“The job of an artist is to remind people of what they have chosen to forget.”
“If you want to do things right, you have to dig deep for that inspiration.”
It was in late 2016 when Avenged Sevenfold surprise-released their seventh album, “The Stage”. Though every Avenged Sevenfold album is different from one another, The Stage is a particularly unique milestone in their discography.
A wild-ride through their dissertation on the self-destruction of society, The Stage is the hallmark of the band’s technical prowess and the amazing depth in their lyrics.
The Stage invites the listener to reflect on the craziness of the world, to ponder on the big issues that society has chosen to ignore — the human condition, artificial intelligence, politics — and how these issues could spell the unraveling of society if they are left to fester.
In the second half of the album, we are ushered towards embracing what the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson calls the “cosmic perspective”, or an understanding of how small a place we occupy in the infinitely expanding universe, thus how insignificant most of our battles and pursuits really are in the grand scheme of things.
The Stage’s conception was no overnight phenomenon. Rather, it was culminated through long years of life and work, of all the trials and triumphs that come with the vocation of musicianship.
In their personal lives, the band members — vocalist Matt, guitarists Zacky and Brian, and bassist Johnny were adulting. They were no longer the angsty youngsters who recorded “Waking the Fallen” and “City of Evil”. Their stations had fundamentally changed — their drummer and bestfriend Jimmy had died, they now had kids to raise, and they were no longer partying and drinking as much as they did before.
Together with their new drummer, Brooks, this newfangled maturity was reflected in their music, as they reached a point where they finally found their own voice. Instead of emulating their influences, they appreciated them instead.
“We kind of reached this point in life where we don’t really want to put out anything just to put something out,” said Matt. “We really don’t want it to be like, ‘Two years are up. You’ve had your break; now do another record and get it out there.’ We needed to wait until something really inspired us, and that’s why the record took a long time to get done.”
The band kept returning to the drawing board, dreaming up new ideas, wiping them away and starting all over again if they didn’t feel good enough, or if they were derived from their habitual sphere.
“If you want to do things right, you have to dig deep for that inspiration,” said Brian. “For months we were asking each other whether we were ready to write a record, and the answer kept coming up negative. I sat down a couple times and tried to write some lyrics, but my heart wasn’t into it. I knew I was just recycling old ideas, and the other guys were having the same experience.”
They finally had an idea about speaking out on issues relating to the human condition, technology and the cosmic perspective, after a conversation about their non-musical interests.
“It started with just hanging, having lunch together, drinking a little coffee and being adults,” said Brian. “We discovered that everyone had interesting new experiences and influences to share. Our singer, Matt, was reading Stephen Hawking and other physics-related books, and I was reading entrepreneurial books and we all started discussing the new technologies that were taking over the world, from 3-D printing to space travel.”
“These conversations started leading us to think of how we could portray these things in a musical way. Eventually we landed on the topic of artificial intelligence and its many ramifications. When we began considering things that never influenced us before, it gave us some room to reinvent ourselves and ideas just started pouring out.”
The band had had a firm base on these topics, before they ever felt ready to share their thoughts in their music. After their previous album, “Hail to the King”, Matt especially made the most of their down time reading books on singularity and the universe, listening to podcasts, picking up different opinions on artificial intelligence from Elon Musk to Mark Zuckerberg and Sam Harris, and becoming obsessed with the topics.
He said, “There was about two years of being obsessed with it before we even started writing, that kind of led up to this whole thing. So it wasn’t kind of just, ‘Hey, let’s learn more, let’s learn more, write write write.’ It was more like, there was a nice foundation there already.”
The more he learned, the more he realized that not many people were aware of these issues, and that together with the rest of the band, they needed to voice out on them. He said, “It’s something that’s going to be an issue in the future, for our kids and our kids’ kids; and if we have a voice that can be screamed from the top of a mountain, I wanted this to be one of those things where we can maybe educate our fans a little bit — or maybe inspire them to educate themselves.”
Elaborating on the album’s concept, Matt said, “The album is talking about things that are right around the corner that could potentially be changing the world. We have this yearning to know the answers to the big questions about space and why we’re here; we can’t evolve fast enough to figure these answers out on our own, but we can do it through artificial intelligence. But there’s also some very scary downsides that could come if we don’t put the right safety precautions in there.”
As they embarked on this ambitious journey, there was only one rule that they stuck to. “We said if we were going to write about artificial intelligence, we couldn’t make any reference to the Terminator movies,” Brian said laughingly. “And that was hard, because it’s literally in our top five favorite movies since we were kids, but we knew we had to stay away from that. No one would take us seriously if we did.”
Setting the tone for the analysis on the primary themes of this album, let us begin with an excerpt from Carl Sagan’s famous Pale Blue Dot speech :
“The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
“It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
The Dark Side of Humanity
The Stage begins by zooming in on the state of the world. It kicks off with its title track, which is an angry reflection on our nature as human beings, and the cruel roles that we have been capable of performing on our “stage”, or the Earth — our insatiable appetite for warfare and hatred, our pursuit of ego-driven ambitions, our tendency to be divided from one another — and ultimately, how we have incessantly continued to repeat the same atrocities as the people in history.
As the band claims in the lyrics, “We’re simply sociopaths with no communication, I see your angle but we differ from our points of view.”
The song’s message is perhaps best illustrated through its music video, where a group of spectators attend a puppet show called “The Fantastical History of the World”.
The atrocities of the world are portrayed in the puppet acts — cavemen killing one another out of a lack of understanding, people being slaved into building the pyramids in Ancient Egypt, the Greek wars, the Roman gladiator fights, the brutal Viking massacres, the genocide of Native Mexicans by the Spanish conquistadors, the Salem witch trials, the French revolution, the slaughter of Native Americans by the United States army, and the first and second world wars.
Throughout these acts, the spectators laugh at the sight of brutality, and treat them as a form of harmless entertainment. At the end of these acts however, the spectators themselves are turned into puppets — signifying how history repeats itself.
Zacky, who came up with the video’s concept, said, “While we were recording the album obviously we had a lot of political madness happening, terrible atrocities happening in the Middle East, Syrian refugees, and people whose lives were just turned around forever. Meanwhile, you have people that think it’s entertainment or could care less. And I wanted to put firsthand into the viewer, showing them exactly what we do as people — what we’ve always done as people.”
The aim of the video and song, as he explained, was to remind people that “ultimately when you let history repeat itself then you’re the puppets”, that “all of us are guilty of turning a blind eye to atrocities, all of us are guilty of allowing history to repeat itself. And everyone’s sort of a puppet unless they choose to act otherwise.”
It echoes Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States”, where he exposes the nation’s racist and bloody past that it was founded on. In it, he writes, “Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals the fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.”
With the advancement of nanorobotics in modern medicine, Avenged Sevenfold presents an interesting discussion regarding its ethics in the song “Paradigm”.
Nanobots are extremely small robots (at the size of a nanometer) that have the potential to directly treat human cells. It can be visualized as scientist Richard Feynman put it, “swallowing the surgeon” so that she could treat her patients from inside their bodies.
Though nanobots are still an emerging technology, there have been discussions on how it could possibly advance far into the future. As Avenged Sevenfold has explored, nanobots could potentially cure any disease or weakness, banish all pain, and help a person practically live forever.
As Matt has questioned though, “How much of a human being would you be at that point? If you’re 70 percent machine and 30 percent human, are you going to lose yourself?”
To quote the lyrics, “I’m way up, a god in size, beyond the reach of mortals, I shed my human side…I’m clawing my skin, but I can’t feel it inside. I know the agony of pain would hurt so much better.”
We are largely an unthinking society, in the sense that a lot of us choose to be oblivious of world and national affairs. We give our freedom away to governments, who in exchange could oppress and abuse their power, and we wouldn’t have any idea of what they’re doing wrong, or even understand their political jargons.
Society, especially the youth today, is largely uninterested and has little to no understanding of politics, and this does not come without a cost.
In the song “God Damn”, Avenged Sevenfold expounds on a society that is focused on their own needs, and couldn’t see past the politicians’ propositions for their long term effects. As the lyrics go, “Can’t you see we’re tripping on the wire? Walking through the candy land of all desires. Press the magic button and behold the world you crave. Where’s the fun in freedom when it renders you a slave?”
Even in a democratic system, society doesn’t have as much freedom as they believe to have. As Helen Keller remarked, “Our democracy is but a name. We vote? What does that mean? It means that we choose between two bodies of real, though not avowed, autocrats. We choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.”
Plus, society might be “free” to live their own lives, but they are still hammered in to have a limited mindset, or to think and act in a certain way. The government molds their people to be compliant and manageable through the school system, for example. Society is taught to accept rules as they are, to never question the status quo. They are rewarded for their conformity, and punished for originality. They are fed with national propaganda in their history books. They are taught that high-paying “glamorous” jobs are the only jobs worth seeking.
We could go on and on, but the lyrics from God Damn condenses it well : “It goes beyond Big Brother in the sky, beyond the threat of martial law, no Horus eye. No one came to cuff you, they just handed you the chains. Blind follow the blind, and now the one-eyed man is king.”
Even though Avenged Sevenfold has avoided using the Terminator movies as a reference, I’m going to do so in this article. Because if you’ve ever watched the Terminator movies, you’d have a good picture of what technological singularity is.
In the movies, Skynet is an artificial intelligence system that was created for military purposes. As the story goes, it gains awareness and takes on a life of its own. Skynet prompts a nuclear warfare, rendering humankind nearly extinct.
So that’s technological singularity. It’s when technology, or in this case artificial intelligence, transcends human intelligence. It’s when it becomes unstoppable, radically affecting the lives of humankind.
In their song “Creating God”, the band brings this issue up for discussion. As Matt explained, “Computers are getting smarter and smarter, and all of a sudden they’re becoming your god; they’re so much more intelligent than you, you seem like apes to them, or ants.”
Though scientists are hell-bent on giving life to AI, a number of public figures have voiced out on the threat of singularity. Elon Musk, for instance, said that “My assessment about why AI is overlooked by very smart people is that very smart people do not think a computer can ever be as smart as they are. And this is hubris and obviously false.”
He even predicted that AI would have a much more significant stance in the year 2025. “We’re headed toward a situation where AI is vastly smarter than humans,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that everything goes to hell in five years. It just means that things get unstable or weird.”
Before his death, Stephen Hawking gave his share of warnings about AI, saying that it would greatly affect middle income jobs, and that it must be banned from military use. He especially warned about the potential for AI to rapidly expand, making it nearly impossible for us to overcome it.
In an interview with BBC, he said, “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. It would take off on its own and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”
The song Creating God reflects these concerns, cautioning the listener that we are potentially “summoning the demon” by being complacent about the harmful effects of AI.
As the lyrics sing, “We’re creating God, master of our designs. We’re creating God, unsure of what we’ll find. We’re creating God, in search of the divine. We’re creating God, committing suicide.”
The Cosmic Perspective
In its final songs, the album now invites to zoom out, to take an elevated view away from our present conflicts and ego-driven pursuits. By embracing this cosmic perspective, it is in Avenged Sevenfold’s hope that we could nurture the humility and clarity that are largely lacking in society.
The song “Higher” beautifully encapsulates the sensation of being freed from the weight of the world, as we gaze into the unmatched and unlimited stars above us.
“Roman Sky” encourages us to be bold and brave enough to think for ourselves and for others, as its lyrics celebrate the scientific works of Giordano Bruno who was burned at the stake for discovering that the universe is much more larger and infinite than what was illustrated in the Copernican model. (According to Bruno, the universe isn’t limited to the solar system — i.e. the Sun and other planets that revolve around it : Mercury, Venus, Earth, etc.) Plus, we should be grateful in a way, because it’s relatively easier for us to share our own ideas today as compared to Bruno’s times.
“Fermi Paradox” discusses on just how much we don’t know about what’s really out there in the universe — that just because we don’t have enough evidence to prove something about the universe, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a high possibility for it to still be true — because ultimately, we only know so much from our position here in this tiny stage.
The album ends with “Exist” which clocks in at 15 minutes : its longest and most ambitious song. Elaborating on the song’s structure, Matt remarked, “We wanted it to be our musical interpretation of the Big Bang. And as the idea evolved, we went from the Big Bang, to the radiation period, to the cooling down period, and then we wanted there to be Earth, and Earth to us was more organic than the rest of the Big Bang, so, you know, it’s all acoustic when the vocals actually come in. And it kind of represents life.”
The song laments on the smallness of our stage, that it’s really just a tiny, almost unnoticeable dot in the universe. As the lyrics reflect, “Does anybody know?“, “Does anybody care?” — it’s sobering as the song makes us realize how we fight wars, commit genocides, and polarize just for reasons that are fleeting and fragmentary.
In its last five minutes, the song welcomes a spoken word performance by Neil deGrasse Tyson himself into its fold, encapsulating the overall message of the album : Our human ego and self-importance are an extremely limited view of the world. These impulses continue to drive countless atrocities, but there’s still hope for the wellbeing and survival of our species. There’s still hope for society to see themselves as one, to be kind to one another. And that hope could be found in embracing the cosmic perspective : “a perspective in which we are one, fitting neither above, nor below; but within.”
As deGrasse Tyson said in his speech, “I see beyond the plight of humans. I see a universe ever-expanding, with its galaxies embedded within the ever-stretching four-dimensional fabric of space and time. However big our world is, our hearts, our minds, our outsize atlases, the universe is even bigger.”
Upon its release, the album garnered praise from critics, who lauded the band’s revolutionary direction and maturity. Yet, the fans were divided over their opinions. Having experimented with different sounds on all their albums, the band is no stranger to backlash. The Stage, however, generated a backlash that they had never experienced before, as the album was far beyond any music that was ever recorded. It was way too different, even for Avenged Sevenfold.
“I feel that all of the initial backlashes that we’ve had, people have grown into it. They try it on and see how it fits,” said Matt. “The backlash to ‘City of Evil’ was insane – and then the next one was insane because it wasn’t ‘City Of Evil’. (‘Nightmare’) was actually fine because Jimmy had died. We didn’t get much of a backlash because I think that people felt bad for us. But then when ‘Hail To The King’ came out, there was a huge backlash.
“The different thing on the backlash with ‘The Stage’, though, was it was the first time that we had a great critical response and more of a fan backlash.”
Personally, having been an Avenged Sevenfold fan for the most of my life, I believe that as with any great changes, the album just needed time for it to be accepted, for people to get used to. Even for me, I felt that it wasn’t my cup of tea upon first listening to it, that it lacked a certain Avenged touch that was present in their previous albums. I was 18 then when the album was released.
I returned to the album when COVID-19 started last year, and that was when the album really began to have its hold on me. I guess I had matured, and my experience was not so different from that of Stefan Zweig, who started loving Montaigne’s essays only after he had been through hell in World War II — because suddenly, the message became a lot more relatable, and everything made sense. I guess during quarantine, I needed to be assured that everything was going to be okay.
It’s one of my favorite albums now, and I still learn new things and have new realizations when I listen to it. There are still other themes in the album that I have not talked about, such as nuclear warfare, loss of faith, and the simulation theory. But that’s for you to discover for now.
And as I like to say, reading this article doesn’t completely do the music justice. To truly understand, you just need to listen to it yourself.
Matt had said that he believed the album would stand the test of time, and that it would be a significant record for society at large, despite its initial backlash. And I believe so too.
The Stage isn’t merely a music album. It’s an education. And at best, it’s a transcendental experience.