The list of bands that have tragically lost a member to death reads like a who's who of rock royalty: The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Grateful Dead, Queen, The Doors, The Beach Boys, Lynryd Skynyrd, Ramones, AC/DC, Def Leppard, Nirvana and Metallica, just to name a few. The California metal band Avenged Sevenfold is the latest to join that inglorious list. On Dec. 28, 2009, the band's drummer, Jimmy "The Rev" Sullivan was found dead at his home. Toxicology reports later revealed that the 28-year-old died of a prescription drug overdose.
But as so many bands have done before, Avenged Sevenfold plays on. Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy, Sullivan's hero, has been enlisted to fill in on Nightmare. Not surprisingly, death features heavily on nearly every track of this fifth release (and first chart-topper). But unlike, say, AC/DC's raucous—trivial—tribute to frontman Bon Scott after his death (Back in Black), Avenged Sevenfold deeply explores the subject from several different perspectives—some of them jarring.
"So Far Away" pays tribute to a lost friend ("How do I live without the ones I love?/ … I have so much to say, but you're so far away"). It also imagines a reunion in the next life (though, if heaven is the preferred site for that meeting, it offers no detail about how one gets there): "'Cause as soon as I'm done, I'll be on my way/To live on eternally." Coping with grief is also the theme of "Victim" and "Tonight the World Dies." The later includes a lyric that hints at the need for forgiveness ("I run away with you tonight/Launder all my sins away"). "Save Me" pleads for guidance in the aftermath of a friend's death ("I'm trapped in a vile world/ … I can use some guiding light/ … If you hear me, let me know/Help me find my way"). "Fiction," written and sung by Sullivan, says, "I hope you'll find your own way when I'm not with you."
"Nothing shocks you like a bullet hole," begins "Danger Line." Then the song describes what happens as a soldier slowly bleeds to death: He remembers better times, sends a last message to his daughter and finds himself hoping God might save his soul ("I never put my faith in up above/But now I'm hoping someone's there/ … Remind the Lord to leave His light on for me").
"Nightmare" is written from the perspective of demons telling a new arrival in hell that he's there because of his poor choices: "Dragged you down below/Down to the devil's show/ … You should have known the price of evil/And it hurts to know that you belong here/ … Drenched in sin/With no respect for another." Similarly sobering spiritual consequences await someone on "Buried Alive" ("Shame to find out/When it's too late/ … Trapped inside, inferno awaits").
For all that, though, Nightmare's problematic moments are, well, fairly nightmarish. Though it's written from the point of view of demons, lines about God on "Nightmare" could be misinterpreted. One says, "Hate to twist your mind/But God ain't on your side." Similarly, "God Hates Us" contrasts the phrases, "God save us/God save us all/God hates us/God hates us all." The song perhaps hints at addiction, but the outcome is still bleak ("God hates us all/Total nightmare/Total nightmare"). "Victim" alludes to rejecting well-meant messages about finding salvation ("So don't need your salvation/With promises unkind/All those speculations/Save it for another time").
Despair gets the last word on "Welcome to the Family" ("We all have emptiness inside/We all have answers to find/But you can't win this fight"), and death seems overwhelming on "Buried Alive." "Natural Born Killer" raises the specter of an angry man refusing to die alone—by taking someone with him.
Four songs include f-words. CD sleeve images are of vengeful skeletons, some of which (made to resemble the band) are drinking and smoking.
Avenged Sevenfold is a frustrating band to review. Just when I think, That's an amazing insight, or, These guys are being pretty vulnerable there, I get knocked down by obscenities or angry, confused recriminations against God. So when their songs occasionally seem to be on the cusp of getting some important spiritual ideas right, it just makes the stuff in the "nightmare" column that much more maddening.