Saturday, May 28, 2011

Avenged Sevenfold Nightmare

On Christmas 2009, Jimmy "The Rev" Sullivan handed in a demo for a song he had written entitled "Death" and proclaimed, "That's it, that's the last song for this record." Three days later, the Avenged Sevenfold drummer was found in his home, dead from a lethal mix of prescription drugs and alcohol. On Tuesday, A7X will release that record, now called Nightmare, which is not only the last physical recording of The Rev's legacy, but also his tribute.

Musically, Nightmare picks up where 2007's self titled release left off. The sonic maturation that A7X has shown on every disc continues not only instrumentally but also in the vocal timbre of singer M. Shadows. Long gone is the blood curdling screamer from Waking the Fallen; what remains in his stead is a hard rock voice with a strength and tone no less unique than the icons known only by one name: Ozzy. Halford. Dio. (Shadows? Perhaps, if A7X continues on the path they seem to be destined for.)

As Virgil led Dante through Hell, so Shadows leads us through the band's own descent into darkness, greeting us on the album opening title track, "Now your nightmare comes to life!" What follows is vintage Sevenfold: tight, syncopated guitars over a steady and churning rhythm section that veer off into chaotic but melodically fluid harmony guitar leads and blistering technical solos. Synyster Gates and Zacky Vengeance can arguably be called the greatest guitar duo since the turn of the century and certainly have earned the right to be named among such stalwarts as Downing/Tipton, Murray/Smith, and Degarmo/Wilton.

With such familiarity emanating from the speakers, it's easy to forget that The Rev isn't holding it all together, as he always had before. In his place is Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy, who along with the always capable Johnny Christ on bass make up the backbone of A7X on Nightmare and the subsequent tour. Considered by many (and also The Rev) to be one of the greatest living drummers in the world, Portnoy shows admirable restraint and respect for his late predecessor, remaining as true as possible to The Rev's written parts from the demo versions of the album's tracks. That's not to say his mark isn't on it however. "Natural Born Killer" is classic Portnoy with an extreme double bass section punctuated by his single signature splash hit. The rocker is also indicative of the album as a whole and most likely predictive of A7X's future.

While it starts out with an almost grindcore passage of metal brutality, "Natural Born Killer" is, for all intents and purposes, a hard rock song. And while also containing more than a few moments of metal brilliance, Nightmare is, in fact, very much a hard rock album. At this point it shouldn't really surprise anyone - the biggest stylistic change from metalcore to melodic metal happened between Waking the Fallen and City of Evil and all the "hardcore" fans who complained about the band "selling out" at that time are (hopefully) long gone. Since then, the band has continued to gradually evolve into what they are today.

Avenged Sevenfold haven't abandoned their roots though. Songs like "Buried Alive" and "God Hates Us" feature some Metallica inspired thrash that would make any metalhead proud. And these songs don't come off as bones thrown to older fans - they're very much a part of who A7X still is and probably, to some extent, always will be. But the majority of riffs and rhythms throughout Nightmare rely more on blues based progressions than ever before. A perfect example of this is "Tonight the World Dies," a dirty bayou blues rocker with some wicked slide guitar work reminiscent of a Louisiana voodoo version of STP's "Interstate Love Song."

There are a few missteps. "Danger Line" comes off as generic and uninspired and probably shouldn't have been programmed so high up in the track listing. The play-by-numbers metal ballad chorus of "Buried Alive" is a letdown after a wonderful opening filled with Zeppelin melancholy. And whoever mixed the album should be ashamed that Johnny Christ is buried so deep. But in the grand scheme of things, none of this matters.

The central and most important focus of Nightmare are the lyrics and the overarching theme of death as well as the guilt, bitterness, and doubt of those left behind. Equal parts diary and therapy, the album is unapologetically the bared soul of lives torn apart by The Rev's tragic ending. "Will you stay away forever? How will I live without the ones I love?" sings Shadows on "So Far Away," an intimate letter to The Rev; a song of all the things that remain unsaid, of the feelings that we all take for granted in our most precious relationships. It's heartbreaking - but not without hope as Shadows knows he will be reunited with his friend again admitting, "I'll see you...when He lets me."

It all culminates with the final song that The Rev turned in last Christmas, now called, "Fiction." Written before his death, the symphonic epic sends chills to hear the foreshadowing in The Rev's own words, "Left this life to set me free, took a piece of you inside of me. Now this hurt can finally fade, promise me you'll never be afraid." In the ultimate emotional turn, The Rev's own vocals were left in the recording and they are soul crushing as he sings, "I know you'll find your own way when I am not with you." His voice fades out and Shadows picks up his part, and his burden as the one left behind. The song is a masterpiece and the greatest gift The Rev could have left for us.

The album closes with Save Me, a perfect bookend to the album opener. Opening with a discordant instrumental symbolizing the attempted escape from the hour-long Nightmare, the song continues to chronicle the theme of being left behind and the pleas to join The Rev in the afterlife. The realization arrives that the "nightmare" of The Rev's passing may feel like a dream but they will inevitably awake into a reality where he is gone and nothing will bring him back. Although still angry and bitter, Shadows know he must go on alone and begs, "Help me find my way." And though he can't join his friend yet, he knows that they will always be connected as he repeats, "Tonight we all die young," until the album comes to its end.

For better or worse, Nightmare can only be judged in light of the tragic events that preceded it. Because of that, it's hard to critique an album where the listener transcends the musical experience to become a voyeuristic observer of the bands grief and recovery process. But while uncomfortable at times, it is ultimately hopeful, and needs to be recognized as not only an important addition to the A7X discography but also a powerful statement about losing the ones we love and living in the aftermath.

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