By RJ Martin, Music Director
Within the landscape of mid-to-late-2000s butt-rock and post-hardcore, there are few acts that rose above the rest and created music that had staying power.
In fact, as far as I’m concerned, there may only be one that matters: Avenged Sevenfold. After putting out two independent records and rising to major-label stardom, Avenged has one of the greatest commercial success stories in modern rock ’n’ roll.
In true rockstar fashion, Avenged caught the attention of major record labels after their sophomore release, Waking The Fallen, and several stints at Vans Warped Tour. Their third album, City of Evil, was their major label debut that received critical acclaim and is still heralded as one of the best albums in modern heavy metal.
But we’re not talking about that album — we’re talking about their seminal fifth album, Nightmare. It’s the record that found its way onto almost every middle schoolers’ iPod in the 2010s; and by proxy, the record that I am most afraid of being declared “cringey” for liking at the ripe old age of 22. It isn’t even my favorite Avenged Sevenfold album, but I would still consider it a modern classic — nearly perfect front to back.
Coming off the heels of their self-produced self-titled record, the band immediately began writing and laying down Nightmare demos. Their process was halted by tragedy when their drummer, Jimmy “The Rev” Sullivan, tragically passed away.
Up until that point, many Avenged fans said that Sullivan was the backbone of the band. He was more than just an incredible drummer. Sullivan was the founder, the brains and the true genius of the group. That is certainly not to say that the rest of the group’s members aren’t geniuses; we will talk about that more later.
But it is important to understand the role that Sullivan played in the group, how much he contributed, and how the rest of the band moved forward after losing one of their closest friends.
The band had already demoed out a substantial set of songs and recordings before Sullivan’s passing, where many of his vocals and playings were recorded. Sullivan wrote the tracks “Buried Alive” and “Fiction” almost entirely himself, and laid down parts that later made it onto the record.
The rest of the album consisted of filling in the blanks and picking up where Sullivan left off. The band also faced the near impossible task of finding someone to replace Sullivan behind the kit, which was ultimately filled by the legendary Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater fame. Portnoy played the parts that Sullivan laid down, and even went on to tour with the band for the record’s cycle.
While it was impossible to replace Sullivan’s chops, Portnoy filled in where he had to, and made up the difference in the best possible way. Nightmare represents a new era for the band — a genesis of sorts — still holds up as a shining example of their work.
One thing Avenged Sevenfold has never lacked is attention to detail. With Nightmare clocking in at an hour and six minutes — only eleven songs — there is not a moment to be missed. Each song is an epic, in true Avenged-fashion; packed to the brim with excellent production choices that are the reason I adore the band. Even with an external producer stepping in, unlike their previous self-produced effort, the band’s stylistic choices are ever-present throughout the songwriting and production of Nightmare.
All members of Avenged are excruciatingly talented and use their abilities to contribute to the band’s definitive sound. From Matt Sanders’ beautifully layered vocals to the unbelievable guitar chops of Brian Haner, every song is busting with energy and virtuosity.
For me, this is what sets the band apart from their butt rock contemporaries that merit nothing more than an eye roll when they creep their way onto the radio. Every member of this group is an incredible musician and uses their abilities to make amazing production decisions.
Nightmare picks up partly where Sullivan left off and fills in the blanks with themes of death and passing. Sullivan himself penned the track “Fiction” — originally titled “Death” — which is the only track that his vocals ended up on.
After his passing, the band decided to name it “Fiction” in his honor, basing it off of one of his long-running nicknames. He also penned “Natural Born Killer” and “Buried Alive” on his own before he passed, both of which Sanders stepped in to finish. Tracks like “Victim” and “So Far Away” are direct homages to Sullivan and deal with the emotions surrounding his passing.
A lot of fans might tell you that one of the weak points of Nightmare is stacking four ballads almost back-to-back, with the only high energy intermission being “God Hates Us”; but I disagree. I think it plays to the strengths of the group’s incredible songwriting, providing a spotlight for their thoughtful and more pensive work.
“Tonight the World Dies” is one of the band’s most underrated pieces, and in my opinion, Sanders’ most impressive vocal work. The track is chilling, beautiful, and utterly momentous. The album opens with a couple of certified heavy metal bangers, with chugging and catchy riffs and insurmountable energy, and then builds momentum with the ballads in the back half before concluding with the epic “Save Me”.
“Save Me” feels like a last breath, but at the same time a triumph. Ringing in at ten minutes it’s the longest song on the record — beating out “Victim” by only three minutes — but not a second is wasted. It swells and rolls like waves with intricate instrumentation, riffs, and soaring vocal harmonies. It caps off the album in the most notable way possible and shows that the group can move on without Sullivan — possibly even becoming better than ever.
Don’t let Avenged Sevenfold be written off by eye-rolling and nose-sniffling music snobs. I am here to tell you that if you enjoy — or at the very least appreciate sheer musical talent and heavy metal — you should feel comfortable enjoying this band. Avenged’s virtuosity is unmatched and their talent unrivaled; you do not want to miss out on not only one of their best albums, but also one of the best rock albums of the past decade.