Avenged Sevenfold vocalist M. Shadows talks us through the creation of their eighth studio album in our latest digital cover feature. From lyric writing to the artwork, musical influences and collaborators, this is The Album Story of ‘Life Is But A Dream…’.
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“I went through a really major injury. An injury where most doctors told me I wasn’t going to sing again. I have to say, purely based out of finding the right vocal coach, working really hard at it and technique, I was able to do something that most doctors said wasn’t going to be physically possible.”
M. Shadows joins us refreshed and renewed, straight from his latest vocal lesson and brimming with excitement for the release of ‘Life Is But A Dream…’, the long awaited new album from Avenged Sevenfold. Mixing together dance influences, heavy riffs and a 78 piece orchestra, it is a sprawling near-concept album exploring that biggest subject of all – what it truly means to be alive and live life to the fullest.
“We finished the tracking pretty early on. No vocals, no solos, no extras but we had the drums, the bass and some of the guitars. Then we let it sit for a year. One thing we were waiting for was getting my voice back to where I was comfortable. Not only singing but knowing that once we put the record out we’d have to go do it live.”
Old habits die hard and when it came to recovering from his vocal surgery, M. Shadow’s biggest concern was to not fall back into the problems that caused him to suffer through a 2018 tour.
“The process was completely relearning where the cord needs to sit, the anchor I need to hold onto at all times and how to get through the mix in a healthy way. How to pronounce my words differently. And this goes back to songs I’ve been singing forever – I just have to do them differently.”
With nasality gone and higher notes carrying more weight, the vocalist found himself producing a different but much healthier sound. Feeling confident enough to continue, the band resumed work on the follow-up to 2016’s ‘The Stage’.
But what they had initially thought would take a month quickly turned into six. Then came the mixing process. Soon, those few weeks they had earmarked in the schedule became a full year.
“We’ve had a lot of music on the back burner, everything took longer than we thought it would. So once we started rolling again, we got so into it that we just grinded.”
Opening track ‘Game Over’ begins with a soft and delicate refrain before the riff punches you in the face – a juxtaposition and collision of ideas that speaks to the record’s overall intent.
“We felt it was very welcoming” he says on the intro. “It felt very beginning of life. And when you think about the context of the record and how the ending is kind of the curtain call, the end of life…we just felt it was fitting to open that way but then instantly you are thrown into this world of anxiety. This world of chaos.”
“We were trying to play with people’s emotions in different ways” he continues. “On this record you are either doing it with a crazy tempo change or a vocal melodic to minor happening or a vocal in 3/4 while the riff is in 4/4. So you are always trying to keep people off-kilter but with a payoff. Not letting them sit there…We don’t really let anyone get their footing for too long. It’s kind of an ADHD society and we wanted to explore that on this record.”
The wide array of musical influences on display move the band from heavy headbangers to delicate ballads and electronica, with Daft Punk an obvious reference point on the tracks ‘Easier’ and ‘(O)rdinary’, specifically their ‘Random Access Memories’ era.
“They are such brilliant songwriters. Their ability with melody and putting songs together and this warm feeling you have when you are listening…the reason they are so highly sampled is that they are like the Elton John of our time. They are just such musician’s musicians. Anyone can listen to that and feel something.”
The evocative strings and orchestral swells of the 78-piece San Bernardino Symphony make their impact throughout the record and on the track ‘Cosmic’ in particular; a floating brass section laying over the vocal and a dramatic piano line as increasingly discordant strings ascend to a sudden stoppage. Purposefully targeting a group of musicians not known for working on rock records, the band placed them into some initially uncomfortable settings – playing things that were wrong in every technical sense but so right for Avenged Sevenfold.
“We know what we want it to sound like but it’s not traditional” says Shadows. “We want the bow to be sharper here, the mic to be further down the tuba because we want to hear the breath instead of the softer sound. Whatever it was, we were able to get with a team that allowed us to do that.”
Relating to the orchestra on their level, he cites Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite Of Spring’ as a key reference point – disrupting the norms through music and allowing the orchestra to find comfort in that idea.
The track ‘Beautiful Morning’ features a sweet, Mr Rogers-esque lyric and melody (’It’s a beautiful morning, it’s a beautiful day, everybody is smiling in a beautiful way’) that holds a long history with the group, attributed to M.Shadows, Synyster Gates and the late The Rev.
“That’s another thing from our childhood, we would always sing growing up. There’s something that’s very creepy about it. It just seemed like a nice juxtaposition in that song which is one of the more standard on the record.”
“We’ve got this melody that we’ve sung our whole lives so even if people didn’t like it or get it, it was something that was emotionally cool to us. A thing we’ve all had as a group of friends.”
And despite some of the weightier themes of the record, the band still find plenty of time for fun, with jokes about coffee jingles, threesomes and malfunctioning robots all present and correct – welcome moments of levity in the darkness.
“When I think of a Quentin Tarantino movie and how serious those movies are but they are funny as hell. There are so many funny things that go on.”
“Death is right there and it’s not supposed to be a sad thing” Shadows explains. “You’re here now I’m reminding you that you need to shape up. You need to live your life and do what you want to do. And if you take the record too seriously lyrically, then you are not doing that. We’re having fun making music and it’s our art and there is a message but we can have fun doing it as well.”
M. Shadows first met the artist Wes Lang around six years ago and describes him as, unequivocally, his favourite artist of all time.
“Just going into his studio, it’s like walking into the temple of time in Zelda. The world stops. You just feel like you are in this void.”
Lang turned down multiple offers to collaborate over the years, but the pair still became good friends, often sending each other their latest works, swapping notes on demos and paintings. One such work was an art piece entitled ’Nobody’, that inspired Shadows to write the song of the same name.
Years later, Lang began sending him new art pieces inspired by their music, saying he just simply had to do it this time.
“It spoke to me and it spoke to him. He said ‘I’ve been listening to the demos and I want you guys to use this for your record’. We were blown away. The art was influencing the art, back and forth.”
Perhaps a non-traditional design for a modern rock record, the highly stylised, monotone images work perfectly when reading the lyrics.
“The art kind of grounds you in this reality of the life experience that we are going through. I think it compliments it really well. I think the art on this record is just as important as the music.”
“I started playing with the idea of which is the dream, which is real and does it really matter?” asks Shadows.
“You come into this world, you learn how we do things here, you learn what’s important here, you learn what success is here. But it really holds no weight outside of this human construct, this society and tribe we’ve built. And then one day you turn off.”
Although an already common saying associated with nursery rhymes, Shadows aimed to encourage the listener to think deeper about these deceptively simple phrases and maybe even redefine its meaning for them.
And what of that ellipsis that follows it?
“Those three little dots always felt like they fit there. I’m an atheist so I would argue with all my religious friends all the time.”
Yet over the last few years, Shadows made the realisation that, at the end of the day, whoever is right or wrong simply doesn’t matter.
“They were right and I was right. All that mattered was me giving them a hug.”
“We all have these ways we cope with this place and these answers we tried to find” he continues. “It doesn’t really matter what you think and believe as long as you can, at least for yourself, find some sort of meaning or purpose…so the three little dots mean whatever you want them to mean.”
Shadows describes a recent live comeback show at the Area 51 in Las Vegas as “a colossal anxiety. One of those things where there is so much buildup after we’ve come back.”
The pressure of returning to the stage for a performance that would inevitably be viewed by thousands more via phone-filmed clips was clearly troubling to him. Yet, as some high-profile US festival dates kicked into gear, he found himself more able to embrace the chaos around him.
“Rockville and Sonic Temple were awesome. Seeing the new songs as quickly as they are being embraced. When we play ‘We Love You’ and everyone is dancing during the techno and going crazy.”
“The main reaction after those shows was I can’t believe how quickly those songs are going over. Everybody seems to know them and that was a really great feeling…We still feel young but we’ve been a band for 23 years.”
And on the brink of releasing their most experimental and wide-reaching record yet, it is that connection that is most important to him. Shadows cites records like ‘Kid A’ and ‘Pinkerton’ that were somewhat written off at the time but now are celebrated as modern classics. Half expecting ‘Life Is But A Dream…’ to be similarly unappreciated, he has thus far been pleasantly surprised.
“I’m not seeing that with this because people live in a different age and they want something exciting and people are more open…It’s shocking but in 2023 people seem to like shocking.”