls with the type of tuneful vocal passages that would become an identifying characteristic of the genre.
Avenged's 2001 debut, Sounding the Seventh Trumpet, was a bracing, freewheeling introduction that paved the way for 2003's more focused and aggressive Waking the Fallen. The album attracted extreme-metal and punk kids in equal measure and led to a major-label deal. As they entered the studio to work on their third LP, City of Evil, Avenged Sevenfold seemed destined to ascend to the top of the metalcore heap. But now that's not going to happen.
City of Evil isn't metalcore, sharing little with extreme metal and nothing with hardcore. Instead, the band has written a jaw-droppingly schizophrenic, meandering and undeniably tuneful album that sounds like a collision of Metallica, Faith No More, CKY, Guns N' Roses and Queen.
"When we started working on this record, we said, 'You know what? None of our favorite bands are super extreme, they just write really good melodic songs that are still heavy,' " frontman M. Shadows said. "So we decided we didn't want to scream anymore. Instead, we wanted to make a rock record for the new ages — something with a lot of singing, textures and vocal harmonies, and we couldn't do any of that with all the screaming."
For many bands, shifting gears so abruptly can sometimes break down the engine. Not only does it confuse anyone who had a previous image of the band, it can also cause internal tensions as the musicians struggle to realize their new creative vision. It's too early to tell how the sonic changes will affect Avenged Sevenfold's fanbase, but the group's metamorphosis has only strengthened its confidence and resolve.
"It's not like we were suddenly doing something we weren't ready for," Shadows explained. "It was really easy for us to make the change and we were all psyched about it. We wanted to do it on Waking the Fallen, but we were too scared to take that big of a step, so we ended up screaming when we thought we should be singing. We'd been thinking about it and planning it for a while, so this time we definitely weren't sitting there going, 'Oh, sh--, how are we gonna write this stuff?' It came really naturally."
Before recording, the band spent five months writing songs on a Pro Tools rig in Shadows' basement. Avenged Sevenfold entered the studio with Mudrock (Godsmack, Chimaira), who worked on their last disc, and it was then that Shadows realized many of the songs they had written were out of his singing range.
"I went to this vocal coach, Ron Anderson, who has worked with Axl Rose and Chris Cornell, to train my voice and learn a whole new way of singing," he said. "But no matter what I did, I couldn't hit the high notes, and I was getting so pissed off I'd slam microphones and mic stands into the wall. I was like, 'F--- this. We're writing songs way out of our league. I'll never hit these notes.' But Ron told me to keep doing the exercises, and right before we recorded the vocals, my voice settled and I was able to nail them."
Shadows' hissy fits weren't the only drama that affected the turbulent, emotional vibe of City of Evil. There were drunken parties, fights, unprintable hedonistic exploits and a couple of ugly incidents the band had no control over. For instance, shortly after Avenged Sevenfold wrote "Bat Country," a song based on Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," Thompson committed suicide (see "Hunter S. Thompson, 'Gonzo' Journalism Pioneer, Commits Suicide").
"That totally sucked," Shadows said. "I was all excited about the song because I'm a big fan, then he shot himself, which was totally sad. It's too bad we'll never get to see anything else that he does. But how else would he go out? It's such a perfect way for him to end his story and his life."
Far more traumatic was the death of Damageplan and former Pantera guitarist "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott (see "Dimebag Darrell, Four Others Killed In Ohio Concert Shooting"), which inspired Shadows to pen "Betrayed." The song is written from the points of view of an innocent bystander, Shadows and Dime's assassin, Nathan Gale.
"The music changes to complement the feelings of each of the voices in the song," Shadows said. "It was my way of dealing with the whole thing after it happened. I never got to meet Dimebag, but he and Slash are my two greatest guitar heroes."
Regardless of how groundbreaking City of Evil is for Avenged Sevenfold, it's clearly not what many of their oldest fans were hoping for. It's not even what their record label was planning on. "They actually wanted us to do a metalcore record because major labels like hopping on the bandwagon," Shadows said. "Thrice was signed and Thursday, so Warner Bros. was like, 'We gotta get a band like that.' But making this record is the best thing for us, and the fact that everyone else is doing what we used to do just makes it easier for us because we're free to create our own path."