When the world lost insanely talented drummer James “The Rev” Sullivan in December 2009, fans were left to wonder about the fate of Avenged Sevenfold. Riding high off their 2007 self-titled release, the quintet were sitting pretty atop the Rock-n-Roll charts and it could have easily all come crashing down. Instead, the surviving members chose to soldier onward in their brother’s name, and on Tuesday, July 27th, 2010, Nightmare was issued as proof that these Californians were going to continue to make music foREVer.
The Grammy-nominated Avenged Sevenfold (or simply A7X), as you likely know if you’re reading this, formed in 1999 amid the Orange County Metalcore scene that birthed such bands as Eighteen Visions, Atreyu, Bleeding Through, and many more. It wasn’t until the Huntington Beach quintet’s 2005 disc, the platinum-selling City of Evil, that their music managed to break through onto the charts. A string of blockbuster albums followed as they continued to take over the world before, on December 28th, 2009, life offered up a sadistic plot twist.
For the remaining foursome—Vocalist M. Shadows, Guitarists Synyster Gates and Zacky Vengeance, and Bassist Johnny Christ—the decision to carry on seemed a no-brainer. Of course, at that time, no one could possibly know that it would be the album they were already hard at work writing that would deliver the group’s first No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart. Released in the U.S., Canada, and France on Tuesday, July 27th, 2010, Nightmare would go on to be certified Gold in the U.S. and UK, as well as Platinum in Canada.
Born of their very real emotional pain, Avenged Sevenfold truly were living their worst dreams as they continued to forge ahead with their fifth album. Turning to one of Sullivan’s music idols, ex-Dream Theater Drummer Mike Portnoy, to assist in the recording process, the band stepped into the studio with Producer Mike Elizondo (Eminem, Mastodon) and Engineer Andy Wallace (Guns N’ Roses, Linkin Park). Initially intending to draft a conceptual album the likes of Pink Floyd’s The Wall or Queensrÿche’s Operation: Mindcrime, the talented quartet would go on to create their most personal collection.
In fact, operating with a severed limb left the Californians brutally honest and raw, and made for some of their most emotionally heart-wrenching moments to date. Penned by Gates (whom, as you know, is actually Brian Haner Jr.) for his best friend, “So Far Away” features guest guitar work from his father, Brian Haner Sr. (affectionately known as Papa Gates)—whom you might recognize as Jeff Dunham’s one-time pal, Guitar Guy. A tender-hearted tribute that was initially intended for Gates’ grandfather, the ballad would go on to become a memorial to Sullivan during the band’s live performances and, a decade later, still continues to hold a place of honor in their set.
Then there are the heavier yet still moving tracks like the Shadows-penned “Buried Alive,” a melancholic lament highlighted by Gates’ beautifully weeping guitar that shifts into a demonic stomper with thick Thrash echoes. Another opening and bleeding sore, “Victim” showcases to the stunning guest vocals of Sharlotte Gibson, and sets the stage for the following offering, “Tonight the World Dies.” Here, bluesy grit dusts across our ears thanks to Gates’ slide guitar work, while Papa Gates returns to the fold to dish up a killer guitar solo. Colossal in its emotive impact, the unspoken words that hide amid the grief-stricken lyrics raise questions whose answers are not meant for anyone but the closest of friends and family.
Despite the focus on the deeply personal loss that anchors the disc, there were the staple bangers too. The very first track, as well as the lead-off single, the titular “Nightmare” sported a video that saw the guys spending time at an insane asylum (which was really the infamously haunted Linda Vista Hospital in L.A.). The visual homages to Sullivan ere endless, the video concluding with a shot of his drum kit just waiting for him to return. Appropriately, the album’s second track was also a rocker. Not the KoЯn track of the same name, “Welcome to the Family” allowed Portnoy’s drums to anchor Gates’ and Vengeance’s meandering guitar attack, paving the way for the march into the sinister “Danger Line.” One of two tracks that remained unchanged after Sullivan’s passing, it introduced strings and trumpet into the epic mix as it detailed the first-hand experiences of a soldier.
They did not stop there, though. Percussive insanity raced throughout “Natural Born Killer,” a quintessential A7X track. Similarly, the incendiary “God Hates Us,” pulverizes with screaming vocals and the raw bitterness of being left behind in a “total nightmare.” Meanwhile, in many ways the album’s finale, “Save Me,” stood as one of the offerings to bridge the gap between the blistering Metal attacks and the pain-filled, emotionally wrought odes to Sullivan (though, more often than not, brutal and personal were one and the same). At nearly 11 minutes, it marked yet another Avenged Sevenfold epic in the vein of “A Little Piece of Heaven.” Unfortunately, while the latter was a fictitious romp through the afterlife, this particular track documents the grief that the band struggled with after their loss. Melding beauty with brutality, the song opens to Christ pounding his bass in preparation for the arrival of his cohorts.
So while Nightmare is certainly chock full of bangers, for many the pièce de résistance would be “Fiction,” the final song written by Sullivan before his death, a startlingly prophetic three days later. Seemingly a letter from beyond the grave, or a well-planned goodbye, the haunting final line of “I know you’ll find your own way when I’m not with you tonight” lingers long after the listening session has ended. With exquisite piano work contributed by David Palmer, and the knowledge that the song was originally entitled “Death,” there is a tragic splendor to “Fiction” that is dramatically macabre.
In 11 songs (12 in its iTunes bonus edition), Nightmare was a loving testimonial from the band to a friend who was now so very far away. Thankfully, the reviews were largely positive but, as with anything, some people just didn’t get it. Others took a while to process the tragedy that paved the path to its recording, and struggled to grasp the evolution of Avenged Sevenfold as they left behind beasts and harlots in favor of their fallen friend. Clearly enough of the fandom adored the LP and felt compelled to grieve alongside Shadows, Gates, Vengeance, and Christ,, and it debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums Chart. Additionally, the LP hit No. 1 in Finland and made the Top 10 in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, and the UK.
A commercial success born of their darkest hour, Nightmare also heralded a new dawn for Avenged Sevenfold, who would go on to more heavily embrace a raw, classic Heavy Metal (NWOBHM, if you will), riff-oriented approach on 2013’s Hail to the King, before shifting gears to an artful departure with the Prog Rock influenced The Stage in 2016. But no matter where they have been or where they are headed, the Nightmare LP stands as a firm testament to the bonds of brotherhood, the awe-inspiring talents of a musician gone much too soon, and a Rock-n-Roll band with a deeply personal, pain-filled story to tell.