If one thing comes clear from talking with M. Shadows, it's that Avenged Sevenfold have never been afraid to go where their instincts lead them, even to the extent of punching reboot on the band's sound, regardless of consequence.
The journey towards their upcoming release has been a challenge for A7X, as their creative process has never been geared to simply cranking out the next record. "First off," says Shadows, "we don't write a record until it comes to us. We don't sit there and search for it, because it's something you can't search for. You have to just feel it and say, 'You know what? That last record doesn't really represent us anymore. It's time to do what we're feeling at this moment.' That's why it takes us three-and-a-half years to put out a record."
Part of the new record is simplifying the band's approach; paring back from the more harmony-laden sound of Nightmare. "Through our career, we've had different things that have inspired us," Shadows says. "On this record, we want a very bare-bones, riff-oriented approachâ€”more groove oriented. For us it's a challenge, because it's easy for us to say, 'Well, that melody would sound great here and throw this background vocal in here and here's this harmony â€¦' We had to restrain ourselves from doing that, to keep it more straightforward rock, which was our goal and we accomplished that for sure. Even in the studio, we're trying these things like, 'Harmony would be awesome up there,' and we realize that makes it too cute. We thought, 'Let's keep this what it isâ€”just a bare-bones, badass rock metal record.' So that's what we've done."
Following their concept means jettisoning material already written and, in a sense, starting from scratch. Shadows has a one-word description of that process. "Torturous," he laughs. "The writing process was torturous. We were trying to go to this place, and it's very easy to fall back on what you know well. You get six or seven songs deep and you think, 'Okay, well, it'd be cool just to kind of go back and keep one foot in the old and one foot in the new.' We didn't let ourselves to do that. We said, 'No, we're sticking with this vision. We're going to keep writing in this mindset and we're going to finish this record out.' So at the end of the day, it's one piece of how we feel in this moment and we're not trying to go back and appease anybody."
This won't be the first time that A7X have approached their music from a different angle, and to Shadows, it's not the music that's surprising. "Every record we've put out, I've been surprised that the kids are so surprised," he says. "It's like every record is so different for us. The jump from Waking the Fallen and City of Evil was huge. We went from a hardcore punk band to just like a European metal band with American metal vocals. And then the jump after that was more of a groove record. It was all over the place with songs like 'Little Piece of Heaven.' Nightmare, I think we really honed it in and said, 'This is what we're going to do.' On this one, we threw it all out the window again and said, 'No, we're going to move forward and do this.' Like I said, it all comes from an organic spot. We just can't write the same records and be happy with ourselves.
"So, to me, I'm so deep in this thing right now that it's not that different to me. But I know it is, because when we started it was different. I remember when City of Evil came out I thought, 'Oh, it's not that big of a difference.' We put it out and the kids were like, 'What are you guys doing?' I didn't expect that, because I'd been so engulfed in it. I'm engulfed in this right now, so I don't think it's that big of a deal, but I think it rocks. If people just listen to it-put this in their car and listen to itâ€”I think it's great."
For the A7X vocalist, as for the rest of the band, part of that recording process is keeping his instrument in top shape. In a way, it's harder work, since he can't just change a string or replace a tube if something breaks down. So he trains seriously, like a professional athlete. "I've trained with Ron Anderson for years and I still train with him. Basically, you have to take care of your voice, especially when you're on the road every day, but the same applies to the studio. You have to drink a lot of water, not a lot of talking and, yes, go in there and do your warm-ups. I've got an hour warm-up I do, and then I sing through a few Elton John tracks-'Funeral for a Friend' and then 'Candle in the Wind' -because they have a lot of lows and highs and it really [brings] out the voice. So I go through that, and then I go on to singing heavy metal. It's perfect. You start off soft and then you build into it that way. It's like running a marathon or lifting weights. You start light and then once your body's warmed up you can go hit it hard."
Since the emphasis of the new project is on a more stripped-down, basic sound for the band, preparation is more important than ever. "You know," muses Shadows, "when you're growing up, you're trying to do all these things. We've always drawn on different influences, like Queen, where there are lots of background vocals. We've tried different techniques on attaining a huge wall of sound for certain vocals. One thing I like to do is double all my low vocals and pan them out hard to make a cool, echo-y reverb-y effect, but on this new record we're doing it's all about one person, one voice, no overlapping vocals and just very bare bonesâ€”it's just me and a microphone trying to make it as gritty and as powerful as possible. Every record's had a different approach, but this record, for us-the new record-it's all about â€¦ that when you're listening to AC/DC you hear one voice. When you listen to Metallica there's one voice. There's not a bunch of crap going on around it. It's not cute. So that was our approach on this record."
For any vocalist, especially in metal, the right microphone is the way through the layers of guitars and drums to the audience's ears. While the current sessions have been with a rare, vintage '50s Telefunken M 250, the previous albums have all been done with Blue Microphone's Bottle condenser, according to Shadows. And although he does say that he's pretty easygoing about mic choices, he has developed preferences. "For live I prefer the Audio-Technica 4100," he says. "It's what our sound guy feels is the best for my voice. My voice has a lot of rasp, so at times it's hard to get me over the mix without me being too loud or [getting] buried. That mic can kind of make my voice pop through live."
Before going back to the recording studio and "listening to guitars all day," as he put it, Shadows spends a moment reflecting on important moments in his career. "I think my best musical moment was probably playing with Metallica," he says. "They're like our heroes. I've never had a problem expressing how much we owed to bands like Metallica and Maiden and Guns N' Roses. When Metallica called us and asked us to play with them.." he grins, "it's a cool thing to play with Metallica anywhere. I mean, anywhere you play with them is going to be hundreds of thousands of people, especially if it's internationally, so it's always a good time to be standing on stage and you just want to pinch yourself because it's so cool." Any band with the chance to open for A7X on their upcoming tour probably feels exactly the same way.
Written by George Van Wagner / Photography by Ryan Hunter