Orange County's Avenged Sevenfold has long been known by heavy-metal fans for its riffs and its death-obsessed imagery. "Sometimes I don't know why we'd rather live than die," sang frontman M. Shadows in the band's 2005 hit "Bat Country," which topped the chart on MTV's "Total Request Live" and earned Avenged the best new artist prize at 2006's Video Music Awards.
Those elements are in no short supply throughout "Nightmare," the band's fifth full-length, released this week. (Sample song titles include "Buried Alive," "Natural Born Killer" and "Tonight the World Dies.") Yet a crucial distinction separates "Nightmare" from Avenged Sevenfold's earlier work: Where Shadows has in the past taken grisly inspiration from movies, the Bible and comic books, the singer this time discovered horror in reality.
In December, Avenged drummer Jimmy Sullivan, known to many as "the Rev," was found dead at his home in Huntington Beach; a coroner's examination ruled the 28-year-old's death the result of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs and alcohol.
"It was miserable," Shadows said last week in an interview at his Huntington Beach home, fighting back tears as he described the days following Sullivan's death. The singer had been in Santa Barbara playing golf when his wife called with the news. "I came home and there were probably 50 people here, just crying."
Soon, Shadows and his surviving pseudonymous bandmates — guitarists Synyster Gates and Zacky Vengeance and bassist Johnny Christ — were "camping out at each other's houses," Shadows said. "We'd order in food and sleep and watch videos. We didn't want to go anywhere or do anything or talk to anybody."
Avenged Sevenfold had already begun work on "Nightmare" with producer Mike Elizondo when Sullivan died. "We'd written every single note of music," said Gates, including Sullivan's parts, which the drummer had made demos of on an electronic drum kit. The bandmates hadn't started recording yet, though, and now seemed unsure when or if they ever would.
"Band stuff I didn't think about for a long time," admitted Shadows, who goes by Matt.
Elizondo resisted the urge to press the band forward out of a desire "to be supportive of them in their grieving," the producer said. "My thing was just to sit back and wait until I got a phone call from Matt: 'Can you come out and hear what we're considering?' "
What the band was considering was hiring Mike Portnoy, drummer with the veteran prog-metal group Dream Theater, to execute the parts Sullivan had written. According to Shadows, Portnoy was Sullivan's "drum idol"; having him appear on the album, the musicians decided, would serve as a fitting tribute to their late bandmate.
"My motivation was just compassion for these guys," said Portnoy, who's set to play with Avenged Sevenfold on this summer's Uproar Festival. (The tour, which also features Disturbed and Stone Sour, will stop at Irvine's Verizon Wireless Amphitheater on Sept. 17.) "I immediately reached out to Matt when I heard about Jimmy's passing to let him know I was there on a personal level. When they asked me to do the album, I didn't even have to think about it."
Even with a drummer in place, "Nightmare" wasn't quite ready to go: After conceiving of the set as a topical concept album about "kids' disconnect with the way the world's going and not feeling like they can change it," Shadows rewrote the majority of his lyrics to address his reaction to Sullivan's death.
The result is undoubtedly the band's most personal effort yet, with elegiac power ballads such as "Victim" ("Nothing is harder than to wake up all alone," Shadows sings, "Realize it's not OK, it's the end of all you know") sharing space with furious rockers such as "God Hates Us."
"Matt has always been great at telling a story from a different perspective, be it war, familial problems or just angst-filled teenage sorrow," said Gates. "But now he had his own story to tell, and he poured his emotions out and didn't hide anything."
"You can sit there and write about it all day, but if you haven't been through heartbreak, there's just a difference," Shadows said. "When I was writing lyrics, I didn't really care what I was saying; I just cared about what I was feeling. And I think we made the album at such a vulnerable time that it shows.
"A lot of people were like, 'Wow, you're sure getting over the death fast.' We were like, 'No, actually, we're not — we're bawling in the studio every day.' But if we did the record now, there'd be a lot less I'd be willing to put out there. You get more guarded as you realize what's going on."
Warner Bros. Records Chairman and Chief Executive Tom Whalley said, "I let the band tell me how they wanted to handle this, and ultimately they chose to put their emotions into the making of the record and to finish what Jimmy started." Still, he added, "the brilliance of 'Nightmare' is that it allows the band to move on."
How Avenged Sevenfold plans to do that is an open question. "We sat down after the record and decided we weren't ready to have auditions or anything," Shadows said of finding a full-time replacement for Sullivan. "We weren't even sure we wanted to go on the road at all." Portnoy's volunteering his time led the band to schedule dates through the end of 2010, though the drummer acknowledged concern over whether he'd be accepted by fans.
"I've seen the fans really rally behind the band and support them in the decisions they've made," said Brandon Geist, editor of the hard-rock magazine Revolver. "If anything, I think Jimmy's death brought the fans closer to the band."
Even so, Shadows was unwilling to speculate on what next year and beyond might hold. "To us, Avenged is those five guys," he said, pointing to an old band poster depicting the group's members as skeletons. "It's life, it happened and it … . But we're just not ready for something else yet."