By Tony Ware
Classic Metal On Steroids
Avenged Sevenfold (clockwise from left)— Johnny Christ, Synyster Gates, M. Shadows, and Zacky Vengeance.
SOMETIMES, THINGS just click. For Avenged Sevenfold, it was going into the band’s third album, 2005’s City of Evil, that an understanding of oscillating dynamics, anchored by the introduction of a click track, established the former metalcore band’s command of heavy metal’s architecture. A prowling, howling stage presence, reinforced by strafing riffs, cemented the ongoing live reputation of the band, which had established its ability to engage crowds with raw emotion when it first surged from Huntington Beach, CA, in 1999.
“In the early days of the band we could connect with crowds, but we really didn’t really know anything about what makes a ‘good’ sound,” admits Avenged Sevenfold bassist Johnny Christ. “I remember touring in 2002 and I only had some sort of Crate amp that could do its thing for a couple hundred kids a night, but it didn’t work out for much more. As we were working on [2003’s] Waking the Fallen we got introduced to Bogner amps, Schecter guitars; we could afford a DW [Drum Workshop] kit, so we really started to get different feels and sounds for the songs. Touring between that album and City of Evil really helped us sonically, showed us new ways to trim out the fat and structure parts.”
Lessons learned, Avenged Sevenfold went into the sessions for City of Evil, the band’s major-label debut, prepared to go over every song with a fine-tooth comb. The result toned down post-hardcore outbursts and exhibited classical metal’s soaring harmonizing. The balance of grit and melody took the band from independent cult favorite and thrust it into the public eye. In the years since, Christ, vocalist M. Shadows, guitarists Zacky Vengeance and Synyster Gates, and drummer James “the Rev” Sullivan evolved through a series of recording experiments and fortified their road-honed virtuosity, culminating in the material on 2009’s thematically rich Nightmare.
The recording sessions for City of Evil proved as grueling as the results were exacting, and for 2007’s self-titled fulllength Avenged Sevenfold chose to self-produce a more rough-edged album. That experience gave the band a harsh but valuable glimpse into what it takes to troubleshoot sessions. It also allowed for a widening of Avenged Sevenfold’s sonic palette. “We did 808 blasts . . . had orchestrated parts that sounded carnivalistic . . . we just set out not to have someone tell us what we couldn’t or shouldn’t do, and we went for it as far as we could take it,” reflects Christ.
For Nightmare, however, the band again brought in an outside voice—Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre, Fiona Apple)—whom they could vibe with during the writing process. A session bassist as well as producer, Elizondo brought an ear for musicality, as well as suggestions on gear for Christ to explore (such as vintage Fender and Rickenbacker basses alongside his traditional StingRay, as well as a Gallien-Krueger amp). Consideration of arrangements was particularly important as the band had to grapple with the passing of Sullivan just prior to the recording sessions, for which they then brought in Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy. Sullivan’s passing changed the lyrical focus and weight of the album, while the band stayed resolute on the overall tone intended throughout the six-month writing/demoing process. (The final result has a conceptual strength akin at times to Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper, and Queensrÿche.)
“We wanted Nightmare to be as timeless as possible, something like a classic metal record on steroids,” says Christ. “We wanted something that sounds new, fresh, but equally massive . . . that has the crispness of modern recordings but that still sounds timeless. It’s not like all this really low-end, bass-heavy rock that comes with really big opening kick drums. When it calls for it, sure, we’ve got huge body, but a lot of the time we wanted a sound like classic thrash . . . like [Metallica’s] The Black Album but updated with Avenged Sevenfold on top of pianos and horns and keyboard parts and orchestrations of all sorts. It’s an album that’s panned wide, with a cinematic feel to it, and live it just plays out on a huge, aggressive scale.”
Live, Avenged Sevenfold sits all the back line behind the Gothic stage dressings, leaving maximum space for the band to triumphantly connect with the fans, and for “blowing up as much shit as possible,” laughs Christ. There have been rumors that Avenged Sevenfold’s equally arena-sized sound is augmented by Pro Tools tracks, which Christ denies but considers a complement on how encompassing the band’s performance can be. The truth of the matter is that guitars and bass are split between two to three heads, and parts are written with the entire spectrum in mind. Blended back together by the front-of-the-house guys, Avenged Sevenfold makes a Nightmare into a cathartic swell.