As a music reviewer, you begin to develop an intuitive sense of what to expect from an album. Either through past albums, band news reports or the paradigm of whatever metal splinter genre you are encountering, it’s easy to create a mindset for an album before you ever sit down and give it your full attention.
Generally, one of three things happens: Either you expect the album to be great and it is great, you expect it to be poor and it is poor, or in disappointing fashion, you expect greatness and are rewarded with mediocrity.
The rarest outcome a reviewer can experience is when you have the bar set low for an album, and it could clear a gold medal caliber high jump. I am pleased to say such is the case for Avenged Sevenfold’s spectacular new effort, “Nightmare.”
Going into the studio just after the death of James “The Rev” Sullivan, I wrongly assumed that Avenged Sevenfold would be a quivering mass of roiling emotional confusion; downtrodden men missing a brother in arms, trying to interpret both the meaning of their friend’s death, and his last musical writings. All this without the benefit of a Rosetta stone to help decipher The Rev’s final visions.
A lot of credit goes out to Mike Portnoy for stepping in and helping the band back to its feet. Not just his powerful and precise drumming, but his strength of character and friendship probably went a long way in making sure that “Nightmare” saw the light of day, if you’ll pardon a turn of phrase.
For years, I’ve thought of Avenged Sevenfold as a band with all the tools, but lacking a blueprint to give them direction. Finally, and in a bitter twist of fate, the band has turned the songwriting corner with this new album. Let’s face it, metal fans; more often than not, when critics and People In The Know talk about songwriting ability, they almost never bring up heavy metal. Metal, with rare exception (Iron Maiden perhaps,) is a genre built for speed and bravado, with song craft sometimes a distant third place.
In this instance, Avenged Sevenfold has actually composed pieces worthy of commendation. The synthesis of Metallica’s old-school guitar riffs and Guns n’ Roses-style grand choruses give the album a true sense of what we’ve come to consider the California metal sound. Normally, I wouldn’t fall for something that could be regarded as gimmicky, especially as “Danger Line” channels so many images of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” But damn it, something about it just works, especially as it dovetails into the charged and emotional “Buried Alive.” Everything dealing with the album’s emotional context is raw, but all the music is precise and measured. If “Nightmare” is not as lofty as a songwriter’s metal album, it is certainly an aficionado’s metal album. Nothing is cheap or contrived.
I can forgive the band for the heavy-handed, dramatic near-ballads “So Far Away,” and “Victim.” Given the unhealed wounds that the band is recovering from, subtlety would have seemed forced; fresh grief seldom brings acuity as its maiden.
The album’s strongest asset is that Avenged Sevenfold has finally found a way to seamlessly meld the brash with the smooth. Sections of pure speed metal ferocity are easily parlayed into hook-laden, harmonized bridges and choruses. Such is the case with the wonderfully dire and still electric title track and “Welcome to the Family.” Both are songs that make the transition from radio-friendly to radio-hostile as though it were instinct.
“Natural Born Killer” is the album’s best offering, despite all the press and fan attention dedicated to “God Hates Us.” “Natural Born Killer” is clearly a song written from anger and a desire to persevere, and the incessant pounding and head-banging rhythm bristle with attitude. Synyster Gates, as he does on the entire album, finds a solo that fits without being distracting.
Most importantly, from end to end, Gates lives within his own talents, and never tries to forge something that isn’t balanced. Even in the softer, stripped down songs like “Tonight the World Dies,” his playing is a comfortable accent to what’s going on in the melody. He fits right in the pocket of the music, and can swing between Slash and Randy Rhoads whenever it’s required.
It is singularly haunting to listen to The Rev’s co-lead vocals on “Fiction,” the last song he ever wrote and recorded for the band, literally days prior to his death. The song’s piano line is both dour and infectious, and gives the tune a nice depth.
While the more emotional second half doesn’t quite pop the same as the first half, the songs are unique and not just emotional for emotion’s sake. It would have been a cheap sell to write half-hearted songs of sadness and get away with it. Critics would have allowed it to happen, written the album off as a throwaway put together under duress and waited patiently for the inevitable comeback three or four years down the road. Much to Avenged Sevenfold’s credit, they refused to mail it in, and instead instilled a fighter’s confidence into the nastier songs.
“Save Me” is a fitting coda to an otherwise excellent effort. Sure, it’s on the doorstep of eleven minutes, but like so much other content that “Nightmare” has to offer, it just plain works. Gates’ guitar is precise throughout and prevents the song from going stale.
I am willing to forgive this album’s minor shortcomings in favor of its triumph as a stellar piece of metal song craft. “Nightmare” is heavy-handed and occasionally shallow, but it’s not boring, not repetitive and not defeatist. The first five songs alone are inspired, eclectic and unique, more so than any combination of songs I’ve heard this year.
“Nightmare” is a testament to just how good Avenged Sevenfold can be. It’s a damn shame The Rev isn’t here to see it.