Hail to the King
Avenged Sevenfold is back with a vengeance, one might say. The band's second album since the death of drummer Jimmy "The Rev" Sullivan is also AX7's (as the band's moniker is often abbreviated) second consecutive No. 1 effort, further cementing this California-based quintet's position among the metal elite. In fact, first-week sales of Hail to the King hit 159,000 units, which Billboard reports is the biggest bow for a rock act in more than a year.
Avenged Sevenfold unapologetically tips the hat to old-school influences this time around, namely Metallica, AC/DC, Guns N' Roses, Black Sabbath and, as always, Iron Maiden. More so than any of those bands though (save perhaps Maiden), AX7 continues to be captivated by spiritual themes involving apocalyptic imagery. Thus, this loose concept album's 10 songs feature raging, bloody battles waged by diabolical forces bent on utter domination.
Tender ballad "Crimson Day" tells of a man and woman who love each other bravely while facing a bleak future and perhaps death. "Acid Rain" tells us, "Life wouldn't be so precious, dear/If there never was an end." We also hear about how the couple's love gives them courage ("There is no death, no end of time/When I'm facing it with you"). "Coming Home" sees hope in eternity for "weary limbs [that have] grown old": "I've stood in hell, where many had to suffer/ … Live again, all roads end/ … I'll be coming home to you." The song's narrator also says that he had "angels looking after me."
"This Means War" understands sin for what it is: "Feel this weight of sin hammering away/ … I can't go on this way—not as I am today/The ugly side of me is strong/ … Mental holocaust battle never ends." A man facing execution on "Heretic" describes himself as "honest" and yearns for a better fate.
"Requiem" is a dark hymn of submission to an evil entity the song identifies as "Darkest Lord." It begins with a Latin chant that, when translated into English, reads, "Wonders mourning/Silent, I pray/Reign destruction." "Darkest Lord," the song begins in earnest, "Your mercy shall I gain/Strike the match, engulf the earth/In flames, in flames/In flames, in flames." We also hear that "damnation cracks the sky" and that "heaven is burning down." And a spoken-word supplication in the middle of the song pleads, "Grant them eternal rest, oh lord. Embrace them into your army of undead. Strike with vengeance those who oppose your will. And lay waste to all who shall be sent before you. Walk with them and shield them from the blinding light of servitude. And devastate your enemies as they die by your hand. Amen."
A prelude on "Doing Time" claims, "We see the world through devil's eyes," before winking at addiction with, "I maintain an addiction/Been known to take it too high/After all, everybody's doin' their time." This song contains the album's only profanity, an f-word.
Hopelessness and isolation reign on "This Means War." We hear, "No home to call my own—no finding someone new/No one to break the fall—no one to see me through/No name to carry on—no promise for today/No one to hear the call—no tattered flag to raise." The specter of execution, death and damnation fills "Heretic," which tells us, "Honest man in chains/But that don't matter anyway/My judgment day/My flesh will feed the demon/No trial, no case for reason/I've been chosen to pay with my life/ … Impose your will on me/'Til fire sets me free/The flames of hell burn bright/ … Final demise."
If you took the first five songs from this album in isolation, it would be a very grim affair indeed as they tell a story of brutal spiritual oppression, with all resistors to the album's diabolical enemy being bloodily obliterated.
Indeed, album opener "Shepherd of Fire" is written from the perspective of the devil himself, who's "sympathetic" with the sufferings of those on earth even as he entices them with all manner of nefarious promises: "I know the feeling of being damned alone," he whispers, and, not unlike the serpent in the Garden, adds, "Well, I can promise you paradise/No need to serve on your knees." Then, this cryptic spoken interlude: "Disciple of the cross and champion in suffering/Immerse yourself into the kingdom of redemption/Pardon your mind through the chains of the divine/Make way for the Shepherd of Fire."
Make way ends up as something of an understatement by song's end as we're pummeled with, "I am your wrath, I am your guilt, I am your lust/And you know it's right/I am your law, I am your scar, I am your trust/Know me by name, Shepherd of Fire." And it's Christians who take the brunt of the expressed wrath on "Hail to the King," which boasts, "Blood is spilt while holding the keys to the throne/Born again but it's too late to atone/No mercy—from the edge of the blade/Dare escape and learn the price to be paid/Let the water flow with shades of red now/ … Hail to the king/Hail to the one/Kneel to the crown."
At first all of this fire and brimstone and bile feels oppressive and maybe even a little scary. But as the album continues, the idea that it might actually be a distant (secular) shadow of John Milton's "Paradise Lost" poem starts to emerge. The focus shifts as the songs progress from a nearly omnipotent demonic enemy to a handful of brave folks who are apparently resisting him, including two people who repeatedly find courage amidst the carnage in their love for each other.
It's ultimately unclear in this album if their love is enough to stem the surging tide of spiritual evil, though a few rays of hope do pierce the story's deep darkness as it progresses. So what listeners will make of it all depends largely upon which of these two sharply contrasting messages they're attracted to. That said, the deeply disturbing submission of a supplicant to the Darkest Lord in "Requiem" blatantly fuses horribly misguided spiritual ardor with threats of flaming violence. And even in the context of an epic Miltonian struggle, a song like that, running repeatedly through your head, can only do damage.