Going into Nightmare I felt that Avenged Sevenfold had something to prove. Their last full album was 2007′s self-titled release and it was a big let down. It was not completely bereft of decent cuts but it did not live up to the promise of their breakout album City of Evil. Avenged Sevenfold felt like a rush job that was trying way too hard to be another City of Evil. Sure, the band had heavy expectations following the heights reached with City, I understand that. I also understand that their label was likely pressuring them to put out a similar sounding follow up. With all of that said, Nightmare is a big step forward for the group and they may just be moving on to the next level of their creative output.
Now don’t get too far ahead. This is a step in the right direction but it is not going to change anyone’s world and if you already don’t care for them this is not likely to change that. This is, after all, still the same Avenged Sevenfold that you either love or hate. No sooner had they exploded back in 2005 that a backlash built up. The band had changed their style somewhat, most notably with M. Shadows abandoning of his screaming from their first two albums and there were many who did not really care for this. I am sure there was a good reason for the change, much like the change in David Draiman of Disturbed’s vocal style. Still, many didn’t like this while many did. This album is a natural progression for them in their post-City of Evil career.
Before getting any further there is a personnel change from their last album. Late year drummer The Rev passed away unexpectedly, leaving behind friends and loved ones and a band to pick up the pieces. The band has moved forward but have not yet found a replacement drummer. Sitting in on this album and on their initial tour in support of it is Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy, one of the best in the biz. He does an admirable job of filling for the late Rev, who was quite a good drummer in his own right. Portnoy has stepped in and it does not sound like they have missed a beat, he sounds perfectly at home with A7X, while bringing that distinct Portnoy style with him.
I was really looking forward to Nightmare, after the last disappointment I had a feeling they were going to come back strong and they did not disappoint. The differences have started from the bottom an go all the way to the top. What do I mean by that? Simply put, their songwriting has improved. The past couple of albums have had their share of gimmicky-type songs (like “A Little Piece of Heaven”) and a lot of shredding (no problem there, for the most part). This album feels like there was a lot more attention paid to the development of the song. There has been a cutback on the solos and no gimmick tracks. The songs have a better focus on what they want to be and they go right for it.
Nightmare is filled with the good grooves and high drama that has typified their music for awhile now. They still remind me of an ’80s glam act (like LA Guns) that has been transported trough time and has found a way to update their music to be relevant to the current time frame while losing none of the swagger that attracted the fans in the first place.
Let’s move on to a few of the tracks, shall we?
The album kicks off with the title track. “Nightmare” begins with a chime sequence that leads into a flurry of drum beats and the entrance of the guitars that get right down to business. The track has an eerie aura to it while Shadows vocals and the guitars from Zacky Vengeance and Synyster Gates keep the momentum moving forward. It is like running down hill, you can’t stop it.
“Danger Line” opens with a drum march sound that leads into a dramatic lead run/melody. It is a pretty cool open that leads to a nicely muted guitar chords and an understated vocal open from Shadows. Of course, this doesn’t last long as the song gathers up a head of steam that begs you to rock along to it and sing along, for the first half anyway. The second half of the song slows down and brings in some piano and horn (yes, horn) with a slowed down guitar. I guess that’s what happens when the danger line is crossed.
Track four brings us the first of the mellower tunes with “Buried Alive.” The opening guitars remind me of stuff I heard twenty years ago. It is nice, clean, and quite morose. It is backed by a string section until the rest of the band comes in and cements the downer atmosphere. This is vintage A7X drama. It builds throughout its 6:44 time, picking up some speed and heavier guitars while not sacrificing what was built earlier.
“Natural Born Killer” may be the heaviest song on the Nightmare. It begins amidst a heavy guitar riff, a flurry of guitars and culminates with a bit of an old school scream. Mike Portnoy really cuts loose on his fills here. I can almost seem him beating up his drum kit on this track.
We transition from the prior heaviness into an acoustic driven ballad in “So Far Away.” Brings the tempo down a little bit and injects the emotional quotient, which has been a big part of their music. These guys are not shy to bust out a slow tune and play to the sappy side of the coin. The use of strings and a vocal choir just add to the effect.
To make sure we don’t forget they have an aggressive side, “God Hates Us” follows the ballad and begins very much like a ballad until the :45 mark where the heavy distorted guitars and double bass kick in. This is also the closest we get to hearing M. Shadows scream for any length of time. It is an aggressive track that wants you to walk away with a sore throat.
“Victim” opens with a guitar line backed by a low hum, female vocals, and a bell. It sounds like the precursor to a shootout in the old west. Then the female vocal steps to the front and frankly sounds a little weird. All of it feeds another slowed down song with acoustic guitar entering the mix. The song has a nice flow to it until the end when the female vocal returns to the mix. It sounds a little like something I would hear in a U2 song.
Next up is “Tonight the World Dies,” featuring some more acoustic guitar and electric slide. It is a nice mix that feeds a dramatic build through the middle portions. This may be the most out and out dramatic delivery on the whole album. The title certainly feeds into it. Never do anything small, you know?
“Fiction” opens with a piano and male choir hum that sounds like it belongs on Broadway. I was half expecting to turn around and see the Phantom of the Opera behind me. As much as I like that part, the vocals feel very off to me. At times, mostly towards the end, it sounds like the vocals are being sung through his nose. It sounds awful.
Rounding out the collection is the nearly 11-minute long “Save Me.” The opening with the bass and cymbal combination reminds me of “Blind” by Korn but that doesn’t last long before the trademark A7X sounds kicks in. Of course, this does not last long as the track takes on an epic feel with the open sound followed by some whisper-screamed vocals around the 2-minute mark before the song truly begins to take shape.
You know, this really is an entertaining album. Not exactly great, but the songs, for the most part, have a stronger focus and feel like they were written by a band that has been working hard towards that goal. Perhaps they realized the mistake they made with the last album and chose to step up their game. Maybe they just got lucky. I cannot say.
What I can say is that there is a lot of good stuff to enjoy here. They make big arena-filling music that is filled dramatic posturing the likes of which we don’t really hear anymore. These guys take me back to my early days of music while still feeling perfectly at home on today’s popular scene.
Bottomline. Listen to Nightmare, enjoy Nightmare. It is really as simple as that.