If you’re anything like me, you have probably avoided Avenged Sevenfold for a long time after hearing their older work, which was so firmly planted in the land of metalcore it didn’t seem like they would climb out of it at any point. Though they did display some growth on their work past City of Evil, they continued to be a turn-off with juvenile lyrics that tried far too hard to be edgy. So if you’re anything like me, you might be skeptical when I say The Stage is a great progressive metal album. Yet here we are, and I’m as surprised as you are.

The Stage is a fully matured concept album, dealing with such heady material as mankind creating the AI that replaces us and our subsequent salvation through space exploration, a big step up from their prior teenage schlock. Not only does this show a band eager to continue growing and developing themselves, challenging their song- and lyric-writing skills as they go, but it’s what gives the length and scope of the album a sense of weight rather than encumbrance. The songs wind their way through several hypotheses before the formidable closer is wrapped up with a monologue by Neil DeGrasse Tyson about the cosmic perspective. It’s such a big change it almost seems like an entirely different band.

But despite the changes, two things still make it recognizably Avenged Sevenfold: vocalist M. Shadows and lead guitarist Synyster Gates. The latter’s command of his instrument is exceptional and he once again proves to be the main reason metalheads cut A7X the slack they deny other ‘mainstream’ metal bands. His bountiful solos are fluid, graceful and catchy, and his riffwork is impeccable. Meanwhile Shadows is probably the most recognizable asset of the band with his frayed and nasal voice. His expressiveness grounds the heavy subject matter and gives it emotional weight, preventing the philosophical themes from feeling detached and impersonal. The other musicians receive less focus but are no less capable, especially Brooks Wackerman’s (Bad Religion) tight and versatile work on the skins.

The diversity in the songwriting is the biggest selling point of The Stage, though. The sardonic heavy metal of the opener, the ominous use of horns in ”Sunny Disposition,” the quiet despair of “Angels,” the theatricality of “Simulation,” the quasi-black metal tremolo of “Fermi Paradox,” the lengthy coiling journey of “Exist,” no two songs sound like duplicates or feel uninspired. Although a track or two could have been dropped without much issue (“Creating God”) none feel like they’re dead weight or too long. This is what we mean by an album justifying its length.

A7X always managed to turn me off whenever I sampled them, whether it was the vocals, the lyrics or the music, but on The Stage everything comes together to form a truly spectacular album. And to think I would have skipped it without a glance back, had I not heard about its ample progressive merits! Now you have heard too. Act accordingly.

Tracks to Check Out: “The Stage,” “God Damn,” “Angels” and “Exist”