Album Review: Avenged Sevenfold – “Nightmare”

…OK, I felt like covering something a little different from usual. As much as I do enjoy covering new releases, I have been feeling a bit of a yearning to go back to the old records I listened to while growing up (I blame too much Monster Hunter nostalgia!) and I felt that I had to talk about this record as a result, as it is a record that I’ve had in my record collection now for over five years and yet, despite that, I’ve never fully clicked with it.

Let me quickly explain how this record came into my possession for those of you who are wondering about this: around July 2011, I was having to attend an audition for a choir at Sage Gateshead and, on my way there, I decided to pop into HMV to pick up some records so I had something to read while I waited (I was just wanting to read the liner notes to the record while I passed the time: I didn’t have anything to pass the time with on me and I didn’t particularly want to buy a book just for what I thought was going to be an hour’s wait at the most!). At the time, HMV were doing a two records for £10 deal and I decided to take advantage of that. The first record I grabbed that was in the deal was Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. (which I still really enjoy now), but I was struggling to find a second record in the deal, so I eventually just went “What has the coolest cover art in the deal which I don’t already have at home?” and this happened to be the one which caught my eye.

If you’re wondering how the audition went, I spent OVER FOUR HOURS (probably closer to six, I can’t remember the exact amount of time at the minute) at Sage Gateshead without being seen and, when it was down to me and one last person who also hadn’t been seen, the people doing the auditions had to leave to catch a train back to London. Then they asked if we wanted to travel down to London at a later date to audition for the choir there, which I wasn’t amused at them about because, well, I already had had to travel for about an hour and a half just to get to Sage Gateshead! Yeah, I am still kind of pissed off about that, why do you ask?

Anyway, back to the review. I am well aware that this record means a lot to longtime Avenged Sevenfold fans due to the somewhat heartbreaking fact that the band’s much beloved drummer Jimmy “The Rev” Sullivan passed away before the album could be recorded. I am also well aware that, in the eyes of a lot of people who aren’t fans of the band, it was recording this album and touring with the band which (indirectly, at least) lead to Mike Portnoy leaving Dream Theater (which I think is an unfair claim, considering Portnoy already had a bunch of other projects on his plate even before he stepped in to record the record and tour with the band, it was made clear from the start that it was a temporary arrangement and he revealed in his own statement that it was actually him stepping down because he felt that the constant grind of what Dream Theater was doing was wearing him down), so I’m expecting that this review is already sitting on risky ground: Avenged Sevenfold fans will want me to praise this album because it’s respectful to The Rev’s memory, Dream Theater fans will want me to tear this album apart because it apparently ruined the band thought Portnoy leaving and a lot of general metal fans will want me to tear it apart because…erm, “it’s Avenged Sevenfold”, basically.

Honestly, though, I don’t think that Nightmare is bad enough overall for me to justify trashing it. OK, it’s not a record that I can actually say I like much on a personal level and I do find it a flawed record, but this is by no means the worst record I’ve ever heard in my life and there’s quite a few things which are done surprisingly well on here which I think stop it from being completely worth writing off if you’re able to look past the band name and approach it on its own merits.

Nightmare Artwork

Let’s start by getting the obvious comment out of the way: if you didn’t know it was Mike Portnoy on this record, you would never have guessed it. In fairness, Portnoy was playing drum parts that were specifically written by The Rev and was doing his best to honour those parts (think of it as like someone’s teacher playing their student’s material as a tribute to their hard work), but it does end up feeling a bit like a waste of his talents if you’re familiar with his work in Dream Theater because he isn’t pulling off anything that is anywhere near as impressive as what he does there. That said, the performance isn’t really BAD by technical standards either: there’s still a lot being done behind the drumkit, resulting in a very varied drum performance that keeps things constantly interesting if you focus on them. Honestly, I think that the big problem is that, if you approach the album familiar with Dream Theater’s material (which is kind of required if you know who the guys is), you’re going to be disappointed because his performance isn’t him at his best, so I think the band might have actually been better off having someone else play them, as the fact it was Portnoy who was playing the drums unfortunately created a greater expectation on the drumming parts which should not have been there, as his role was not to create the drum parts for the record, just play them as written by The Rev.

So, now we’ve discussed Portnoy’s involvement on the record, let’s start with the band’s sound. It’s probably best to sum up the band’s sound as “heavy hard rock”, as the material has a lot of hard rock leanings that strips out a lot of the complexity of riffing expected from most heavy metal bands, but the actual vibe of the record is heavier than a typical hard rock record and gives it an edge which makes up for that. While I think most detractors will try to claim the band’s material is purely metalcore, I don’t think that is really appropriate to sum up the band’s sound here, as it doesn’t have any breakdowns (except for one in “God Hates Us”, but that is the only song on here which is really metalcore in terms of sound, so it’s excusable there because they’re a core feature of the genre) and doesn’t really contain any of the usual cliches expected from the genre. I’d say the band’s material is closer to Halestorm, One Last Run and New Device than the likes of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, but there’s still more than enough metal elements to their sound (the drumming alone incorporates techniques which are atypical of what you find in hard rock, like the double bass drumming as part of “Danger Line”) that it’s hard to fairly write the record off as purely being a hard rock record. I also notice that the band’s sound manages to be surprisingly unique in comparison to the bands that surround them: you can definitely tell very quickly that these songs have their own style to them which separates them from the rest of the rank and file, as you’d never mistake the likes of “Welcome to the Family” for a hard rock or heavy metal song by a typical band in their respective genres!

The songwriting, unfortunately, is a bit on the patchy side. I think the only song I like all the way through and have no issues with is “Fiction”, which is a pretty solid ballad musically and is easy to appreciate for its lyrics, which are rather poignant after the passing of The Rev. Sadly, the rest of the record doesn’t quite live up to that song, with moments that just hurt the record more than they should do. To name the ones which spring to mind so I’m not critiquing every single song on the record, “Nightmare” was oft mocked for the “it’s your fucking nightmare” lyric at the end of the chorus (which, I will acknowledge, is kind of silly and doesn’t really work with the way Shadows sings it), “Welcome to the Family” has some lyrics which can cross over into territory that make you wonder whether M. Shadows accidentally got given the lyrics to a rejected Good Charlotte song by mistake (and I’m saying this as someone who likes both this song and Good Charlotte in general!) and “God Hates Us” just flat out doesn’t fit in with what the rest of the record is doing, as the aggression of the track and harsh vocals clash with the mood of the record as a whole and don’t really make a lot of sense if you view the record as a tribute to The Rev, as the lyrics don’t fit in with that vibe. While it was probably cool for longtime fans of the band to hear harsh vocals from M. Shadows again, the song probably should have been cut from the record because it just feels like a song which doesn’t need to be on it. I will say that some of these issues are not enough to completely detract from the songs as an overall experience (I still like “Nightmare”, aside from the lyric I highlighted, and “Welcome to the Family”, not to mention “Danger Line” is a pretty fun listen every now and then), but they certainly drag them down when I view them critically, because these moments just take me out of the record.

On the instrument front, I think the standout members are Mike Portnoy (who I’ve discussed earlier) and lead guitarist Synyster Gates, as they both give pretty great performances overall and their involvements keep things interesting. Zacky Vengeance’s rhythm guitar playing is not BAD by any measure, but he doesn’t really do anything all that special overall and Johnny Christ doesn’t really do much of any real note on the record. This isn’t to say that either are bad musicians, but they are outclassed pretty easily by Gates and Portnoy.

Shadows’ vocals are going to be something you either love or hate, as he has a very nasal voice and a habit of breaking out into a yelled approach that is more punk influenced than actually singing. He does sound unique as a vocalist as a result, but it’s not a vocal style which will appeal to some people. Personally, I think he is better than his detractors give him credit for, as he still has a reasonably wide vocal range and is in key, but I would be lying if I said that I enjoy his singing voice on a personal level, as his voice doesn’t quite click with me due to the nasalness sitting poorly with me over long periods of time for some reason (for what it’s worth, this is the exact same reason why the voices of Steve Souza of Exodus and Bobby Blitz of Overkill irritate me, so it’s not exclusively a problem with M. Shadows’ voice: it happens with a lot of very nasal singing voices to me!).

The production on this record…I am not going to lie, this is the sort of production which makes me realise that the old metal school fans have a point when they say that ultra-slick production doesn’t fit with metal music very well. On paper, there’s nothing about this production which is necessarily bad: it has been very cleanly recorded and sounds like it has been given a good budget to work with. The mixing is mostly fine (bass is too quiet, though) and the mastering…OK, the mastering is louder than it should be, that’s one definite flaw with this record!

Unfortunately, it’s when you look at it harder that you start to spot some of the problems with it. First of all, the production robs the music of any real edge due to how clean it is, as the aggressive moments to the music don’t have any real grit to them to help make an impact and the softer moments don’t really serve to offer a proper contrast as a result. It’s hard to describe this to people who haven’t heard the album, but imagine someone saying something threatening in a voice like Stephen Fry and you’ll see the basic point I’m making: the intention is clear, but the smoothness means that you’re unlikely to think much of it. Granted, this problem can go in reverse as well (a production is too harsh to work for the music), but, with a generally aggressive style of music like metal, you’re unlikely to have this problem. Secondly, the production results in the instruments sounding, for lack of a better term, “studio sounding”: the drums sound pretty much like someone hitting plastic and the cymbals sound tiny, the guitars sound like they’ve been digitised far too much and the bass might as well not exist for most of the run time to most people because it’s buried so much by the rest of the instruments. Thirdly, someone (probably an executive at Warner Bros. Records, although I can’t rule out producer Mike Elizondo on this one) makes the horrible mistake of thinking that you can make something rawer and heavier by mastering it louder (for the record, that is NOT how mastering works: louder mastering just adds distortion and clipping to the WHOLE record and causes ear fatigue in extreme cases, so a clean recording made as loud as possible doesn’t suddenly become as harsh as a 90s death metal record, it just sounds like a loud, distorted mess) and the mastering pushes everything to a fairly loud volume, which results in the record just feeling like someone is trying to deafen you. It’s definitely not the worst record ever released in this regard (this is undeniably a step up from the typical Rick Rubin production), but you’d definitely not want to put this on directly into your ears at full volume: heck, my ears didn’t like it when I was listening back through it for review work and my system was only running at half of the maximum volume it could manage!

Ultimately, Nightmare is a record that I don’t think deserves the hatred a lot of people will be able to produce for it, but it doesn’t really stand out to me as a particularly great record overall either. It’s got some good performances on it (even if one of them is still below the level the performer usually plays at) and I will say that there’s some songs off of it which I do happily listen to in my free time, but, as a whole, it doesn’t really carry itself well enough to win me over. If I have to pick a way to sum it up for me, the closest I can come up with is “adequate, but unremarkable and flawed”: I can listen to this in the background without any problem, it has material which I don’t mind returning to every now and then and there’s aspects of it which I think keep it from sounding like every other band doing this kind of music, but there are so many other records that I would prefer to hear over it because they interest me more that it doesn’t really leave me with a particularly strong desire to hear it and I find the flaws mean that I can only really enjoy bits of it rather than the record as a whole when I try to focus on it. I can see why a lot of people might like this record (and, if you’re reading this and do, more power to you!), but it’s doesn’t really grab me enough to make me want to listen to it much. It’s probably worth a look into if you’re a hard rock fan wanting to get into heavy metal (just don’t be put off by “God Hates Us” if this is the case!) or you’re already a fan of Avenged Sevenfold’s other post-City of Heroes material, but, if you’re not, this isn’t going to win you over.

Nightmare was originally released in the UK on the 26th of July 2010 by Warner Bros. Records.