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Avenged Sevenfold: the first reaction to their new album The Stage

Avenged Sevenfold have just released with their much-anticipated new album The Stage. We’ve heard it – and this is what we think

Well, that's it, the wait is over. The album we all thought was going to drop in December has blindsided everyone and appeared online and in stores at the end of October. No preamble, no fanfare, no month-long marketing campaign – just music. But after three years of waiting and god-knows-how-long planning this surprise in the shadows, is this the Avenged Sevenfold album we've all been waiting for? And in short, yes it is.

Freed from the shackles of Warner Bros, it feels that Avenged are actively trying to take further leaps away from what you know. While Hail To The King was a solid contemporary take on the titans of heavy metal, with notable nods to Metallica and Iron Maiden, The Stage (not Voltaic Oceans as previously thought) is a freeform mass of metal with influences stretching far and wide.

The grandiose title track might feel like an odd choice for an opener given that it's over eight minutes long, but it sets the tone for the whole record. Synyster Gates' wailing guitar is a constant throughout the eleven tracks, wailing and riffing and roaring alongside Matt Shadows' signature vocal style. But the MVP might go to recent signing Brooks Wackerman, whose punky, off-kilter style gives a refreshing boost to a band often considered too safe – just listen to his cheeky fills in Paradigm and frantic cymbal riding in Fermi Paradox to know what we're talking about.

The record itself shows Avenged maturing as artists, embracing the idea of a conceptual album and not sticking to the same formula; it is very much not Hail To The King Part Two. Telling tales of politics, religion and astrophysics (even featuring a guest spot from scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson), there's a common thread linking the music as you're transported from the Earth's surface into the great beyond, while each track maintains its own identity.

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The fun-time Sunny Disposition rampages along like a catatonic bull, boosted further by the addition of a horn section, harking back to the days of A Little Piece Of Heaven, Creating God's anthemic chorus lifts the middle of the album to higher heights with Matt doing his best Layne Staley croon, and the epic 15-minute closer Exist is arguably one of the most impressive songs A7X have ever written. Sure, it's not likely to set the mosh pits on fire, but it shows just what one of the biggest bands on the planet are capable of musically and that you should never second-guess what a band like this are going to do.

If you already like Avenged, then you're going to love this. If you were always cynical towards the Orange County boys then prepare to have your mind changed. It's still very much them, but with the levels of intrigue and exploration turned to maximum, without ever considering winding the metal in.

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