To watch Avenged Sevenfold over the years, it's been fairly clear that this is a band with a plan. With each of their first five albums, A7X steadily evolved, albeit in varying degrees. Tragically, their ascension was harrowingly derailed in December 2009 with the death of their drummer, Jimmy “The Rev” Sullivan.

The Rev wasn't just their drummer. He was a highly charismatic and creative force within the band. Looking back, it's hard to think of how they could have dealt with it any better. The band had already started work on what would become the No. 1 album 'Nightmare.' And they also seemed to understand that their band was more than just the sum of its parts. So they recruited then-Dream Theater ace Mike Portnoy (who was also one of the Rev’s heroes) to play on the record and then also to tour behind it once was released.

And they did more than survive. They thrived.

The band's new release, 'Hail to the King,' represents the first full creative effort of the post-Rev era. It also is a watermark moment in this band's history. With this album, Avenged Sevenfold have graduated to a new, impressive level. It would be easy to say that they are older and more mature, but that would be a lazy observation. Instead, the band seems to have consciously shed its metalcore skin and acknowledged that they are ready to take over the mantle of the Next Great American Metal Band.

You know who these guys listened to growing up simply by looking at the t-shirts they wear on and off stage: Metallica, Zeppelin, GN'R, Motorhead, AC/DC, Pantera and so on. They've been on a steady course to one day create the music that harkens back to these classic metal artists while also creating something uniquely A7X. With 'Hail to the King,' that concept has been realized. And it is a slam-dunk.

This album thunders and cracks with much musical lightning, as the four original members -- M. Shadows, Synyster Gates, Zacky Vengeance and Johnny Christ -- are joined on drums by Arin Ilejay (who has been with the band since the departure of Mike Portnoy after the first several legs of the 'Nightmare' tour). Ilejay does a competent job of holding down the beats, but this record is more about the evolution and growth of the four guys we've known since the late 1990s. The core.

This epic collection kicks off with 'Shepherd of Fire,' a Metallica-esque stomper that sets the tone for what follows: crunchy, arena-ready, groove-laden metal that while paying a certain kind of homage to the classics, is also pure Avenged Sevenfold. The trademark intertwined solos between Gates and Vengeance have become sexier and sturdier over the years; effortless if you watch them live, but clearly are the product of much focus and ability. On this record, the twin-axe attack is in exceptional form, with Gates in particular playing some exquisite solos.

Avenged have always distinguished themselves by treating melody with the same respect that they do sing-along choruses and fist pumping, head-banging chord structures. It occasionally gets them tagged with the “commercial” moniker but so what? Ask Led Zeppelin and Metallica if they mind having hit records and we all know what the answer will be.

The title track (which is already a No. 1 rock hit), along with the songs 'Heretic,' 'This Means War' and 'Coming Home,' all feature super-catchy constructions while never sacrificing the drama or ferocity.

There are also some strings, a satanic-sounding horn section and some spoken word portions that could be flagged as being a bit indulgent or forced, but in the grand scheme of this crafty and polished collection, those elements all sort of make sense. It almost comes naturally on an album that reflects so many metallic influences and disciplines.

Another component that sets this record apart from anything else this band done is the vocal quality and performance of Shadows. His command and control seem at an all-time high. Whether he is soaring in the heavy, military-paced 'Requiem' (which features an operatic Latin choir intro) or doing a more tender take on a ballad like 'Crimson Day' or 'Acid Rain,' he demonstrates a range not always found in most metal frontmen. But this is not most metal bands. This is Avenged Sevenfold and with 'Hail to the King' they have achieved something quite special. They have managed to grow and evolve without losing any of their fire, edge or intensity. A7X have shaped and crafted a modern metal classic that reflects the past while very much embracing the present.

A few years ago, it was hard to predict the future of this band. But 'Hail to the King' sends a clear message: Avenged Sevenfold are here to stay!

4.5 Stars