I am a reactionary. External events and debates get my brain going, and inspire me to throw my opinionated hat into the ring of discourse. I remember not too long ago clicking on a link to a preview of the new Avenged Sevenfold album. Previously, I was lukewarm on the single of the same name “Hail To The King”. But it grew on me, and I really enjoyed the record top to bottom when I listened to the full preview, and in repeat visits since. It sounded like Avenged to me. Albeit more mid-paced, groovy and hook focused.
Apparently, the rest of the “real” metal world was not enjoying the album as much as me, and flatly considered the album to be directly plagiarizing early 90’s era Metallica, Guns N Roses and Megadeth. On the Metalsucks Podcast I was interviewed on, they viciously concurred this sentiment and even included a mash-up of Metallica’s “Sad But True” and Avenged’s “This Means War”. Metalsucks.net blog also preceded this with a track-by-track rundown of the musical borrowings of Hail To The King. The barrage of criticisms didn’t end as the legendary Rob Flynn of Machine Head posted a tongue-in-cheek Blog “congratulating” the band on their chart topping success. Not to mention the backlash by many fans of the band who thought they took a turn for the worse. The album was being considered a crime a against all things artistically viable and true to metal’s code of conduct.
Why wasn’t I hearing what everyone else was hearing? Of course I heard the influences. As clear and direct as they might have been, it didn’t bother me the way it did everyone else. As far as I was concerned Avenged Sevenfold was jocking Metallica, Guns N Roses, Megadeth, and Iron Maiden since City of Evil. It’s not like it was Cannibal Corpse and they put out an acoustic album. This is a band that has been on a major label for 10 years, who came out of the gate very image conscious and market savvy, has multiple platinum and gold albums, an MTV Video Award, and regularly headlines arena tours. How do you sell out when you are already one of the biggest and commercially viable bands in the world?
The Black Album Complex
I don’t think the backlash has anything to do with getting lighter or “selling out”. You can put the other influences aside. Avenged Sevenfold has been paying homage to Guns N Roses since their inception. From M. Shadows wearing the Aviators and backwards snapback with a bandana or Synyster Gates doing a very Slash-esque guitar solo on a coffin at a funeral in “Seize The Day” music video from 2005 which hearkens back to GnR’s “November Rain” music video.
The fans and the media complained about the Guns N Roses infatuation, but this is something different. What really bothers everyone about Hail To The King is that Avenged Sevenfold have attempted to retread the steps of Metallica’s Black Album. This is considered heresy by countless metalheads. It’s a division point, a line in the sand.
People think Nirvana killed metal, but the Black Album was released the same year as Nevermind. Metallica co-signed it’s death warrant. They put the thrash metal world on notice that the old way was over. People love to forget that this triggered many thrash bands to slow down, focus on hooks, mass appeal. Megadeth released Countdown to Extinction, Anthrax fired Joey Belladonna and released Sound of White Noise, Testament released The Ritual, and Slayer released Season in the Abyss. It was an about face for metal, and it took many of these bands more than a decade before they would return to their speedy, aggressive thrash roots.
But Metallica changed the paradigm, because although the other bands I mentioned had very successful sales during this era, Metallica dwarfed them all like a mountain to an ant hill. The Black Album is the highest selling album in The United States of America since 1991 according to SoundScan with almost 16 million sales and a total of 30 million sales globally. Just think about that for a second……………………………..Not the highest selling metal album or hard rock album. The highest selling album of any kind. More than Bon Jovi, more than Michael Jackson, more than N Sync. That is a staggering fact to wrap your head around.
The other biggest metal bands in the world, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Slipknot, Pantera, Rammstein have never eclipsed 2 Million sales in the US. That is nothing to sneeze at, but why did Metallica and that album in particular distinguish itself so much? Why the immense chasm between their success and everyone else’s? I don’t have all of the answers, but it probably has to do with writing classic songs with an intention to have spacious material that breathes in the stadium setting, instinctive groove, uncluttered crunchy riffing, sonic clarity and peerless, pristine production, with lyrics and vocal melodies that the regular joe could latch on to without losing the rough edge and grit that still makes it metal. With sales that massive, it must be the only metal record that many people have in their collections.
This transgression pissed off old Metallica fans. To no end. Legions of ex-fans vowed to never go back. They considered the shift an unforgivable slight. Metallica was already a platinum selling, arena act on …And Justice For All. What bothered them was that Metallica felt that the diehard fandom was not good enough. Metallica didn’t just want to be the biggest metal band. They wanted to be the biggest band in the world.
And this is what I think most non-professional musicians will never understand. Unfettered ambition. Maybe most people in general can’t empathize with an obsessive desire to be number 1. Most of us will never know what it’s like to be completely consumed by competitive desire like Michael Jordan or Steve Jobs.
Avenged Sevenfold wants to breach the rubicon Slipknot or Pantera couldn’t get past. I get it. With God Forbid, we were always looking to ascend to the next level. Stagnation felt like death. This is always dangerous though, as told by the myth of Icarus and flying too far to the sun. So many bands spurn their loyal fanbase by trying to lure in the masses. It’s a tightrope walk most artists do not survive. Most bands play it safe by sticking to their formula to keep whatever crowd they have. Or they go the opposite way, and sow their artistic oats with no regard for the fanbase. Boths paths are risky in their own ways.
Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Radiohead didn’t want to be the biggest bands in the world. GnR did. Metallica did. U2 did. And now Avenged Sevenfold does. Are we offended by this hubris?
The Illusion of Originality
Most detractors won’t ever realize that their disdain for the Hail To The King has to do with a deep rooted animosity towards the Black Album. They will say that the album lacks credibility because A7X are blatantly ripping off 90’s mainstream metal.
What I am also saying is: Nothing is really “original”.
As black and white as that statement sounds, let me elaborate that I fully understand that there are varying degrees of inventiveness. Protest the Hero is more original sounding than some anonymous Nickelback soundalike on rock radio. “I Heart Huckabees” or “Memento” are more creative films than the flood of 3D sequels, remakes, reboot-tentpole bullshit being pumped out by Hollywood like “Battleship” or the “Total Recall” remake.
What I mean is that everything comes from something. Nothing is created in a vacuum, and all artists amount to the sum of their experiences and influences. Do yourself a favor watch this 4 part web documentary Everything Is A Remix, which artfully peels back the myth of originality. The producer Kirby Ferguson’s thesis is that new creative works are all a product of mixing previously existing works and altering them enough to give the appearance of being original.
He gives examples including some of the most beloved and popular art in our culture. Like Led Zeppelin’s liberal reinterpretation of old blues recordings and directly lifting parts, lyrics or whole songs from some of their peers.
Ferguson points out some of the blatant borrowing Quentin Tarantino does in most of his films. Luckily, Tarantino is usually out front on disclosing who influences him and where he steals ideas from. He’s proud of it.
I don’t think people really give a shit that A7X are borrowing or stealing from other artists. I think metal fans and media hate the particular music they happen to be stealing from and definitely hate the fact that Avenged Sevenfold has been so fucking successful doing it. Hail To the King charted #1 in 6 countries including all of North America.
For some reason, metal fans cherry pick which bands and genres its kosher to steal from. As I illustrated in a previous Blog about ReThrash, purists seem to love Stoner and Beardo metal which isn’t more than a few steps from the original metal band, Black Sabbath. The ReThrash movement itself didn’t get a big backlash either. As long as you’re ripping off DRI, old Exodus and Anthrax, and Kreator it’s cool beans. We certainly shouldn’t mention how an entire genre like Metalcore, made a living off of At The Gates (my band included), and now how Djent is essentially a church with an altar built to Meshuggah. The hidden message is,”It’s ok to rip off bands, as long we all decide which bands are cool to rip off and make sure we all do it.”
I grew up on early 90’s metal and rock, and don’t have post-denier view of my early musical loves where I cast off my childhood interests later in life. I loved it than, and I love it now. So I support that a band is drawing influence from Countdown To Extinction and Use Your Illusion. Where are the swaths of other bands ripping off these records? I can’t find them. If you rip off something no once else seems to be ripping off, does that make you unique? We have ostracized A7X for copying an era that no one else seems to have the balls or forethought (or inspiration) to touch. “Hey bro! Make sure you rip off Reign in Blood and Chaosphere and you are totally in step with our elitist restrictions of acceptance!”, says the metal community at large. Food for thought.
Even legit bands that ended up very original and influential in their sound, started off in a murky, derivative place. At The Gates themselves borrowed much of their tone and riffage from Entombed. The Dillinger Escape Plan’s first EP is influenced heavily by Deadguy. Pantera is considered by many to rip off Exhorder. Kill ‘Em All by Metallica is drenched in Motorhead. Slayer’s Show No Mercy is testament to Venom. Muse was decried as Radiohead wannabes on their first couple records. Brandon Boyd of Incubus was called a Mike Patton imitator when they first came out. Baroness’s roots come directly out of old Mastodon (In my opinion). Check out the first Glassjaw album and compare Daryl Palumbo’s vocals to some classic Bad Brains albums. Lamb of God’s New American Gospel has Meshuggah, Pantera, and Slayer deep in it’s bones. Early Hatebreed was a shrine to Entombed and Crowbar. I could keep going, but you see the point. And I’m not immune to it either. I could give you the full rundown of my influences for every track I’ve ever written.
Here are more examples of the circular nature of influence.
Get Over It
My general view on this subject is that I just don’t harp on trivialities so much. If I like a song, I like it. Sometimes, knowing the influences of something makes it less enjoyable because it’s like seeing the Wizard of Oz exposed behind the curtain. Young kids and non-metal musicologists don’t know who A7X is ripping off. Let them enjoy it. I don’t know any of the obscure 70’s prog bands Opeth rips off, and because of that, they seem entirely original to me. But that is just like Plato’s cave allegory. And I can also enjoy a Bruno Mars song that is reminiscent of The Police. Why? Because it’s just good.
There are only 12 notes in western music. Only so many combinations. 12 bar blues is still one of the most common and well treaded chord progressions in modern music because it just sounds fucking good and speaks to us.
Don’t over think it. It’s just music. Not the Syrian revolution. If you are an artist, still strive to make your own unique mark, but remember that you are still just the afterbirth of history, no matter how special you think you are.
PS. Check out this article by Axl Rosenberg on Metalsucks.net. We share a lot of parallel thinking on the matter and even site several of the same examples. Although, he is much more succinct.