Metal fans are an incredibly patient bunch. They might rush to judgment, but as a rule of thumb: they never write an artist off. Legendary bands are afforded respect decades past their prime and long-suffering troubadours are allowed to mature over the course of six or even seven albums. Artists find fame, respect and relevance, not when one of their tracks happens to crop up on a commercial, but when they drop a carefully crafted, start-to-finish, album.
It’s an admirable approach, but at some point even the most patient and respectful fans reach the end of their tether and crave something new. From the outside looking in, the line ups of Download, Sonisphere and Bloodstock must seem like classic rock conventions with big names from the 70s, 80s, 90s and early 2000s taking pride of place. Even the new generation of headline acts and arena fillers aren’t exactly new. Slipknot and Linkin Park still represent modernity in metal despite harkening back to the nu-metal era (a term so passé that the description would make the bands themselves blush).
Fearing a terminal decline and desperate to shake the dust off an increasingly elderly talent pool, it’s no surprise that the organisers of Download Festival (the guardians of Donington Park, metal’s spiritual home) have decided to skip a few chapters and expedite the maturation process.
Avenged Sevenfold are the lucky recipients of this turbo charged kick up the backside. The Huntington Beach behemoth will make their headline debut (proper) on the opening night of metal’s most historic festival.
Fabricating new headline superstars out of the ether is a tricky business. Fans might be a happy drunken bunch on the whole, but they resent having acts they haven’t chosen shoved down their throats. The indie friendly Reading Festival learnt this lesson the hard way when they bet the house on Razorlight in 2007. It ended badly to say the least. The organisers could only watch in dismay as fans headed for the exits at the conclusion of the Kings Of Leon set shouting “F*** Razorlight”.
Download has its own dirty little secret. Whisper it, but the last time Andy Copping and company tried to create a headliner they plumped for Lostprophets. A fairly logical choice at the time, but a band who would wane dramatically and then re-find fame for all the wrong reasons when front man Ian Watkins was sentence to 35 years in prison for child sex crimes.
Failure is rarely that dramatic. Franz Ferdinand, The Darkness, My Chemical Romance, A and recently Phoenix simply enjoyed their moment in the sun and then slipped back into the lower reaches of the line up.
No one wants to be labelled the saviour of rock and roll. There is no greater poison chalice. The mere fact that Avenged Sevenfold have been chosen instead of [insert your favourite legendary band name here] is enough to build resentment among fans who expected something bigger and better. But rather than dwelling on what they are not, let’s focus on why Download have handpicked Ax7 to be the face of metal in 2014.
The Californian five piece were ridiculed when they made their mainstream breakthrough. Between 2005 and 2008 Avenged Sevenfold looked like a band undergoing a perpetual identity crisis. Each member appeared to represent a different hard rock archetype from the (then) modern emo to the Judas Priest inspired demonic biker (all that was missing was a Black Sabbath aping unwashed cultist). They were routinely accused of being a stylized imitation of a metal band: five members of five completely different bands.
Back then it was a joke, but now that Avenged Sevenfold have successfully outlasted the backlash their diversity has become their greatest weapon. In a 90 minute set guitarists Synyster Gates and Zacky Vengeance will switch effortlessly from swooning lyrical phrases to buoyant power chords and oppressively metronomic chugging onslaughts. Occasionally they’ll run the gambit within a single track (“Buried Alive”), but more often than not Ax7 can simply dip from one completely contrasting style to the next. “Beast And The Harlot” has all the grandeur and ambition of an Iron Maiden operatic epic while “This Means War” has the drive and weight of a latter-day Metallica.
Rather than being simply the latest in a long line of metallic imitations, Avenged Sevenfold have their own secret weapon: M. Shadows. Every headliner needs a cocksure frontman, but Shadows vocal prowess is built, oddly, on insecurity. His vocal has consciously evolved over the years, switching between smooth melodicism and gritty growls. He’s changed vocal coaches, experimenting and evolving to the extent that he could front Fear Factory just as easily has he could Guns ‘n Roses.
Shadows’ ability to dip in and out of silky balladry and into post-hardcore screams has helped Ax7 to stand on their own two feet. They blend styles at will, moving beyond indebted hero worship to create a sound that is Avenged Sevenfold’s alone. Within the space of thirty seconds, as the guitars switch from tight pit sparking maelstroms to seductive slides, Shadows’ vocal bridges the extremes with a fluid transition from a lingering high note to depraved growl.
The sensation is exhilarating. Ax7’s arrangements are chaotic and unrelenting. They flip like a switchblade from seeming calm to imminent danger with M. Shadows’ hand on the reigns, holding the continuous conflict in check. It’s amazing what a difference a controlled, charismatic and crowd-pleasing frontman can make.
Avenged Sevenfold really can do it all, but being the most dexterous or well rounded band has nothing to do with being the biggest or even the best. However, unlike Lostprophets and My Chemical Romance, Ax7 have both the sound and the aesthetic to bring metal fans together, rather than drive them apart.
Download Festival 2014 almost certainly will not represent a seismic shift in the metal landscape, but Avenged Sevenfold are capable of make a lasting impression. They can prove themselves competent and accomplished headliners; the type of act who other festivals can call upon to close the show, drama free.
They haven’t demonstrated the commercial potential or cultural impact required to spark a new golden age of metal, but they can be the genre’s answer to Biffy Clyro: a hard working and extremely talented band who earned their place at the top table in increments - arriving at the height of their powers and refusing to waste a precious opportunity.
It’s the holistic approach to creating a headliner. It’s not sexy and it’s not going to change the world overnight, but by rewarding the band who’ve earned it the hard way, Download may have found at least one long term solution to metal’s mounting problems.
Enter Shikari renew their archly political assault while expanding their sonic horizons on The Mindsweep.
Brutish, brazen and ungodly satisfying, Royal Blood rode a barrage of chugging bass grooves all the way to the top of the charts in 2014.
Opeth may preach exclusively to the converted, but to overlook the Swedes’ staggeringly consistent brilliance is foolhardy.
Soothing and sorrow-laden in equal measure, Lost In The Dream by The War On Drugs left Guitar Planet speechless.
Guitar Planet has had a love/hate relationship with Slash since Velvet Revolver split, but it remains impossible to deny his freewheeling riffs and slippery solos.