Avenged Sevenfold: The Billboard Cover Story
Tapping its partnership with gaming franchise 'Call of Duty,' Avenged Sevenfold is poised for big things with the old-school metal wallop of "Hail to the King"
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Last October, metal five-piece Avenged Sevenfold scored perhaps the biggest booking of any musical act outside of the Grammys.
It wasn't an awards show, it wasn't a festival date-it wasn't even a physical appearance. Instead, the band appeared in animated form during the end credits of Activision's "Call of Duty: Black Ops II," performing a custom-made song called "Carry On" and becoming part of videogame history in the process. In its first 15 days of release, "Black Ops II" became the fastest-selling game to pass the $1 billion mark and the largest entertainment launch in Hollywood history, exposing Avenged Sevenfold to millions of fans in the process. A YouTube clip of the band's cameo has racked up 6.2 million views. Not bad for a band that refuses to play the talk-show circuit.
"I don't want the fair-weather fans, the soccer moms who watch 'Jimmy Kimmel' to discover us that way," says Sevenfold lead singer Matt Sanders, who performs as M. Shadows. "I want the people who grew up listening to AC/DC and Slayer, and if we can figure out the right way to have those people see a snippet of what you'd see at a festival or a live show, we'll do it."
Though "Carry On" was physically released this year only as a Record Store Day exclusive-selling 3,000 copies, according to Warner Bros. Records marketing assistant Jamil Baldwin-it set a dramatic precedent for Hail to the King, the band's sixth album and most cinematic in scope to date. Opener "Shepherd of Fire" has a 70-second introduction filled with brooding brass, crunchy riffs and heart-racing drums so ripe for an action movie that "Call of Duty" publisher Treyarch immediately selected it to score a key scene in "Apocalypse," the fourth and final download pack for "Black Ops II." And in a serendipitous synchronizing of marketing rollouts, "Apocalypse" arrives the same day as "Hail to the King." That could give the album an extra exposure boost to help it beat the first-week sales of the band's last outing, "Nightmare," which entered the Billboard 200 at No. 1 in August 2010 with 163,000 copies, Avenged Sevenfold's best sales week to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Other musicians have been a part of "Call of Duty"-Trent Reznor composed the theme music for "Black Ops II," and Eminem just debuted his first single in three years in the trailer for upcoming "threequel" "Ghosts." But few have had the in-game exposure, and real-life camaraderie with the publishers, as Avenged has. Treyarch studio head Mark Lamia first tapped the band in 2011 for a zombie-themed "Call of Duty" update dubbed "Call of the Dead"-the result of a frenzied search to find the right band that could create an original song in a rather tight three-month time frame.
"Up until that point, we had composed all our signature songs with our composer Kevin Sherwood, and it was very metal-influenced and built kind of a cult following," Lamia recalls. "We wanted to see what we could do with a band, and it didn't take long before there was an Avenged Sevenfold CD in here. I met with Matt, and it became clear that he was very serious about 'Call of Duty' and had a passion for the franchise and loved it and got what we were trying to make. It was one of those meetings where everything came together."
Not only did the initial meeting result in a brand-new Avenged Sevenfold track ("Not Ready to Die") to score the zombie slaughter-not to mention a later use of Nightmare for one of the game's expansion packs-a more personal relationship emerged. Today, Lamia and Shadows go to Laker games together, trade advice as new fathers and attend Major League Gaming tournaments. In June, Shadows attended his first MLG Spring Championship in Anaheim, Calif., as both a spectator and competitor, only to see his team's beaten-by-the-clock elimination voted one of the event's "Top Fails."
Shadows' passion for gaming extends to the road, too, as each concert has a custom-built room known as "Fort Knox" for him to play Xbox before shows. "Matt was telling me when he was recording Hail to the King he was playing the original 'Black Ops,'" Lamia says. "We're both marrying our passion to our work. He's marrying his passion with the music, and we get to work with this amazing, accomplished act and it's a real, genuine collaboration. The respect that comes with that and being able to work with those guys is pretty awesome."
The culture around first-person shooter games has been a part of every step of "Hail to the King"'s marketing rollout, beginning with a series of game-like scavenger hunts held in key venues around the world in New York, Rio de Janeiro, Helsinki, London, Stockholm and Berlin. Using the band's official Twitter account (@TheOfficialA7X; 926,000 followers), an augmented-reality app and media partners like Revolver magazine, Avenged Sevenfold dropped clues in real-world locations where fans could unlock the album's title, artwork and release date, and additional special prizes.
The Brazil version gave five fans a pair of tickets to Rock in Rio. The New York version led fans to a studio where the band was mixing the album, allowing a very devoted group to hear the new music months before anyone else. Additional contests gave fans tickets to a free show at Los Angeles' Palladium on Aug. 26, the eve of the album's release.
Shadows, who doesn't personally tweet, likened the contests to what Kobe Bryant does with his online following by inviting fans to shoot hoops with him before a game. "If we could do some fun, mysterious stuff, we felt that helped us give fans a cool experience," he says. "It gets old watching bands do the same thing. We're confident with the music and didn't feel like overhyping it. We're not a band that likes to divulge too much on social media."
He has reason to be confident. Produced once again by Nightmare collaborator Mike Elizondo (Eminem, 50 Cent, P!nk), "Hail to the King" is powerful old-school metal in the vein of the group's heroes like Slayer, Black Sabbath and Metallica. Songs like the title track (and lead single) as well as "Doing Time" and "Heretic" are stuffed with riffs both catchy and chugging, powered by machine-gun drums and topped by stadium-sized singalong chorus hooks.
The album also marks the band's first full set with new drummer Arin Ilejay, who stepped in earlier this year to permanently fill the shoes of James "The Rev" Sullivan, who died in 2009 halfway through the making of Nightmare from an apparent overdose. (Former Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy helped complete the drum tracks for Nightmare.)
At 25, Ilejay is some seven years younger than most of the band's founding members. Instead of the classic metal that Avenged Sevenfold came of age with, he was raised on newer groups like Bullet for My Valentine and even early Avenged records. Shadows credits Ilejay's work with shaping the record's "twist" on the tried and true formula. "We're all big believers in metal with a foot in the blues. We have a lot of Elton John influences in our music, a little bit of the Beatles, which is sometimes surprising to people. We're not trying to reinvent the wheel, we just want to put a different flavor on the music."
Shadows also cites the repairing with Elizondo as a crucial factor. "We met him four months before Rev passed away. He was a guy we weren't super-psyched about. We weren't happy with the rock producers we met with, and didn't want to make a radio record. But he was telling us about how he grew up playing metal and bass. For us to be working with a guy who knew about Iron Maiden and Metallica and gets us, we feel like he's become the sixth band member. Our relationship with Mike has been amazing."