Avenged Sevenfold: Afterlife

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Originally published in Guitar World, October 2010

Following the death of their drummer, the Rev, Avenged Sevenfold carry on with a dark new album, Nightmare. Zacky Vengeance and Synyster Gates talk about making the toughest record of their career.

Back in November of 2009, the members of Avenged Sevenfold were deep into writing what would become their fifth studio effort, the newly released Nightmare. At the time, guitarist Zacky Vengeance, in a posting to the band’s official web site, assured fans that the material they were working up would take the listener on a “very dark journey.” He wasn’t exaggerating: the new album, the follow-up to the band’s 2007 self-titled disc, is at turns angry, haunting and downright bleak.

But in the months since Vengeance wrote those words, the impetus behind the music’s mood changed dramatically. On December 28 of last year, the band’s 28-year-old drummer, Jimmy “the Rev” Sullivan, was found dead in his home from an accidental overdose of prescription medication and alcohol. Suddenly, the darkness that the band had been conjuring in the studio—A7X’s original intent was to forge a song cycle that explored societal ills—became something much more real, and enveloped their music and lives completely.

“We wound up recording this album during the hardest time in our lives, the darkest time in our lives, the most insecure, vulnerable and uncertain time in our lives,” Vengeance says. “And each day was just a battle.”

What resulted from the sessions is an album that not only stands as a tribute to their fallen mate but also represents the drummer’s final recorded document with the band. Though he does not play on the album (Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy handled all the drum parts in the studio, based on patterns the Rev had worked up), Sullivan helped compose much of the material, and his musical fingerprints as a drummer and songwriter are all over Nightmare’s 11 songs, from the frantic blast-beat rhythms of “Natural Born Killer” to the soaring melodies of the title track and the multi-tiered grandness of the 10-minute-plus closer, “Save Me.”

Furthermore, in one instance, his voice literally rings out loud and somewhat clear. For the elegiac piano ballad, “Fiction,” the band lifted Sullivan’s scratch vocal from a demo—including eerily clairvoyant phrases like, “I know you’ll find your own way when I’m not with you,” sung in a slurred and unsettling voice—and dropped it into the final mix. He had recorded the part just days before his death.

“I think that was kind of his way of telling us good-bye,” says co-guitarist Synyster Gates. “Usually when we go in to cut demos, one of us will lay down some mumbling sort of stuff for the vocal melodies, because the lyrics don’t come until later. But this was one of the few times that Jimmy actually used real words when he was doing the scratch vocal. First take, he went right up to the mic, and what came out were these dark lyrics. It was kind of babbling, and it was a little creepy, and also a little weird. But we didn’t think too much about it at the time. Listening to it now, though, it’s like he knew or something. And it’s mind-blowing to hear that.”

“Overall,” Vengeance adds, “I play the album now and there’s stuff on it that still makes me cry.” But, he admits, “it’s weird: even though it’s really hard to listen to, at the same time it gives me a good feeling. Because I think of what we’ve gone through and what this record means to us and it’s like, Fuck, we just did something that’s really magical.”

Heavy metal music has always traded on deathly imagery to great effect, and Avenged Sevenfold are hardly exempt from following in this tradition. After all, their demonic-looking mascot is known as the Deathbat. But it is safe to say that they never envisioned producing something as morbid and chilling as Nightmare. In fact, when they came off the road in the summer of 2009, the band members—Vengeance (given name: Zachary Baker), Gates (Brian Haner Jr.), Sullivan, singer M. Shadows (Matt Sanders) and bassist Johnny Christ (Jonathan Seward)—were in particularly high spirits. They had spent almost two years touring the world behind their self-titled disc, during which time they built heavily on the success that had been touched off by that album’s predecessor, 2005’s breakthrough City of Evil.

“After City of Evil, the world was still kind of apprehensive about Avenged Sevenfold,” Vengeance says of the album that saw the band complete its transformation from Warped-style Orange County metalcore kids to full-fledged heavy metal giants. “They didn’t know if we were a serious band or just some kids trying to play really ambitious music with crazy guitar parts that would be here one minute and gone the next. So we said, ‘You know what? We’re going to go in, write some great songs, produce it ourselves, and just do whatever we want. And Avenged Sevenfold really captured where we were at, just having a good time making music. And I think we started earning more respect, and we brought that on tour and people really responded to it.”

Avenged Sevenfold capped off the touring campaign for the self-titled record with a triumphant appearance in August 2009 at the Sonisphere festival in the U.K., where, alongside Metallica, they served as headliners for one of the event’s main stages. However, when they reconvened later that fall in Southern California to begin writing songs for the follow-up effort, they took inspiration not from their own experiences but rather from the turmoil they saw in the world around them. “As we were finishing up our touring it looked like the world had plunged into chaos,” Vengeance says. “People were losing their homes, banks were crashing, everything was in disorder. And we would see the effects of what was going on as we traveled from town to town on the road. Meanwhile, we grew up in Orange County, where guys we went to high school with drive around in hundred-thousand-dollar cars, giving out loans for houses that no one can afford, and getting rich off it. And you just sit there and go, This is really fucked up. So we thought this was something that needed to be looked at, and as a result the songs started taking on this dark vibe.”

By mid December, the majority of the new material had been written, arranged and demoed, minus much of the lyrics and vocals. Avenged Sevenfold planned to take a break over the holidays and begin recording in the first days of the new year. On December 27, the band members spent the evening together at a close friend’s wedding in Huntington Beach, celebrating in large—and drunken—style, and none more so than the Rev, who could usually be found at the center of any inebriated gathering. On this particular night, however, the alcohol combined with the prescription medication already in his system with deadly consequences (it was also later reported that Sullivan had an enlarged heart). The next morning, the drummer was found dead in his home. Says Vengeance, “On that day, I got a call that changed my life, for the rest of my life. And right there, at that point everything that we’d all worked so hard for from the minute we first picked up instruments and started making music—it was all gone. Nothing mattered. It felt done.”

Despite the fact that they were sitting on an album’s worth of material ready to be recorded, for the moment Avenged Sevenfold considered themselves finished. In addition to being their bandmate, Sullivan was a main songwriter and, more importantly, a close friend to everyone in the group. The members had grown up together, and Sullivan, who had played with Gates in a pre-Avenged project named Pinkly Smooth, was largely responsible for bringing the guitarist into the fold. With the drummer gone, a seemingly insurmountable chasm had opened. “For weeks afterward we weren’t a band anymore,” Gates says. “We were just friends taking care of each other. The band wasn’t mentioned once. And when the discussion finally did start happening, it was like, ‘I don’t really see how we can be a band without Jimmy. I don’t see how it’s really possible.’ So it just seemed like maybe it was time to throw in the towel. Like, fuck it, you know?”

But the outpouring of support from fans and, in particular, the Sullivan family, whom Gates calls “the greatest group of people in the world,” convinced them otherwise. Slowly, the band got to a place where they were ready to work again. “We manned up and got back in the studio,” Gates says. “And fortunately for us we had all the songs written. So we didn’t have to think too much. Our brains could be filled with all the other bullshit, because all we had to do was the grunt work.”

Before recording could get underway, however, the band was faced with the task of finding a drummer to fill Sullivan’s sizeable shoes. Enter Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy. “Mike is a fan of our band and was a huge fan of Jimmy’s,” Vengeance says. “And as far as Jimmy was concerned, Mike was his favorite drummer. So we reached out to him, and he basically said, ‘I’m really busy with Dream Theater and a few other projects, but I’d love more than anything to help you guys out.’ And it just so happened that he was available when we needed him. So that was our first ray of hope.”

In late March of this year, Avenged Sevenfold left Southern California and headed north to Westlake Village and Phantom Studios, a facility owned by producer Mike Elizondo, who manned the boards for Nightmare. The recording sessions spanned roughly two months, though according to Vengeance, “The whole thing was kind of a blur. I don’t even remember what we laid down first. I just remember there being this sense of relief that we were there, because just a few weeks prior it seemed like the band was over. But this was at least taking one small step in the right direction: You’re being productive instead of just sitting at home. You’re making music with your friends again. You have your drummer’s favorite drummer of all time there with you. And the songs just started coming together.”

For their parts on the album, the guitarists stuck primarily to their signature Schecter models, the Vengeance Custom and the Synyster Custom. To add color, Gates also employed a variety of other axes, including a Les Paul, a Stratocaster, a Telecaster and a Gibson ES-335. “I used my Schecter for all my rhythms and most of my solos, certainly the fast solos,” Gates says. “And then for some different textures I would use whatever the song called for. I also had a prototype Schecter Royal acoustic that I played for a couple of cool, over-the-top, weird things. And for the big, bright acoustic parts I generally used Taylors.”

For Vengeance, the fact that he is a left-handed player meant that his guitar choices were somewhat limited. “Mike Elizondo had an incredible array of guitars in the studio, but they were all right-handed,” he says with a laugh. “So when it came to trying out his Fifties Tele or busting out the vintage Les Paul, it was always up to Syn to take those parts. But I didn’t mind. I love my Schecters, and the company also made me a one-of-a-kind lefty Tele-type guitar that’s incredible and that I was able to use on the album. And then I also had a couple of Nash guitars that Bill Nash gave to me, which were originally made for [Cars guitarist] Elliot Easton, another lefty. Those are some of the most fun guitars I’ve played in my life, and they sound incredible.”

The primary amplifier sound for both guitarists on the record is a combination of several different models: a Bogner Uberschall, a Diezel and two Marshalls, a JVM and a JCM800. According to Vengeance, it’s the Uberschall in particular that’s at the heart of the Avenged Sevenfold tone. “The one we use is the very first Bogner we ever got, many years ago. It’s always been completely on the fritz. I don’t know if the tubes are messed up or what, but the fucking thing sounds unbelievable. The way it breaks up is like nothing else. So it’s our magical go-to amp. Then for the more straight-up rock-style material, we’d dig into Mike’s collection of little combo amps and pull out some cool old stuff. But in general, the Bogner-Diezel-Marshall blend was our fail-safe, and that took us through the recording.

“But it’s weird, because to talk about the specifics of what we did and the gear we used—in a way I don’t even know how the whole thing got done. In the end, we listened back to the record and it was like, How the fuck did we do that? We don’t even know. But what we did captured a moment in time and a feeling that can never be replicated. Because it wasn’t just about recording songs; it was literally about documenting through music what we were all feeling. All the anger, all the frustration, all the sadness—it’s there on the album.”

Indeed, what is there on Nightmare is a sound that is clearly Avenged Sevenfold, only darker. The album opens with two songs, “Nightmare” and “Welcome to the Family,” that are the sort of concise and straightforward thrashers the band excels at, replete with widescreen choruses, hooky, harmonized dual leads and Gates’ acrobatic, shredding solos. From there, things take a more foreboding turn. Tracks like “Natural Born Killer” and “God Hates Us” are among the most extreme in the band’s catalog, with pummeling blast-beat drumming (the former) and serrated guitars and raw-throated screams (the latter) that reflect the tumultuous circumstances under which they were recorded. “Danger Line,” meanwhile, gallops briskly on a menacing, tightly syncopated riff and rapid-fire drums, only to downshift to a coda that combines somber piano, bleating trumpet, martial drums and M. Shadows’ gentle whistling. It’s a combination meant to suggest, in Gates’ words, a military funeral.

And then there are the songs that addressthe Rev’s death more directly: the aforementioned “Fiction,” on which Shadows “duets” with Sullivan’s demo scratch vocal, and also the largely acoustic “So Far Away,” with words and music written by Gates in tribute to his grandfather, but whose chorus refrain of “How do I live without the ones I love?” now applies as fittingly to the deceased drummer.

But the track that perhaps most evocatively conjures the feeling within the band in the days surrounding the Rev’s passing is “Victim,” which opens with the chiming of a church bell, accompanied by a spare, clean electric guitar part from Gates, and ends with Shadows repeatedly singing the phrase “I’m missing you,” as a female voice erupts in amournful wail. Says Vengeance, “That song is literally a musical take on the days leading up to Jimmy’s wake and funeral. It’s us driving to the church for Jimmy’s services, or sitting in Matt’s living room, surrounded by pictures and candles and hundreds of flower arrangements as the phone rings off the hook with condolence calls. Just all these moments where we were completely numb. It was like being in a bad movie or something, and we really wanted to capture what that felt like. And I think with ‘Victim’ we did. Every time I hear it, it brings me back to those days.

“In general,” he continues, “every song on the album recalls a real memory from that time in our lives. And now those memories are out there, they’re documented, and hopefully, that will help us to begin to move on.”

For Avenged Sevenfold, the next step in the process of moving on is to return to the road, get up in front of their fans and bring the new material to life. First up in this regard is the inaugural Rockstar Energy Uproar tour, which they’re currently co-headlining with Disturbed. Following that, the band heads to Europe for a headlining swing with Stone Sour in tow. But while Mike Portnoy is joining them on both of these jaunts, he plans to return to Dream Theater early next year to begin work on the follow-up to their 2009 opus, Black Clouds & Silver Linings. Though it is likely that Avenged Sevenfold will continue to tour for much of 2011, it remains to be seen how they will eventually fill the Rev’s seat.

“Mike’s been our savior,” Gates says of Portnoy. “Not being able to have Jimmy here, I can’t imagine doing this with anyone else but him. So I’m sad for the day when we have to figure it all out. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

Adds Vengeance, “If we were to find a drummer that we were comfortable with and who we felt could really become a part of what we’re about, it’d be great. But would we ever rush to find a guy just get back on the road? No. I think we’d rather go down with the ship.

“But we’ve been taking everything so slow that it’s all just baby steps,” he continues. “Everything’s one day at a time, so we really have no idea what the next year will look like. But one thing I do know is that after something like this happens, you look at everything in a very different way, and you hope you’re doing it all to the best of your ability. So I look at the album we just finished and I’m really proud of what we were able to create. And I look at each show we have ahead of us and I think, If this is my last fucking gig, I want to make sure it’s the best gig these kids have ever seen. And then you just go out and do it.”