At this point I feel the need to say that I am not one of those people that hates on everything that A7X have ever done. I got into them when "City Of Evil" was released (and I still love that album), I have always liked some of their music and very much enjoyed their set at Download, despite getting killed. I thought it best to go into this album completely open minded (as I always do) but was a little concerned by what the band themselves had said in interviews, calling the record "bare bones", "riff-orientated" and "straightforward rock". I have always found A7X exciting because they have flamboyant, over-the-top harmonies and riffs and the idea of them stripping that back didn't sit well with me but nevertheless I went into "Hail To The King" hopeful.
Avenged Sevenfold certainly weren't lying when they said the album was "straightforward rock". There is definitely a move towards slower, more groovy riffs with much less of the embellishment that is normally found within the band's songs. This feel is evident from the outset with opener "Shepherd Of Fire", which was a bit of a grower for me and does feel like a stripped down version of the more traditional sound A7X have become known for. This idea is carried forward across the whole of the album with other tracks like "Hail To The King" and "This Means War", with most of the record featuring solid, groove-laden riffs.
Adding to the more simplified approach to riffing on this record is a change in the drumming style. I'm going to tread carefully because I know the band has been through a lot with drummers in recent years but the drum work from new drummer Arin Ilejay is in no way exciting or inspiring. Ilejay plods through the album with really basic 4/4 beats that are almost reminiscent of AC/DC instead of the more manic, double kicked approach familiar with The Rev's work with the band. This approach to drumming contributes to the songs feeling at odds with the technical brilliance that is usually on show. A7X have called "Hail..." a "natural progression" but why does that have to mean that they drop everything that was exciting about their music in favour of such straight forward and boring writing?
Undoubtedly, One of the most recognisable things about A7X's sound is the guitar interplay between Zacky Vengeance and Synyster Gates. To be fair, there are some excellent solos on show. The solo for standout ballad "Crimson Day", for example, features both players, is incredibly melodic and really enhances the song, "Coming Home" as well features an extended lead section and feels like vintage Sevenfold. Unfortunately this sort of thing is not kept up for the whole record; A7X have definitely written much better lead work on previous records. Missing also is that chemistry between the two axemen. Listen to "City Of Evil" and Gates and Vengeance lock in so perfectly together be it in twin leads, solos or riff work, they just bounce off each other so effortlessly but this is so much more absent with "Hail...". The lead work feels almost token, like A7X are trying to not be technical and to strip everything down but at the same time are trying to remind us that they can shred and this contradiction just doesn't work.
Moving on and one thing that I really used to enjoy about A7X's music was M.Shadows' vocal harmonies. "City Of Evil" features an abundance of these and they help to make songs come alive a little more but in so many places on "Hail...", such as on "Coming Home" and "Doing Time", his harmonies feel so flat and don't have the same effect. It is almost as if M.Shadows is trying to tone his vocals down a little to make them fit in more with the stripped down nature of the rest of the music and, for me, this just doesn't work. "Shepherds Of Fire" is the only song, I would say, that has harmonised vocals that enhance the music on show and this contradicts the whole idea of the album. If A7X wanted to go for a more "straight forward" approach then why fill the album with bad harmonies that do nothing to enhance the music?
Additionally, the album pacing isn't all that great. Because of the nature of the album the fastest songs are mid-paced at best and so the whole record feels much slower than it maybe should and, as a result, drags. Despite it being a standout track, opener "Shepherd Of Fire" is relatively slow and I couldn't help feeling that on other A7X albums this would not be an opener. Yes, there are cool ideas but the tempo is much reduced, meaning that the album doesn't open with the punch that fans have become used to with tracks like "Beast and the Harlot" and "Nightmare". Although good it does not set the rest of the album up very well and this is made worse by the fact that it is one of the album's best songs; things don't really pick up after that. Even tracks like "Coming Home" that is supposed to be faster just feels slow and so when the ballads like "Crimson Day" are added then as a whole the record becomes boring. There is an attempt with "Doing Time" to have an up-beat track that gives the album a bit more "oomph" but this sounds more like a bad Velvet Revolver or Stone Temple Pilots track than anything A7X are used to doing so all I am left wanting is to put "Core" on and kickback to some 90's Alt Rock.
I have one or two other gripes with "Hail..." before I wrap this one up. Firstly the production is far too clean and it feels like there is a gap in the middle of everything, which makes the songs feel empty. Additionally, the mix isn't the best as the drums often feel far louder than they should compared to the guitars. There is an obvious attempt to have a massive drum sound but it's all just a bit of a mess and doesn't have the desired effect. Also the use of a choir in "Requiem" is quite literally laughable, I'm not sure what anyone was thinking when that was added but it basically ruins a song that isn't half bad and features a really cool chorus melody. Finally, I already mentioned the pacing but the last 3 songs are far longer than they need to be. By that point in the album my interest was diminished and so for the last 3 songs to total 19 minutes was just too much for me.
To conclude this review I would have to say that "Hail To The King" really disappointed me. I can see what A7X are trying to do with not trying to re-write the same albums but for me they seem to have cut out everything that made their sound interesting. The riff-orientated approach is fair enough but the riffs aren't strong enough to make the songs exciting and save for "Shepherd Of Fire" and "Crimson Day" most of the album is forgettable. The odd bits of some of the songs grab my attention but for the most part I would have to say that this album is very poor. I put on "City Of Evil" after listening to "Hail..." and the difference in quality is so huge that it's startling. It would appear that A7X have gone from young, exciting musicians to mediocre songwriters and I hope this trend doesn't continue.