I've heard some people say that you should never listen to a band beyond their third album. Fortunately, I rarely follow absolutes and have seen many instances of bands hitting their stride later in their careers. Many if not most modern bands wind up being one hit wonders with either a smash hit single or, if they're lucky, an album rife with solid material; it is when they release their sophomore efforts that they begin to fade slowly into the ether (The Calling and Crossfade are two great examples). Some manage to repeat their success and have either a remunerative followup or simply sustained support with a string of solid singles later on (The Wallflowers, Goo Goo Dolls, and Vertical Horizon). Fewer, of course, are those who write an unforgettable album--one that assures them a spot in music history--but who fail to find that magic a second time (Nine Inch Nails' "The Downward Spiral" is one of the most amazing albums ever written but, despite Trent Reznor's musical brilliance, he's failed to write anything remotely comparable to that opus). Fewest are the bands who craft not simply a great album but a legendary one and who go on to duplicate that fame and fortune later in their careers.
Bands who manage to create a sustainable writing career often do so with a particular sound--something that they are recognized for instantly and that serves to define them. They become the best at what they do, which ultimately proves to be a double-edged sword: they grow to be inextricably linked with a particular genre and set themselves up for failure should they try to break free of those classifications. Some manage to find success by working within the confines of their genre but many others struggle to break free, often to their own detriment.
There are numerous instances of bands with an identifiable sound resorting to a formulaic approach. To an extent, every album sounds the same and there is little evidence of the band pushing musical boundaries. Nickelback is arguably the best example of this approach. It's not unreasonable to declare that every Nickelback album sounds the same because, essentially, they all do. There are a few heavier tracks, the requisite (see: money making) ballads, an oddball acoustic track here or there, and a slew of filler. Of course, the Nickelback sound is not limited to the actual music but the lyrics as well. Nearly every song is about sex or is sexualized to some degree and few if any have any remotely memorable quality to them. That is not to say that the songs and their words are not catchy just that there is nothing redeemable about them. On the contrary, it's Nickelback's infectious sound that has generated the insane level of success that they have enjoyed over the past decade.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are bands who suffer from musical A.D.D.. Their sound is mercurial at best, shifting constantly either from one song or one album to the next. Weezer is emblematic of this approach but in their case it works to their advantage; Rivers Cuomo's inability to sit still, musically, is part of what Weezer fans love about the music. The problem with this approach, consequently, is that there is no rhyme or reason to the albums and thus no stability. Fans of these bands rarely if ever know what they are going to get and many often lose patience and interest in the long run.
Arguably the most successful and interesting bands are those who will dabble within the parameters of a particular style, branch off to something different but still related, and ultimately make a return to the sound that made them famous, putting a new spin on it that only years of experience and experimentation can provide. The first band that jumps to mind that fits this description is Metallica. The metal mogul's first few albums were quintessential thrash, even following a particular formula (e.g. the mega-hit, the Em based song, and the instrumental track). There was an evolution of sorts towards a cleaner, more listener-friendly sound that culminated with The Black Album. From there, though, things got a little bumpy with the release of Load, ReLoad, and then St. Anger. These three albums serve as the experimental members of the Metallica canon, causing derision and division among longtime fans of the band. A return to form with Death Magnetic gave the sleeping giant new life as the much anticipated followup album looms in the distance.
Part of what rubbed people raw about the aforementioned Load and ReLoad is the fact that both seemed like a huge departure from the sound that made Metallica famous. As a music fan and musician myself, I find this point highly salient and love contemplating the question that it engenders: when does a band's evolution become a complete departure in sound? For me, I would say that the answer lies in the motivation behind the change and in the execution. Many rock bands are releasing albums that are heavily influenced by electronic sounds and are incorporating elements of styles like Dubstep. Again, for me, this seems more like a pathetic effort to stay relevant and to cash in on a current trend rather than a form of evolution for the band. That's not to say that there aren't instances of brilliance but rather that most do not seem to jive with the band's identity to that point.
Evolution, of course, is a slippery slope when it comes to music. I cannot say with any degree of certainty where evolution ends and experimentation begins; it is something that needs to be determined by the individual listener. I find bands like Incubus and Linkin Park to be excellent examples of evolution gone awry. With regards to the former, most fans who encountered Incubus with their album S.C.I.E.N.C.E. have hated everything since because of how different the sound is. Ordinarily, that would represent less of an evolution and more of the aforementioned departure but in this case I think it's a little more nuanced than that. Incubus was heavily influenced by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and, having gained confidence in themselves from the commercial viability of S.C.I.E.N.C.E., they wanted to establish themselves in their own right rather than being labeled an R.H.C.P. ripoff.
What followed were four of my favorite albums and the core of the Incubus canon. Make Yourself was phenomenal and is an album that demonstrates extensive musicianship despite being written off as another piece of nu-metal garbage. Morning View, the followup to Make Yourself, is one of if not the greatest album I've ever heard and is a clear evolution from its predecessor. A Crow Left of the Murder and Light Grenades, in turn, are easily linkable to the other two albums despite showing considerable changes in sound. There are fewer heavier tracks on the later albums but the complexity of the arrangements improved to an impressive degree.
I absolutely abhor the latest album but many feel like it is yet another step forward. I felt like the lyrics were insipid and that the music was uninspired. To me, the heavy aspect of the music is part of what made Incubus great and to see it replaced with mellower, almost muzakian elements saddens me. Still, as I see it, the band made one left turn after S.C.I.E.N.C.E. and has followed a relatively straight path since then without playing it too safe.
As someone whose introduction to Incubus came after S.C.I.E.N.C.E., I have an easier time appreciating all of the albums than someone who began with it. An extremely latecomer to the world of Slipknot (I first became familiar with them in 2012), I have a similar appreciation for their body of work and can see a clear progression from their inimitable self-titled debut and their most recent effort. Fans of the Slipknot and Iowa albums, though, often hold Vol. 3 and All Hope in Gone in disdain because of a lack of edge and aggression. I see them both as being the pinnacle of their musicianship despite the aforementioned beginning efforts serving as their defining works. So perhaps when you encounter a band might also influence the conclusion of evolution versus exploitation.
I can think of no better example of that exploitation argument than Linkin Park. I was a huge LP fan when they came out and was with them right up until A Thousand Suns came out. The first two albums were amazing and incredibly similar. Not wanting to be pigeonholed as a rap rock band, Linkin Park then shifted towards a more mainstream rock sound with Minutes to Midnight. For me, the focus on the musical instruments and the move away from the rap-centric tracks represented an evolution; the guys seemed to have grown as musicians. The problem came with the fourth album, A Thousand Suns.
Experimental at best, A Thousand Suns took a long time to grow on me. I can now appreciate it as an excellent album in its own right but I have a difficult time accepting it as part of the Linkin Park canon. It sounds like nothing else that they've done and it just doesn't seem to fit among the collective of their work. Thus the problem with that complete departure in sound. See, I feel like an album like A Thousand Suns would fit in the canon if it was portrayed as being an intentional experiment--an album in its own right but one that was meant to serve as a pet project for the members rather than the next link on the album chain. I can see a sort of bond between their most recent release, Living Things, and the first three albums but still do not feel like there is any relationship with A Thousand Suns.
The band risks further alienating its fan base--one that is clamoring for a return to form of sorts--with its next release. To date, Linkin Park has released two rap rock albums, one rock album, one ethereal experimental album, and one electronic album. There is little relationship between the later works and the earlier ones and, frankly, it feels like the band is losing sight of who and what they really are. That's the danger with too much experimentation within the brand of the band.
When a band is known for a very particular sound it can become extremely difficult to produce something new that doesn't sound stale and contrived. Green Day became legends with the release of Dookie in the early '90s. The problem for them was that they tried to stick to the pop punk formula without ever really hitting it big within the genre. It wasn't until they released arguably their most prolific hit, "Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)" that the opportunity for evolution presented itself. Suddenly, this high-energy punk band was known worldwide because of an acoustic guitar-based track (much like Plain White Ts with "Hey There Delilah" of recent fame). They tried the Dookie formula one more time before drafting their magnum opus, American Idiot, in 2004.
Touching upon my initial point, that's precisely why you cannot give up on a band you love, even when it seems like all hope is lost. Their legendary status solidifying album was their third but their best work to date didn't come until their seventh record. And how did they follow that up? With one of the most ingenious moves in music history: they released an even more different-sounding album under a fake name. This deflected the insane level of expectation that American Idiot generated and allowed the band to write another phenomenal album (though one that I admittedly dislike). Rocking the boat one more time, they followed THAT up with three record releases in a single year. Granted, none of the triad was particularly good but it shows that the band is not content to rest on their laurels.
And then there are the Foo Fighters. Easily my favorite band of all time, the Foos are fronted by one of the most brilliant musical minds we've ever seen. How do you follow the demise of one of the most beloved, successful bands of all-time? You go out and do your own thing. The honesty of the first Foo Fighters album showed that Dave Grohl was not content to cash in on the fame of his previous band but was intent instead on blazing a new trail for himself.
Here's the great thing about the Foo Fighters: they have an instantly identifiable sound but one that is not easy to define. I can hear a single note and know that it's from a Foo Fighters album and, in some cases, if it's a b-side, know which album it was connected to. The band's sophomore album featured numerous tracks of which any single one could have made their career and was followed up by two more excellent albums. The danger at that point though was releasing another record like numbers three or four. Instead, what followed was the best example of musical evolution I've ever encountered.
After penning There Is Nothing Left To Lose and its mega hit "Times Like These," Dave Grohl decided to flex his musical muscles and to demonstrate both his and his band members' instrumental prowess. The band released In Your Honor, a gargantuan album almost unrivaled in its scope. One disc was electric-based, heavy, uptempo rock while the second featured stripped down, sparer acoustic tracks, exclusively. The collective serves to define who the Foo Fighters are with each disc standing alone as its own incredible album.
On the heels of In Your Honor came Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace--a sleek, slick studio effort that produced some of the band's most popular songs. Not content to craft another polished record despite its success, Dave Grohl and company then went to work on the quintessential, career-defining album Wasting Light. Recorded analog instead of digitally, in a garage instead of a multimillion dollar studio, this album stands as the band's crowning achievement. Heavy, soft, complex, catchy, it has all of the elements of the perfect album...and the scary part is, when the Foos finally lay down their instruments for good, it might not even prove to be their best.
And that's just it. You can never count a band out no matter what changes they make if it's a part of their evolution. The ones who try to ride on the coattails of current trends will ultimately fail if that's the only thing that they do; it's those who draw from those experiences in an effort to sharpen their definition further that will ultimately succeed. The best bands, then, have an easily identifiable sound--one that varies but never completely changes as they move forward through their careers--and an insatiable desire to push themselves to new musical heights without selling out to the lowest popular denominator. They release extremely different music as EPs or side projects without tainting their legacy. And, ultimately, they find their way back to who they are if ever they lose sight along the way.
Linkin Park, Foo Fighters, Green Day, Incubus, Slipknot