On December 28th, 2009, Avenged Sevenfold's drummer and occasional vocalist Jimmy Owen Sullivan, better known as The Rev, was found dead in his home. The news of the tragedy came at a time when it seemed as if celebrities were dying left and right, so, when I first heard it, I was skeptical. But The Rev's death, at age 29, was anything but a hoax, and was nothing if not unexpected to occur to a musician who appeared to be at the peak of his abilities. However, what I found nearly as puzzling was the lack of coverage for the man's death. Here was the loss of arguably the best drummer of my generation, and the only remotely in-depth article I could find on the subject was a lone MTV article, and little else. Avenged Sevenfold are seen as a somewhat polarizing force in modern metal, so I suppose few news outlets took the band seriously enough to give them the time of day to cover the loss of a person whose musical ability will be inspiring drummers for generations.
Avenged Sevenfold were in the midst of the demoing phase of Nightmare by the time The Rev died, so the album plays out less like a tribute to their fallen comrade and more like the band's final creative product with him. In this case, The Rev literally ghostwrites for Dream Theater drummer, Mike Portnoy, who takes over drum duties for the album. Portnoy has stated in interviews that his intent on Nightmare was to stay as close as possible to what the late drummer had written. The man was chosen less for his immense creative ability than his technical skill to play the, at times, exhausting rhythms that The Rev had planned to play throughout the album. And it all works. A person listening to Nightmare without the pretense of a great caveat would think that this was The Rev performing, and this is thanks to Nightmare's mixer, Andy Wallace, who has been working with the band since City of Evil, and producer Mike Elizondo, who I was surprised to find had never worked with the band before.
It also helps that The Rev left the band with a multitude of musical ideas to spare. The band's immensely disappointing self-titled follow-up to the band's watershed moment, City of Evil, was both saved and fundamentally faulted for its overeagerness to reach out to larger audiences. The album did Avenged Sevenfold no help in quelling peoples' accusations of the band being pop-metal posers, and, after the band's success with singles like "Afterlife" and "Almost Easy", I was almost certain that the band was going to forever suppress their predilection for suitably unwieldy techniques in favor of a saccharine sheen; one that would continue to isolate and motivate the band's fan base to abandon them, altogether. And, reading Nightmare's tracklisting, one would think that this was the path the band had decided to go. If there is one thing I can fault Nightmare for, it is for its unnecessarily melodramatic song titles. Names like "So Far Away", "Victim" and "God Hates Us" won't convert listeners surveying the album with any preconceived notion of how the band operates. However, an actual listen to Nightmare will reveal that Avenged Sevenfold pulled the rare feat of taking a step back from their undoubtedly successful dreck to craft an album that is on a sonic plane much closer to City of Evil than Avenged Sevenfold.
In fact, a significant amount of Nightmare can be compared to City of Evil and the highlights of Avenged Sevenfold. The staccato propulsion of the drums on the title track are reminiscent of "Critical Acclaim", while the introductory clean guitar picking in "God Hates Us" sounds like that of "Strength of the World". The choruses of songs like "Danger Line" and "Welcome to the Family" do an excellent job of keeping afloat engaging melodies while still maintaining an aggressive edge that was perfectly employed on City of Evil, and ultimately defined the "Avenged Sevenfold sound". You see, Avenged Sevenfold are best when their winds are long and their concepts are high. The band's ability to bob and weave through multiple and contrary moods and styles throughout the course of a single song made City of Evil such a wonderful experience, and, on Nightmare, the band does a remarkably amiable job of hearkening back to that technique. My theory is this: After seeing that much of their core fan base hated the turn they were taking with Avenged Sevenfold, the band decided to go back to the style that made them so beloved by fans like myself. The only consequence was that some of Nightmare's originality in practice was comprised.
However, what Nightmare may lack in originality from its obvious reference point, it makes up in being a genuinely enjoyable listen. "Nightmare", the album's first single, is excellent practice of Avenged's versatility; transitioning from the band's aforementioned trademark to a "Creeping Death"-style chant-along whose inclusion, alone, makes me want to go see the band on their next tour. "Buried Alive" has a similar approach, changing from a mid-tempo number rich in harmonies from guitarists Synyster Gates and Zachy Vengeance to a heavy, growling affair that climaxes in double-bass-aided triplets. Avenged separate their songs by tempo on Nightmare more than they did on City of Evil, but that does not mean that you should skip the ballads, because every single one of them is a keeper. M. Shadows even turns in a double-take-inducing vocal performance on "Tonight the World Dies" and ropes in an uncharacteristically memorable lyric in "Save Me" ("They say all beauty must die / I say it just moves on.")
Nightmare also nods to the band's first two albums with great success. The muffled screaming in the bridge of "God Hates Us" is the spitting image of late-career Phil Anselmo, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. And the metalcore riffage in "Save Me" shows that such a guitar technique can sound amazing when used in moderation.
And the band also nods to an introduction of new sounds that could be an indication of where the band will go, next. The whistling in "Danger Line" fits the song's funeral procession of an ending, wonderfully, and the "Great Gig in the Sky" singing that bookends "Victim" is surprising, but no less welcome than the throwbacks to City of Evil. A reason Nightmare has renewed my confidence in Avenged Sevenfold is because what I view to be the album's highlight lies in this category. A deliciously devious piano line opens penultimate track "Fiction", immediately separating the track from the rest of the proceedings. The song is, more or less, a ballad, but the unconventionally double-tracked vocals of M. Shadows and the last work recorded by The Rev keep your ears swimming in pure glee. The Rev's screaming of "Burn!" to the heavens would send chills down your spine whether the man was alive or dead. "Fiction" is the prime kind of expansion of sound that I would most likely applaud the band for on future releases.
Nightmare doesn't so much eclipse City of Evil as much as stand on its tippy-toes to maintain in its frame. However, as a standalone release, it is a truly remarkable accomplishment; given the circumstances, even greater. Those looking for Synyster Gates' guitar heroics in the vein of "Afterlife" or "Bat County" may be disappointed, as his sweeps and tapping are relegated to aural plaster, and are very rarely a prominent lead coat. Instead, Nightmare shows Avenged at a maturity that you would be hard pressed to find in bands that have been around for twice as long. There's no way of knowing where Avenged Sevenfold will go from here with one of their key songwriters missing in action. I believe, though, that Nightmare will recruit Avenged fans new and old to support the band for whatever direction that may be.