It's nighttime in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Avenged Sevenfold drummer The Rev and guitarists Synyster Gates and Zacky Vengeance are out for blood—king cobra blood, to be exact. A local delicacy with alleged aphrodisiac powers (which many local men drink in the misguided hope that it will protect them from the AIDS virus), the blood of the king cobra is not the sort of thing you'd find at your local stateside bar, which is precisely why the Avenged dudes are hankering to try it, along with the flesh of the snake itself.
"We didn't really know what we were getting ourselves into," laughs Vengeance later, recalling the evening from the backyard of Gates' house in Huntington Beach, California. "We thought you'd just go into a restaurant and they'd serve you king cobra, like it was a common thing. But that wasn't the case."
Eager to please, the Indonesian chefs guide their tattooed American guests to a cage, where the venomous serpent awaits—and then spend 30 minutes trying to get the damn thing without being bitten. "They finally catch it," Gates explains. "Then they chop off the head, drain the blood, take out the liver and drain the blood from that, and put some alcohol in it; we drank it right there, and then they satayed the meat. They were so eager to see us eat the shit, it was ridiculous."
"It was a bit of a letdown," The Rev admits. "It was just like drinking something that tasted kind of bad and didn't do anything for you. In the long run, I would have just rather let the king cobra live, you know? Because he was a cool-looking motherfucker."
Ten days after the snake feast, Avenged frontman M. Shadows is sitting in a raunchy bar in Bangkok, Thailand, staring in wide-eyed wonder at the perverse parade of "ladyboys"—young men who have undergone sex-change operations to make money as female prostitutes—when he's suddenly struck by a mushy projectile.
"All these girls in Thailand know how to do tricks with their parts, like shooting ping-pong balls or popping balloons with darts," Shadows explains. "I was sitting there minding my own business, and I got hit with a banana from a vagina from all the way across the room! The thing hit my leg, and I went into the bathroom right away and didn't touch it, because I didn't know what you could get from it. I was rubbing it down with soap, and there was a black light in the bathroom, which made it looked like I splooged all over myself. I was so bummed—and it smelt so bad!" he laughs. "Bangkok was wild, man, but I had to experience it. We were with some people that lived there, and I was like, 'Take us out! I want to see what this is all about!'"
If there's adventure to be had, Avenged Sevenfold want a piece of the action—which is why these Orange County boys chose to play their first live dates since October 2006 in Southeast Asia, despite the fact that none of their records had ever been released there. "It was a total testament to the power of the Internet," says Shadows of the brief tour, which also included dates in Singapore and Japan. "Our record had never been released in Indonesia, but we went there and sold out an arena in Jakarta. Most of the kids didn't even speak English, but they knew all the words to [2003's] Waking the Fallen and [2005's] City of Evil, and they sang along. It was amazing!"
The band's lust for adventure extends to music, as well, which is why all their albums (beginning with 2001's Sounding the Seventh Trumpet) sound completely different from each other. "That's just how we've always been, from album to album," says bassist Johnny Christ. "The new one has always been a departure from the last one. It's always gonna be something different, because we kind of want that 'What the fuck?' reaction."
If that's the case, then A7X will definitely get their wish this October, when the quintet's self-titled fourth album is released. A 55-minute carnival of sound, Avenged Sevenfold (Warner Bros.) will surely incite a flurry of "WTF?"s on message boards and chat rooms everywhere, as kids try to wrap their heads around a record that includes angry political rants ("Critical Acclaim"), thrashy hard rock ("Almost Easy"), Pantera-style groove metal with a massive, hip-hop-style low end ("Scream"), country-influenced ballads ("Gunslinger," "Dear God"), and a totally bonkers cinematic epic complete with horns and strings ("A Little Piece of Heaven"). If A7X's major-label debut, City of Evil—which took the band from the metalcore ghetto to arena stages around the globe and has sold more than 800,000 copies to date in the U.S. alone—was widely castigated as a "sellout" move, then Avenged Sevenfold is the band's "opt out" album: A mind-boggling magnum opus that serves notice that they're no longer playing by any rules but their own.
"Oh yeah, we sold out again," says Shadows, grinning sarcastically. "Like, Warner Bros. definitely wanted a bunch of wacky songs that were all over five minutes long! But I think kids will like it—they just have to get used to it, like all our records. Once people live with it for a while, they'll realize that we're not trying to be anything but an eclectic band that writes a lot of eclectic stuff. I'd rather be put in the Mr. Bungle category than the Metallica category—well, that's not true. I love Metallica," he laughs. "But musically, I want people to never know what to expect."
Self-produced, and recorded at several different studios in Los Angeles, Avenged Sevenfold often sounds like the work of five maniacs let loose in a musical candy store, but there's still plenty of room amid the self-indulgence for catchy melodies and accessible choruses. "I think people have a weird misconception of us," says Shadows. "They think we're trying to be a super-heavy band, but we really like our songs to have a certain pop element to them; if something we write isn't super-catchy, we try to get it to that point. Kids think we do it to sell records, but really we just like it. We like pop music!"
"Lost," one of the album's more straight-up metal tracks, is a perfect case in point. "We wanted it to be melodic and pop to the max," Shadows explains. "Just non-stop catchy melodies with dueling guitars, and very fast. Its very NOFX-influenced, very early-'90s Epitaph type of stuff." Shadows' vocals in the song's chorus are positively drenched with Auto-Tune, a processing tool typically used by long-suffering engineers to subtly correct off-pitch vocal performances. But rather than utilizing Auto-Tune as a corrective device, Shadows and the band cranked it to 11 to create a bizarrely synthetic vocal effect; when placed in tandem with rampaging drums and Gates and Vengeance's athletic fretboard runs, the whole thing sounds like DragonForce with a sad robot on lead vocals.
"All of the songs we wrote and recorded for this album were experiments," says Shadows. "'Lost' was one of those things where we liked the experiment so much, we didn't care what other people would think of it." Ditto for "A Little Piece of Heaven," an eight-minute, multi-character mini-opera that sounds like the illegitimate love child of Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell and Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. Though the band tends to write most of their songs in a collaborative fashion, "Heaven" was something that burst full-blown from the inscrutable cranium of their impossibly tall drummer.
"The Rev is very good at coming in with full songs," Shadows explains. "That guy's a piece of work; he's badass and he's a great writer. He walked in with 'A Little Piece of Heaven,' and it was like an eight-minute movie that he wrote and had in his brain; nothing was on a recorder—he just walked in, one-fingered it on the piano, played drums over it, and was like, 'That's the song. Let's bring some string guys in to work on the string arrangements.' And we were like, 'Fuck yeah, dude!'"
"I can write in any style that I choose," says The Rev. "And I've always been heavily been influenced by Danny Elfman, Oingo Boingo, Mr. Bungle, and bands like that. With all the different parts and the cinematic feel, I thought it called for lyrics that told a story, too. Without giving too much away, it's about a couple: First the boyfriend kills the girlfriend, and then the girlfriend comes back and repossesses her body and kills the boyfriend; then he comes back and repossesses his body and apologizes, and they get married. And then they start killing everyone at their wedding," he chuckles. "I just had a lot of fun with that one!"
Whether you love, hate, or remain utterly mystified by Avenged Sevenfold, there's no question that it's the work of five extremely talented and deeply industrious musicians, which is precisely the way that A7X would prefer to be seen. While their recent All Excess DVD attests that they're no strangers to drunken debauchery, it also paints a touching and uplifting picture of five friends who are thoroughly devoted to each other and to the music they make together. But during the promotion of City of Evil, the band often felt that the press (including this publication) went out of its way to play up the "drunken debauchery" angle while all but ignoring the rest of their story; it's a subject that clearly still rankles today.
"The press was all like, 'They want to be Guns N' Roses; all they care about is partying, all they care about is girls,'" Shadows complains. "We've all got steady girlfriends; I've got a fiancée. I'm not out there banging every groupie and getting hammered every night. I drank twice on the whole Asian tour, because I was dealing with the record, which was still being mastered, and I was trying to keep my voice fresh. We're not a bunch of drugged-out friggin' wannabes that don't give a shit about their music or their fans."
"No one could get anything done if they were completely out of control all the time," seconds The Rev, somewhat testily. "Everyone likes to go out and have a few drinks with their best friends; I don't think anyone on the planet doesn't like to do that."
"We work our asses off," adds Gates. "For this record, we were in the studio for three months, working 12- or sometimes 14-hour days until our fingers were falling off, or until our vocal cords were toast. That's just how we do things. The DVD represents us perfectly, because it has excerpts from 10 years of our life, being with friends in the biggest partying situations and the biggest workaholic situations that we put ourselves in. If you take that and listen to our music, you can tell we're a dead-serious band, but we grew up together and we love hanging out with each other. Things get a little wild, sometimes, but that's what you get."
If you're still not entirely convinced that A7X aren't secretly yearning to be the second coming of Mötley Crüe, the high percentage of soulful, emotional, and distinctly non-Crüelike lyrics on Avenged Sevenfold should set you straight. "This whole record's definitely about trying to be a better person," says Shadows. "Unlike our last records, it's not about Babylon and dragons and the Bible—none of that shit even exists on this record. God is definitely a prevalent thing in the lyrics, but it has nothing to do with religion, or being a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew. It's about whatever higher being you want to believe in, whoever you want to put your trust in, whatever makes you feel better as a human."
These days, the thing that makes Shadows happiest as a human being is rocking the shit out of screaming fans—a notion reinforced by A7X's recent Asian tour, vaginally launched bananas notwithstanding. "Not to sound like a hippie or anything," he says, "but there are way more important things on this earth than money, or how big your band is. To go out there and make a difference in kids' lives, to make them happy for one night and get to interact with them… it's a very special thing.
"On this record, we're going to try and open up every single territory in the world, everywhere. Before, it was, 'The label in that country hasn't released the record yet, so I guess we're not going there.' Now, it's like, 'Fuck that, we're going everywhere.' The money doesn't matter; CD sales obviously don't matter, because nobody buys CDs anymore," he says with a laugh. "But as long as the kids get to hear it, and they love it, our mission is to make them happy for as long as we can. I'm on a 'make people happy' high! I'm just so stoked on it—because seeing those kids' faces, nothing can top that."