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.”