Not every artist can successfully pull off a “surprise” album. It has been done before, usually by superstar artists. Avenged Sevenfold, whose last two albums (2013‘s Hail To The King and 2010's Nightmare) debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart, have the history and fan base to be able to do something like that. And while The Stage wasn’t a complete surprise, the timing of the release was earlier than most expected.

A few weeks ago the band released the single “The Stage,” and there was a supposed leak by a friend of the band, Fozzy frontman and WWE superstar Chris Jericho, that the disc was going to be called Voltaic Oceans and be released Dec. 9.

To add even more confusion, there was the announcement of a compilation album to be issued Dec. 2 of material from the four albums Avenged Sevenfold released with Warner Bros. Then, during a concert in Hollywood, Calif., from the roof of the Capitol Records building (A7X’s new record label) on Thursday night that was streamed worldwide, the band announced the immediate release of The Stage, confirming information that leaked earlier that day,

The announcement was a lot to absorb, and so is The Stage. Its eleven songs clock in at just under 75 minutes, the band’s longest release to-date. It’s also their first release with drummer Brooks Wackerman (ex-Bad Religion), who replaced Arin Illejay. Wackerman's style works really well on this album.

The Stage is epic in both length and ambition. It’s Avenged Sevenfold’s first concept album, with the theme of artificial intelligence. It was inspired by the works of Carl Sagan and Elon Musk and includes a spoken word piece written and delivered by Neil deGrasse Tyson, the famed astrophysicist.

The title track, aptly enough, sets the stage for what’s to come. It takes a while to kick in, and there are plenty of detours,instrumental breaks and shifts in the track’s eight plus minutes. “Sunny Disposition” has a different vibe provided by a horn section that augments the guitars.

“God Damn” is the album’s shortest and most straightforward song, while “Creating God” features an extended guitar solo. Throughout the album, axemen Synyster Gates and Zacky Vengeance deliver memorable performances, whether it’s flashy solos, creative fills or basic riffs.

“Angels” and “Roman Sky” are the requisite ballads, with the latter including strings and a cinematic atmosphere. They are contrasted by plenty of heavy songs. While some streamlining would have benefited The Stage, the lyrical concept is compelling enough to overlook a little self-indulgence.

After working with Mike Elizondo on their past two albums, this time around A7X co-produced the record with Joe Baressi (Chevelle, Coheed and Cambria). Baressi has worked with Wackerman before, having produced Bad Religion’s New Maps of Hell (2007) and The Dissent of Man (2010). The production is rock solid, as the album sounds crisp and dynamic.

The album closes with the nearly 16 minute “Exist," an opus that runs the gamut from thrash to ambient to power ballad to arena rock anthem and wraps up with deGrasse Tyson’s spoken word part. The Stage has plenty of what Avenged Sevenfold fans expect, but the band also stretches themselves to explore new musical territories.

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