Johnny Christ / Avenged Sevenfold Info
As your nightmare comes to life… The members of Avenged Sevenfold were well into work on the album of their lives. Then, in an instant, their lives changed. The Rev had died. They hadn’t just lost their drummer. They’d lost a family member – a guy who was best friends with vocalist M. Shadows since second grade in the Orange County town of Huntington Beach, and with guitarist Synyster Gates since fifth grade. The Rev had established himself as one of the most astounding, musical drummers in rock. He was beloved not only by the band, but by their extended family that includes the fans, from the first few locals when Avenged Sevenfold started out more than a decade ago, to the millions who now cherish their albums and have seen their unforgettable concerts worldwide.
Nightmare, the album the band was working on when Jimmy Sullivan died in late December, was already shaping up to be a dark masterpiece, a concept album tracing a journey of madness, despair, and, yes, death. The songs forged all of what Avenged Sevenfold had done before into a visionary prism bringing out new range on one hand and a focused intensity on the other. They already stood as a culmination of the journey from the indie metal-and-beyond 1999 debut Sound the Seventh Trumpet (recorded when the members were each just 18), through the constantly surprising, startlingly boundary-busting City of Evil (2005), and Avenged Sevenfold (2007), which turned these five friends into a global rock force, with all the power of what had become a concert powerhouse (as captured in the 2008 CD/DVD release Live in the LBC & Rough Diamonds). But now real life – and real loss -- rendered that almost trivial.
Even continuing work on the album seemed impossible, unimportant for Shadows, guitarists Synyster Gates and Zacky Vengeance, and bassist Johnny Christ. “We were going to see if we could write another song or two,” says Shadows of the days following the Rev’s death. “And we couldn’t. We weren’t in the mood for it. Sitting there trying to figure out chord progressions and guitar parts felt ridiculous.” But soon the band realized that it was impossible for them not to continue, that it would be almost a betrayal of the Rev’s legacy and their love for him. He’d played an integral role in writing and crafting the tracks that had been demoed for the album. And just days before he died, he’d completed his ultimate accomplishment, baring his raw emotions in the song “Fiction” that now seemed to have foretold his own death and assured his friends in no uncertain terms that they had to carry on. Most of the lyrics were rewritten, drummer Mike Portnoy (of the band Dream Theatre) was brought in to do the Rev’s in-theory inimitable parts, producer Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre, Eminem, Regina Spektor) stayed on to help everyone rise to the now-transcendent occasion. “Nightmare” (the first single), “Welcome To The Family,” “Buried Alive,” “God Hates Us,” “Victims,” the closing epic “Save Me” – songs completed before and after the tragedy – all plumbed new depths of emotion and meaning.
Synyster Gates was moved to write lyrics for the first time, laying bare his grief on “So Far Away.” And Nightmare truly became the album of their lives, the album literally of the Rev’s life and an achievement for the ages documenting the most intense, personal experience these people could imagine. “It’s about how we were feeling at the time and are still feeling,” Shadows says. “When it first happens it’s much more intense. I realize now that we’re going to have to live with it and it’s never going to go away. The record is a lot different than if we hadn’t opened ourselves up right when it happened. We were more vulnerable and willing to put it out on the line.” Elegiac bells open first track “Nightmare,” quickly pushed aside by Portnoy's furious drumming evoking the Rev's seemingly incomparable sound pound-by-pound, soon joined by the madhouse guitars of Gates and Vengeance before Shadows invokes the disorienting mental maze of the title.
While there's a natural bleakness throughout the set – We all have emptiness inside, we all have answers to find, but you can’t win this fight, he sings in “Welcome To The Family” – there's also a great sense of self-discovery, epiphany, and redemption not just in the lyrics but in the scope of the inventive, engaging music. Two songs that quickly became anchors for the album were “Buried Alive” and “Victim,” the former an anguished cry of hopelessness, the latter seeking meaning in loss, with a soaring gospel-soul twist via wordless vocal touches by Clare Torry, recalling Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. “‘Victim’ is about the first day we found out,” says Shadows, who had been out of town when he got the news. “I came back, stuck in traffic, crying, talking to his mom. And everyone came to my house. So it’s about that, everyone gathering. Pretty deep but transparent at the same time. Very much describing everything, without any holding back. We did that so many ways on this record. Syn wrote 'So Far Away,' an open letter to him. And 'Buried Alive' is how we were feeling at the time — Can't breathe, the whole world has changed.” It was “Fiction,” the song the Rev had just finished, that helped lift any doubts about carrying on. “He wouldn’t have wanted us to stop, and if it had been any one of us, it would be the same,” says bassist Christ. “Especially since he had written the song. ‘Fiction’ is one hundred percent his. You want people to hear how brilliant Jimmy really was, his songwriting as well as drumming. A lot of people know how great a drummer he was, but few know what a big part he played in the writing.” “Fiction” makes for an emotional anchor to the album, even if the title now seems like sad irony. The words are at once disturbing and comforting: “I know you’ll find your own way, when I’m not with you tonight,” Sullivan wrote. “This song is the proof that every aspect of our friend and every aspect of Avenged Sevenfold is more than just a regular band,” says Vengeance. “Jimmy, talented guy that he was, wrote one of the most clairvoyant songs ever, basically telling everyone goodbye and finishing it days before he died and wanting it to be called ‘Death.’ It’s just a song unlike anything else I’ve ever heard. That’s what we call a true artist, who tried to create something that’s never been done, in a way that touches people. And his voice is on it – the only song with his voice on the album.” And it's with “Save Me” that the album – and the band – reach further and deeper than ever before, while at the same time coming full circle to the roots and the raw emotions of this adventure in living. “It's my favorite track,” says Shadows. “Very Rush, Dream Theatre, but with our own twists. We don't play too much and try to keep it focused. If you're going to make an 11-minute song you can't bore people. The riff is the first riff we made for this record. That dund-dund-dund thing, Jimmy was playing that, such a cool off-time thing. Coolest ever. That kick-drum pattern and then when he speeds up the snare, all over the place. We tried to write a song around it. Jimmy wrote a lot of the song – it was 15 minutes long and we started cutting it down. It was the first one we wrote and the last we finished. We had to get to the point where everything worked. I'm so proud of this. The ending is hard to listen to, but it’s a perfect thing. If you listen to it and let it go straight back to the beginning with 'Nightmare,' it comes full circle.”
As a whole, the album draws on everything from the earliest influences and inspirations that bonded the musicians in their youth to the vast spectrum of tastes these friends have developed over the years, reaching far outside the rock and punk universes one might expect. “We wouldn’t be Avenged Sevenfold if we didn’t experiment with every kind of music in our brains,” says Gates. “Coming from a background where we listened to so much music and having musicians who understand and can get inside the heads of people playing on those records and producing, this band has a talent for that. When we do go into other genres, it comes off naturally. We lived it and breathed it. Songs like 'Fiction' – that's a complete departure. To me that’s Jimmy and little bit of me from when we were kids, that’s how I knew him. Songs like 'Tonight The World Dies,' slower, but not a ballad. We grew up listening to Stone Temple Pilots and Alice In Chains, stuff like that. Then you have 'Save Me,' the quintessential Avenged Sevenfold song. Undoubtedly to me a future fan favorite.”
The two Mikes – Elizondo and Portnoy – each transcended anything conventional about their roles, rising to the occasion and beyond. Elizondo was on board when formal work on the album began, well before the Rev's passing. To some it seemed like an odd match, but not to the band. “He came to us wanting to do the record as a fan of the band and as a fellow musician,” says Vengeance. “His repertoire consisted of massive rap, and some country, pop, hip-hop.” It was that wide experience, and the fact that his credentials came from outside of metal, that appealed to A7X. The artists that this band most admired, he adds, made a point of going outside the bounds themselves. So a move like this made perfect sense. “For us it’s about surrounding ourselves with great people we love, and people passionate about Avenged Sevenfold. Everyone we work with is a fan first, and Mike was a huge fan of the band,” says M. Shadows. “To have someone who’s worked with Eminem and Dr. Dre come in and say, 'I truly love your band,’ means we have something more to offer. We're not a cliché metal band. People catch that we’re trying to do something different. Take chances. But especially now it's all about being real and using all our strengths. And he really understood that. He came in and got to spend time with us while we were working on the album with Jimmy, he got to see how magical Jimmy was. How loving and caring and funny and, obviously, one of the best drummers the Earth has ever known. He got to share our bond.”
Portnoy stepped into particularly dangerous territory, both in terms of the bands' and fans' emotions and expectations. But being a fan of both the group and the Rev himself, he approached it with a sense of respect to match his immense talent. “Mike is the sweetest person, a vessel for us to use and transfer Jimmy’s legacy through onto tape,” says Gates. “He said, 'I’ll spend three days giving three or four takes of each song. It ended up taking two and a half weeks, and he did it with a smile. He hung out, shared stories. He was our knight in shining armor.” Adds Vengeance, “He really helped us a lot, making sure every note was true to Jimmy. He made no apologies. He said this is how it had to be, note for note the way it was intended to be. He was an absolute pleasure to be around and a true fan of music and our band.”
Nightmare marks the beginning of a new era for Avenged Sevenfold, though just what that will be cannot be predicted. “That’s an unknown,” says Christ. “I can’t tell you what I’m going to feel like tomorrow. We want to get this out and tour, and then we’ll try our very best to push on and do what we do and continue the legacy. The goal from day one, when we said we were going to do this album, was that we weren't going to half-ass it. It is Jimmy’s record and the fans will love it. And we want everyone to understand what was going on in the process.”