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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Hail to the King" has always wowed me... and now it also makes me think

The tap-filled anthem is one of my 21st-century rock favorites, but its lyrical theming didn't register with me until very recently.

Today was one of those days where I got up with a riff stuck in my head. That riff served as my personal reminder that, no, metal did not die out in the 2010s. It may not have been the most prominent scene, but there was plenty of action still in it.

Since being exposed to them via "Bat Country" on the soundtrack to EA Sports' NHL 06 (yes, really), Avenged Sevenfold (A7X) have been one of the few metal bands founded within the past quarter-century to regularly get my attention with the release of new material. Despite their shifts from metalcore to hard rock to somewhat of a progressive sound on their latest release, the artistry of frontman M. Shadows and guitarists Synyster Gates (lead) and Zacky Vengeance (rhythm) — ah, we miss the golden age of pseudonyms so cool they're uncool — keeps me coming back to them.

Speaking of uncool, it may be uncool to say that my favorite A7X track is "Hail to the King," given its general popularity... but it is. Few songs manage to have an artistic feat that blows me awake like "Hail to the King" has, especially when that element ends up being more or less a backing figure for a decent part of the proceedings. Take a listen.

Holy dexterity, Batman. Synyster Gates taps that sixteenth-note line throughout the whole song. Tapping came to prominence in rock in the late 70s — with Eddie Van Halen's two-handed tapping solo "Eruption" a catalyst — and for the most part has functioned as a display of technical ability. What perpetually amazes me about "Hail to the King" is how it makes Gates' efforts seem like they're no big deal, something reinforced by the Avenged Sevenfold's live performances. (Credit also to Zacky Vengeance) for taking that riff for a few measures leading out of Gates' solo!)

It's both a technical and conceptual feat to integrate tapping, and constant tapping at that, so seamlessly into a song's groove. The combination of Vengeance's rhythm guitar and Johnny Christ's bass does a lot to make that possible, rhythmically driving the song while filling up the low end beneath Gates' tapping. That side of things is classic metal, and its underpinnings reinforce the anthemic sound along with M. Shadows' vocals. Of course, Gates does get time to shine himself, first with the lengthy opening passage and then his solo. Apart from the tapping, Gates cites the influence of legendary Romani jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt on the solo, using Reinhardt's jazz vocabulary to navigate the minor key changes.

Up until the past couple days, that was what I thought and knew of "Hail to the King." After more listens and some lyrical examination, however, I realized M. Shadows' words can be seen to fit the current political moment in the world at large, especially considering the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The overall lyrical atmosphere speaks to the placing of national and world leaders on pedestals, especially those whose heinous conduct — whether that be suppressing freedom of speech...

"Watch your tongue or have it cut from your head
Save your life by keeping whispers unsaid"

...threatening those who attempt to leave their realm...

"Dare escape and learn the price to be paid"

... or unnecessarily taking lives through unfounded wars —

"Death is riding into town with armor
They come to take all your rights"

— more than taints such a distinction. In these cases, the title cry becomes a symbol of the leader's dictatorial power as their citizenry chant and sing along, either none the wiser or threatened into compliance.

So where does does that leave me and others who love this song and sing along to it? Personally, I think it's fine to keep doing so if you like the music, but it helps to know the context. The biggest question is whether knowing (or not knowing) that meaning is enough to change one's views on the music, but that's an individual question, and it's up to the individual to answer that for themself.


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