The concept album is a gift that just keeps on giving. And Avenged Sevenfold is the latest act to wrap one up for its fans. Only instead of your run-of-the-mill, post-apocalyptic opus, this California metal quintet has given that familiar approach a half turn with The Stage.
The band's seventh album is apocalyptic in a way, with Avenged Sevenfold wondering whether technological advancement and artificial intelligence will deliver or destroy humanity. What's interesting—at times in insightful ways, at times in unsettling ones—is how the band often frames technological themes in theological language. "We're creating god, unsure of what we'll find," frontman M. Shadows sings in "Creating God," "Sometimes when I look up to the sky I have to wonder are we/Summoning the demon, you and I?"
Spiritually tinged questions like that fill The Stage before the band ultimately boards a cosmos-bound rocket and thunders off in a surprisingly naturalistic direction.
"The Stage" longs for mom's embrace ("And the wind speaks a comforting voice/Guiding me into her arms/Mother, I'm alright"). While it features a nod to evolution, the song also ponders the futility of settling scores with nukes ("When did the walking apes decide that nuclear war/Was the only solution for them keeping score?/Just wake up"). Another anguished plea to a mother in "Angels" longs for deliverance from guilt ("Mother, wash the devil from my hands/Pray the Lord I have the strength to stand") and asks for forgiveness ("Now I've lost my own way home/ … Forgive me, won't you simply speak my name?").
"The Paradigm" imagines technological immortality ("You see, you could say good-bye, but you don't have to die/Not ever/Engineer the wires to your brain/Architect a code so you won't feel the pain/ … Live forever"), but also suggests such a life isn't really life ("I stare at my reflection, have I lost that boy inside?"). The song also asks, "What does it mean to be a man?" The man converted to a computer consciousness in this song wonders, "Have I lost myself forever?" And "Simulation" ponders the nature of truth: "Is truth only what we believe is real?"
"Sunny Disposition" offers a thinly veiled critique of our political moment as it imagines a society divided between the rich and the poor ("You own the burgh. We sleep in streets/You dine, then waste. We forage to eat") and suggests that the poor pay for the elite's choices ("Bought peace through wars that doomed our children to die/ … Well, who pays the tab when you cross the line?").
Despite its harsh title, "God D--n" is more than just an exercise in gratuitous profanity. The song critiques pleasure-centered consumerism ("Waltzing through the candy land of our desires/Press the magic button, and behold the world you crave/But where's the fun in freedom when it renders you a slave?"). It also suggests we owe a spiritual debt that we're unable to pay ("The devil dances with the scorned/No form of payment, no pot of gold/Will satisfy the debt of what he's owed"), one that leaves the next generation deceived, vulnerable and victimized ("Spilling from the houses in a trance, the children lined up on the road/Cursing at the Piper as he lured your kids and led them to the river").
"Creating God" says the "modern messiah" of technological progress can't deliver what it promises: "We're creating god, in search of the divine/We're creating god, committing suicide." "Roman Sky" says of a deceased friend's legacy, "Though they took your voice, words forever shine."
The most blatantly problematic content on the album comes in a line of "dialogue" from an abusive worker trying to get a patient to take his meds in "Simulation": "You had one thing to do—one thing!/And you f---ed it up, f---ed it, you piece of s---." Meanwhile, "God D--n" repeats that phrase several different ways, speaking of God's supposed damnation of America: "Pledge allegiance, no flag/God nation, g--d--ned/ … /D--n nation, God d--n."
"Sunny Disposition" sounds like a grim, post-apocalyptic Shel Silverstein poem: "Vlader Lauder sat in sorrow/For all his teeth had gone/He drank sweet rum/While fingering his gun/And eyeballed a feast/Not one bite could he eat/Somebody cut off his head." Another impoverished victim in that song says of his toxic world, "Dear radiation, my sweet friend/Let agents dance upon my nerves/Let sunlight glow under my skin/Let toxins seep into my soul."
"The Stage" suggests Jesus' divinity is nothing more than wishful thinking ("Jesus Christ was born to die/Leave it to man to levitate his own to idolize"). The song sarcastically takes a dim view of humanity ("We're simply sociopaths with no communication, baby") and says that well-packaged deception is preferable to hard truth ("Tell me a lie in a beautiful way/I believe in answers, just not today"). On "Angels," a man struggles with losing his faith: "Mother, tell me, was it all a lie?/Show me where the angels die." Violence lurks there, too ("The faster we run now, the closer the gun now"). Belief is hard to hang onto in "Simulation," too ("And faith just seems to wane").
"Fermi Paradox" claims, "Heaven works on borrowed time (walk alone)." That song also implies we can only trust ourselves, not a higher power: "Just a touch to heal the blind/In ourselves we hope to find." That idea gets reinforced in the album's 15-minute sci-fi finale, which suggests that the only truth we'll find is in the cosmos: "Our truth is painted across the sky/… No hand to hold us/No one to save us from tomorrow." Agnostic celebrity astrophysicist Neal deGrasse Tyson closes the song with a spoken-word tribute to the universe (written for this album) that criticizes religion for spawning violence ("People kill and get killed in the name of someone else's concept of God.") and suggests that the best perspective on reality comes from the stars ("The day we cease exploration of the cosmos is the day we threaten the continuance of our species.")
The Stage is a peculiar album. Avenged Sevenfold is obviously interested in spiritual questions, a theme the band has addressed (albeit sometimes with problematic theological perspectives) throughout its career. These five guys aren't afraid to sing about heaven and hell, salvation and damnation, God and the devil, identity and afterlife.
But at the end of this (occasionally profane) journey in which M. Shadows and Co. have asked some interesting questions—"What does it mean to be a man?" and, "Have I lost myself forever?"—the band responds to those spiritual queries with a scientific answer. Out trots Neal deGrasse Tyson, delivering a rambling rumination about the beauty and truth of the universe—as if his enraptured infatuation with the cosmos is all we really need in order to understand life.
The result is a jarring, unsatisfying conclusion to a concept album that does a better job of asking important questions than it does answering them.