Avenged Sevenfold seem to always draw a lot of criticism for being 'sell-outs' in recent years in heavy metal circles. I think this partially stems from the fact that much of metal's underground fandom clings to a belief that metal is not supposed to be mainstream or popular. Metallica are sometimes viewed the same way by metal critics ever since their commercial success of their self-titled 'black' album. In many ways, Hail to the King is Avenged Sevenfold's 'black' album. It is their biggest shift to a slower-tempo, more accessible sound as they have displayed yet in their career. So their critics are making as much noise as ever over their legitimacy as a metal band. On the flip-side, Avenged Sevenfold's latest release still debuted at #1, and they continue to draw sell-out crowds on headlining tours and massive metal festivals and tours around the globe, so in all likelihood they will continue to do what they've been doing as far as their direction is concerned, and let all criticisms go in one ear and out the other.
After a first listen this album sounds like Avenged Sevenfold is sputtering at half throttle. There are teases of potential neck-breaking tempos like they've delivered on previous releases, but not a single song reaches that point. Long-time fans may wonder if their new drummer Arin Ilejay is not living up to the standards of the late Rev, or if the band is simply losing their aggressive drive. They also seem to draw inspiration from some long-standing greats of heavy metal on this album. In some cases they emulate these legends so much that critics are challenging their originality. These are some of the obvious criticisms of Hail to the King, but now that I've stated the obvious I can move on and look at the many aspects of this album that are truly worthy of praise.
This album continues to grow on me the more I play it. Once I got over the lack of faster-tempo song on this album I was able to just listen and enjoy the songs for what they were. 'Shepherd of Fire' starts off the album with a slow and haunting mood. It is another similarity to the 'black' album to be noted- it reminds me of 'Enter Sandman' in terms of it's overall feel, mood, structure and style. The bass guitar is prominent throughout, and drums and rhythm guitar keep the song marching along with it's dark mood.
The title track is quite reminiscent of AC/DC's classic 'Thunderstruck', as it features a lead-guitar melody that plays non-stop throughout the entire song with minimal variation. This is where I keep expecting a tempo change, but in the end the song stays the same throughout. All in all, I was hoping for more intensity from A7X, but the song is not bad. This may be evidence of the band adopting a stricter discipline in holding to a more moderate, accessible sound.
There are a couple ballads on Hail to the King. 'Crimson Day' and 'Acid Rain' remind us that Avenged Sevenfold still have that softer side, and keep the album balanced. 'Acid Rain' is also a primarily piano-driven number. Avenged Sevenfold have always included a song or two that show their softer side in the songwriting department. This album is no different. 'Acid Rain' is my favorite of the two.
Before I leave you with my recommended tracks, I'll point out another observation I have about Hail to the King. It seems that perhaps there is a second, no-so-cryptic meaning behind the album's title: "Hail to the King", as it is like A7X are hailing their own personal kings of metal. I choose to view all of the instances of stylistic emulation as a form of paying tribute and honoring their heroes. Every band has influences, and sometimes they take a minute to make those influences known. Whether you choose to criticize them for it, or give them a thumbs-up is totally up to you.
-Shepherd of Fire
-Hail to the King
-This Means War (This is a tricky one to recommend. Though I like it in spite of it's slower tempo, it should be pointed out that it is shockingly similar to Metallica's 'Sad But True'. The drum beat, guitar riff, even the several second pause at the beginning... They copied the song format and structure so closely that the song's inspiration is obvious. Perhaps too much so? You be the judge...)
-Planets (My favorite song on the whole album, and my TOP pick! Very heavy, though still with the slower tempo they utilize a great deal on this album. M. Shadows' vocals are as intense as he gets on this album too!)