In January, sitting at the funeral for Avenged Sevenfold drummer Jimmy "The Rev" Sullivan, one had to wonder what was next for the surviving four "brothers in arms" from Huntington Beach.
They had been about to enter the studio at the time of the tragic loss, and Jimmy himself had been working on some demos for inclusion on the new set. Would they continue? Could they go on? Perhaps most importantly, who would be sitting behind the drum kit?
Well, here we are in August, and the questions have been definitively answered. The band's new release, "Nightmare," just became the No. 1 CD in the country after bumping Eminem from the slot. And legendary drummer Mike Portnoy from the band Dream Theater dutifully picked up the sticks not just for the record, but for the current tour as well.
Portnoy, one of Jimmy's musical heroes, was honored. As he told me in a recent interview, "This was a chance for me to pay tribute to the Rev in a special way. I feel like these are my brothers now as well, and being accepted a part of the Avenged family for this project is an honor."
After listening to the CD (the band's fifth, starting with 2001's "Sounding the Seventh Trumpet") a couple of things seem clear. This band answered their loss with honest, heartfelt emotion. And Portnoy was the right man for the job. This ferocious mentor plays with an inspired fury, as if his younger compatriots are pushing him into newer realms.
Rather than a precise track-by-track review, I'd like to my offer my general comment of the CD, because it seems to consume the listener as a sum of its parts.
The opening title track sets the tone for everything that follows. An eerily melodic, black-light roller coaster ride through hell, "Nightmare" lets it be known that anyone who doubted this band would go for the throat was woefully mistaken.
The A7X trademarks are all in place. Shiny-black, Metallica-esque chords and sinewy lead guitars from Synyster Gates and Zacky Vengeance that curl together in ghoulish sonic vortexes. Johnny Christ's steady, white-knuckle bass patterns. And intense, passionate vocals (with the occasional beast master hell-howl) from vocalist M. Shadows.
New to the mix, though, is a desperation, perhaps borne of fury and loss, that gives the band a fresh urgency. They're growing up. Dealing with life and death. Playing for their lives, and for the life of their fallen brother.
"Welcome to the Family," "Danger Line" and "Natural Born Killer" deliver more of the almost militarily-precise metallic onslaught, the psycho frenzy that the fans adore. But as hard as they pummel you, the band is just as effective at caressing the listener. "Tonight The World Dies" is a plaintive, lighter-in-the-air, mid-tempo plea that evokes blood, sweat and tears — lots of tears.
Then there is "Fiction." It's primarily one of Sullivan's creations, and I had the chance to hear the demo of this song that the Rev had been working on just days before his death (thanks to his parents, Joe and Barbara Sullivan). Hearing how the band helped the song evolve is interesting. While still maintaining the dark, ethereal mood of the demo, they added enough paint and polish to turn it into what it deserves to be: an original five-man collaboration that is sure to force a tear from many of the band's faithful.
Barbara Sullivan offered this to me on "Nightmare": "I have yet to listen to this album without tears, but I am glad that the band was able to channel their grief into finishing Jimmy's and their last songs. This is an amazing album and I thank Matt, Brian, Zack and Johnny. I am particularly moved by 'So Far Away.' Brian's written expression of the grief over losing Jimmy, and Matt's gut-wrenching vocals, are an incredible tribute to our loss.
"I would like to take a moment to talk about the song 'Fiction.' It has saddened me to see so many questions and comments from the fans wondering if this might be a suicide note from Jimmy, and realizing they are missing the point. Remember that this was originally a 'concept' album about worst nightmares. This song, that Jimmy originally titled 'Death,' contains the hopeful thoughts of a person dying, but the effect on the listener was Jimmy's worst nightmare ... loved ones left behind suffering. It is really ironic that the guys had to record it and we have to hear it after losing Jimmy. He loved life, and was really looking forward to recording and touring again with his best friends."
The CD closes with the sprawling epic "Save Me." Shadows sings at the end, "Tonight we all die young," perhaps a fitting collective coda as the band prepares to ascend to higher levels on the creative coil.
On that note, welcome to their "Nightmare." No. 1 with a bullet (or two). Direct from Huntington Beach, a sonic tidal wave, a call to arms, a midnight scream muffled by a sweat-soaked pillow.
The collection that I think will come to define this awesome band.
The collection that no doubt will resonate with its passionate fan base, now and FoREVer.