The album's title track, which opens proceedings, is a real melting pot of styles that sees various eras of the band's sound forged together. The opening keyboard drone is reminiscent of Critical Acclaim, and by the time Synyster Gates' clinical lead guitar melody kicks in it takes you back to Hail to the King's title track. For a song that is over eight minutes long, The Stage is really quite a simple affair and easily one of the least-progressive songs on the album. The riffing is pretty simple throughout, which again is similar to the band's last album, with M. Shadows' vocals carrying the song throughout. On the surface the song seems too long, but repeated listens have revealed more layers that add some real depth. The lengthy bluesy guitar solo that takes place two-thirds of the way through is fantastic, with Gates' phrasing filled with plenty of emotion. This then leads into a melodramatic vocal section with Shadows' vocals taking on more of a classic rock sheen than usual. This song is a real journey, without any real typical structure, but still manages to remain accessible. Paradigm is almost the antithesis to The Stage with a thrashy main riff and Wackerman's frantic drumming display. This is a heavy song, but is still packed full of the strong vocal melodies that the band have been developing on more recent works. Wackerman is the star of the song however, with an endless list of creative drum beats to drive things. Even during Gates' explosive, shredding solo, Wackerman's drums still manage to almost steal the show with a frantic metronome feel to them. Shadows lets rip here too with a raw vocal display, that really comes to a head during the fast choruses. He even uses harsh vocals here sparingly, something he has not done for a while, to good effect. Sunny Disposition carries on the heavier vibe, and presents an overall schizophrenic feeling with a big mix of styles. Gates and Zacky Vengeance prove to be a great guitar duo, with one taking on clean leads while the other thrashes away in the background with a solid riff. A fast, punky section comes out of nowhere, driven by Wackerman's fast double bass drum playing. This acts as the chorus, and then morphs into a slow, groove-based section with a horn section! It is a really strange transition, but it works well and shows that band's creative side coming to the fore. In contrast God Damn, the only song on the album under four minutes long, is a flat-out thrash number. The band's two guitarists team up with some guitar fluid riffing, that even seems to include some tremolo picking at times, as Shadows spits out the verse vocals with real venom. This is the heaviest the band have sounded for quite some time, and could potentially be the fastest riffing in any Avenged Sevenfold song. There are mellower sections however, with a Spanish guitar-led section towards the end, and the choruses see the intensity dialled back somewhat. These sections do little to hamper the almost-hardcore punk impact of the song, and I imagine this will become a live favourite. Creating God sounds like it could be a song left over from the Hail to the King sessions with a mid-paced groovy main riff that sits over a uncharacteristically simple drum pattern from Wackerman. Despite a few faster sections, the song mostly sits in this mid-pace groove throughout, which works well after two faster songs. The chorus is pretty anthemic too, with a subtle string section to add colour and help boost Shadows' catchy vocal lines. The lengthy guitar solo is great too, and shows that Gates really is one of the best modern guitarists. Angels is the least heavy song of the album so far and, while it is not a ballad, it provides a bit of a break from the thrashy elements that have been prevalent so far. The slightly epic songs are perfect for Shadows' voice, and his surprisingly soaring performance here is easily the song's best moment. I do not think that he always gets the credit he deserves for his vocal performances, and this song should show that he can do much more than just belt out generic modern metal vocal lines. Gates' Dad, a regular contributor to Avenged Sevenfold albums, provides the lengthy outro solo here too, and shows he can keep up with his son when it comes to excellent guitar solos!
Simulation opens slowly too, with some spacey guitar sounds and understated vocal lines. It soon speeds up however, with another big thrashy riff and some almost-spoken vocals that are extremely rousing. This is a song that often switches back and forward between two distinct sounds, the spacey prog section and the heavier section, with good effect. The two sounds compliment each other well, and it all comes to a head with a great headbanging section late on that is complete with military sound effects and evil spoken word sections. All of this culminates in a fast guitar solo that fits with the blood-pumping military sound effects that came before it. With it's odd percussive sound, Higher certainly stands out from the crowd. Wackerman's drums are augmented with percussion from Brian Kilgore which actually works quite well, even with big metal riffs slapped on the top. The song has a very memorable chorus, something which this album does not focus on as much as you would expect, and sees Shadows almost crooning the smooth vocal lines while Gates' guitar arpeggios sit perfectly underneath. The latter part of the song takes a bit of a strange turn, with wordless choral vocals providing strong melodies, before an atmospheric section takes away with Shadows' delicate voice and more of the drums/percussion combo. The transition works well however and feels natural. Roman Sky is the album's ballad, with a beautiful clean guitar melody that opens things out. The song is quite keyboard heavy, something which is not the norm for the band, but this helps to provide a great overall atmosphere. Soundwise however this is not hugely different from the ballads have done in the past. Comparisons can be drawn to songs like Gunslinger and Dear God, and this feels like a natural successor to those songs. Despite the song slowly building up to a more rocking overall feel, it never becomes heavy. When the rest of the band kick in, it is Johnny Christ's bass that actually stands out the most as he plays a groovy bassline. His bass work is not that prominent throughout this album, so it is good that he gets this small chance to shine. The opening to Fermi Paradox is a pure guitar workout, with Gates' neo-classical licks really impressing. This is a strange song overall however, with heavy drum beats mixed with more atmospheric music to create a sound that is quite different to anything the band have done before. It works well however, and manages to feel truly progressive. Wackerman's drumming once again stands out, especially during the strange verse sections, and he manages to throw in some great fills even during more pedestrian sections. Shadows' vocals are excellent throughout the song too, and it sounds like he has been listen to a lot of Dream Theater before recording this as his vocals have the smooth subtly and melodic phrasing of James LaBrie, just with more gruffness. The album's closing number, Exist, is the band's longest song to date clocking in at well over fifteen minutes in length. It has a great spacey keyboard opening that sets the mood perfectly, before one of Gates' trademark sweep-picking sections comes in to blow you away once again. Unsurprisingly for a song of this length, there is an awful lot going on. It is hard song to describe and it requires multiple listens to fully digest. The main riff that kicks in after about three minutes however is pure Megadeth, and this riff is then tortured and changed up over the next couple of minutes in a riff-heavy instrumental section that is full of power. It is a good seven or so minutes before any vocals kick in, and by this point the song is stripped back to a simple clean guitar melody which is a strong contrast to the thrashy bombast that came before. The vocal-led sections are extremely melodic, with a strong keyboard backing, and plenty of subtle vocal harmonies to beef up the sound. The ending section features a lengthy spoken word section from famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson which weaves in and out of a perfect cacophony of keyboards, guitars, and drums. His speech sums up the themes of the song, and indeed the whole album, and is a perfect way for this ambitious album to end. Overall, The Stage is an album that will probably come to define Avenged Sevenfold going forward. I think it is one of those albums that will take years to fully reveal all of it's secrets, but will come to be seen as a modern classic in the future. The band have never sounded this creative, diverse, or progressive, and I feel this album shows a band that are willing to try anything and refusing to recreate their past.
The album was released on 28th October 2016 via Capitol Records. Below is the band's promotional video for The Stage.