Does the ‘Sophomore Slump’ Exist in Heavy Metal
In the second installment of his ‘Mean Deviation‘ column, veteran music journalist Jeff Wagner takes a deep look at the infamous “sophomore slump.” Check out the piece as he runs through several metal and hard rock subgenres and examines whether some of our favorite artists’ stumbled on their sophomore albums or not.
Jeff Wagner is the author of ‘Mean Deviation: Four Decades of Progressive Heavy Metal,’ an exhaustive history on the sound and its various offshoots.
What Sophomore Slump?!?
It takes a lifetime to write your first album, and 12 hectic months to scramble your second album together.”
This is a composite of a sentiment we’ve heard many times. The belief is that many bands’ debuts are definitive, foundational masterpieces, while second albums are rushed, derivative, and lacking inspiration. You hear this said all the time. And it’s crap.
Certainly there are a number of debut albums in the metal genre that were never topped by later efforts. ‘Holy Diver’ (Dio), ‘Bonded by Blood’ (Exodus), ‘Out of the Cellar’ (Ratt), ‘The Legacy’ (Testament), ‘Seven Churches’ (Possessed) and self-titled debuts by Danzig, Metal Church, Angel Witch and Bathory tower over their follow-ups. But these are exceptions to the rule.
This is just one person’s opinion, of course, but evidence seems to support the less popular “second albums are better” theory I’m putting forth here. Bands might have a lifetime to gather inspiration and drive for that all-important debut, but once they’ve figured out their sound and have that initial statement behind them, the creative doors can truly fly open and put many great bands in the lap of the gods. Ready for some mythbusting?
Old Metal Monuments
Black Sabbath: Lots of great stuff happening on both ‘Black Sabbath’ and ‘Paranoid,’ but that jammy, directionless second half of Sabbath’s debut gives ‘Paranoid’ the edge. Of course, if we were talking album covers, we all know which one gets the prize.
Scorpions: The curious ‘Lonesome Crow’ debut is historically interesting (a hippie/prog album on Krautrock label Brain Records, and a 17-year-old Michael Schenker on guitar), but clearly the band found their sound on terrific second album, ‘Fly to the Rainbow.’ No debate necessary.
Judas Priest: Here’s where I’ll suppress personal preference for a historically more appropriate choice. ‘Rocka Rolla’ is possibly my favorite Priest album (yes, I am clinically insane), but clearly ‘Sad Wings of Destiny’ is where they found their, uh, wings. ‘Sad Wings…’ effectively sprouted an entirely new branch of the rock ‘n’ roll tree, the #1 definitive 1970s heavy metal album. Let’s say ‘Rocka Rolla’ is a misunderstood curiosity, while the real Judas Priest emerged on that epic second album.
Iron Maiden: For all its stellar moments (‘Remember Tomorrow,’ ‘Strange World,’ ‘Phantom of the Opera’), the first Iron Maiden album, which was indeed something Steve Harris had been working up to his entire life, stands in the shadows once the towering, super-tight, more aggressive ‘Killers’ arrived a year later. There’s no comparison here. ‘Killers’ wins out. Another definitive second album!
Rush: Easy call. ‘Rush’ is like Led Zeppelin and Cream jamming and eating back bacon together. It’s fully capable and crammed with energy. But it’s derivative. ‘Fly by Night,’ however, adds Neil Peart to the mix, widens the musical scope, and offers monumental songwriting efforts like ‘Anthem’ and ‘By-Tor and the Snow Dog.’ No contest here. ‘Fly by Night’ wins.
Motörhead: Whether you consider the 1977 self-titled album as Lemmy and co.’s debut, or the ‘On Parole’ set (recorded in 1975 but shelved until 1979), none of it, not even amazing songs like ‘Lost Johnny’ or ‘Iron Horse / Born to Lose’ can compare to the throttling ‘Overkill,’ released in 1978. The album kick-started the NWOBHM, thrash metal and the Legend of Lemmy. Hail ‘Overkill.’
Riot: This band had a slow start, and neither ‘Rock City’ nor ‘Narita’ can be looked upon as Riot’s finest. The handful of albums to come in their wake are the classics (‘Fire Down Under,’ ‘Restless Breed,’ ‘Born in America,’ ‘Thundersteel’). But ‘Narita’ does fare a bit better than ‘Rock City,’ and whaddaya know, it’s also a second album! R.I.P. Mark Reale.
Anvil: The Canadian band’s second album, 1982’s ‘Metal on Metal,’ utterly snuffs 1981 debut ‘Hard ‘N’ Heavy,’ which was a ’70s-sounding AC/DC wanna-be album. Enough said.
Manowar: A toss-up. There’s no good reason to pit 1982’s ‘Battle Hymns’ debut against follow-up ‘Into Glory Ride.’ The debut rocks a bit more, while the second is more epic and doom-laden. Both are great. My personal preference is ‘Into Glory Ride.’ No sophomore slump here either…
Big Four of Thrash (and others)
Metallica: There’s no doubting the massive ‘Kill ‘Em All.’ It’s a classic for a damn good reason. But ‘Ride the Lightning’ saw the band move from Rookies of the Year to Hall of Fame Legends. Masterful, and one of few albums I’ll call perfect.
Slayer: Depending on mood, this is a toss-up. The ‘Show No Mercy’ debut is a singular Slayer album in that it’s the only one revealing a link to traditional metal such as Judas Priest and the caffeinated, cantankerous vibe of the NWOBHM. ‘Hell Awaits’ is so utterly sinister, dissonant and off-the-chain, surely heavier and gnarlier than the debut, but these albums have equal value.
Megadeth: Megadeth’s debut is undeniable, a mass of jolting ferocity played by talented demons with a charmingly clunky production, but the refinement and sublimation that occurred with 1986’s ‘Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying?’ is too great to deny. It rules over the debut by a few small but significant notches.
Anthrax: It may not be popular opinion, and it may have a lackluster Alice Cooper cover included, but Anthrax’s debut, ‘Fistful of Metal,’ is a tad stronger than follow-up ‘Spreading the Disease.’ But it’s basically a photo finish between the two, I really can’t decide.
Other thrash bands that did NOT experience a sophomore slump: Dark Angel (‘Darkness Descends’ utterly deletes ‘We Have Arrived’), Kreator, Forbidden, Onslaught, and Flotsam and Jetsam (even despite the Elton John cover song on the second album). And there are more.
Big Three of Prog (and Crimson Glory)
Queensrÿche: Debut full-length ‘The Warning’ was a mighty fine piece of work, but ‘Rage for Order’ trumps it in its quest to try things that were totally alien to metal in 1986, including the pristine production, layers of melancholy, and futuristic sheen and general songwriting attitude that was definitely left of center. More a sophomore bump than slump.
Fates Warning: Is there a single knucklehead out there who would choose the endearing but scrappy ‘Night on Bröcken’ debut over the sublime, matured, and complex ‘The Spectre Within’? Thought not.
Dream Theater: Despite the debut’s horrid production (a rare slip-up by Terry Date) and despite a big single on the second album (‘Pull Me Under’), material-wise these albums are neck and neck. But, with their definitive singer introduced on second album ‘Images and Words,’ their true sound nailed (and copied by many), and that aforementioned single bringing the band great rewards, once again a sophomore album lords over a debut. That old adage about the sacred debut looks pretty weak about now, huh?
Crimson Glory: Their 1986 self-titled debut was a solid, capable, well-written homage to early Queensrÿche, but second album ‘Transcendence’ was and remains a shimmering, sleek, genius-level work of esoteric power/prog metal for the ages.
Death Metal Gods
Bolt Thrower: No contest whatsoever. Second album ‘Realm of Chaos’ not only rules over the entire Bolt Thrower kingdom, but over ALL. Debut ‘In Battle There is No Law’ was just a mere warmup, quaking in the wake of ‘RoC.’
Entombed: Here’s a rare instance in this survey where a debut album remains king. ‘Left Hand Path’ defined not only the Entombed sound but an entire movement (Swedish Death Metal). Second album ‘Clandestine’ may have more interesting riffs, but the guitar sound is just a tad less overhwelming, and the vocals aren’t even close to the brutality delivered on the debut.
Carcass: Second album is an easy winner here. ‘Reek of Putrefaction’ is a quaint 22 slabs of lo-fi goregrind, while second album ‘Symphonies of Sickness’ turned teenage slaughter fantasy into disturbing but sophisticated high art.
Death: Definitely a dead heat between 1987 debut ‘Scream Bloody Gore’ and 1988’s more refined but no less brutal ‘Leprosy.’ But then Death was a band that never recorded a single weak album.
Candlemass: Photo finish between debut ‘Epicus Doomicus Metallicus’ and second album ‘Nightfall,’ although my preference for vocalist Johan Längquist gives ‘Epic…Doom…Metal…’ the edge. But for our purposes here, note that ‘Nightfall’ is hardly a sophomore slump situation. Just one of the most influential doom metal albums ever, that’s all.
Trouble: 1984’s self-titled debut (later dubbed ‘Psalm 9′) and 1985’s ‘The Skull’ are two doomy peas in a pod. The debut’s songs are simpler and more memorable, although the anguish and epic scope of the sophomore effort can’t be denied. A tie.
Cathedral: Tough to even compare Cathedral’s crawling, morose, utterly wretched (in a good way) ‘Forest of Equilibrium’ debut and more refined, rocked-out second album, ‘The Ethereal Mirror.’ The latter loses a bit of steam near the end, so I’ll give it to the debut, by a hair.
Saint Vitus: Mirroring Cathedral, the self-titled Vitus debut is a weighty, slo-mo classic, while second album ‘Hallow’s Victim’ is curiously upbeat, even fast in spots. Both feature the ultimate Voice of Doom ‘n’ Dread, Mr. Scott Reagers. (All Hail! Now sit down!) Albums of equal value, no doubt.
Seems that the doom branch of the metal tree produces neither stronger debuts nor stronger follow-ups. Total consistency. I can’t explain it.
Pearl Jam: In an attempt to find any sort of rock/metal outgrowth that gives that “debuts rule” sentiment some weight, we turn to Seattle. But here again, sophomore albums prove stronger. Except in Pearl Jam’s case. The heavily textured, atmospheric, contemplative ‘Ten’ shows an ahead-of-their-years maturity, while the angry ‘Vs.’ was a reactionary, self-aware, ‘this is a statement’ type record. Both are excellent, although ‘Ten’ just can’t be touched. Chalk one up for the debut argument.
Nirvana: Debut ‘Bleach’ is a rip-snorting sludge-punk-metal classic, but the slicker, more mature ‘Nevermind’ is the sound of a band coming into its own. And, uh, I understand it had a little bit of influence and sold a few units. Impossible to not tip the hat to ‘Nevermind.’ Yet another better-than-the-debut second album! (You are keeping score, right?)
Soundgarden: Bypassing the ‘Screaming Life’ EP, we come to the spotty ‘Ultramega OK’ debut (featuring their best-ever song ‘Beyond the Wheel,’ which is metal as hell) and the authoritative, wailing ‘Louder than Love,’ yet another superior sophomore slab.
Alice in Chains: ‘Facelift’ is fine, if a bit monotonous in terms of its pacing. Second album ‘Dirt’ remains the definitive AiC album, something revered and influential to this day. An easy call. Chalk up another for the sophomore album.
Elder Rock Gods
Aerosmith: The Boston youngsters’ bluesy, greasy self-titled debut is a fun listen, but ‘Get Your Wings’ is the sound of a band clearly defining their character. It remains a true Aero-classic. ‘Lord of the Thighs,’ ‘Spaced,’ ‘Seasons of Wither’…they were so great once!
Led Zeppelin: The debut has been chided for its, er, borrowing of certain blues licks. But it certainly laid the bedrock for all that would come from the mighty Zep. I’m still going to give the award to second album ‘II,’ because it established the band’s style with more confidence and unveiled a wider stylistic variety, a trademark of all Zeppelin albums to come.
Deep Purple: Not much to recommend 1968’s ‘Shades of Deep Purple,’ other than showing a legendary band in its infancy. Not like follow-up ‘The Book of Taliesyn’ is a humongous jump forward, but it’s enough of a leap, showing glimmers of the godliness they would claim thereafter. Yet another album that bucks the “sophomore slump” crap.
Queen: Queen’s self-titled debut is an eccentric little nugget of early heavy metal meets regal art rock. Their second album, however, is a dark masterpiece of, well, whatever kind of music it is that Queen does. ‘Queen II’ rules the land.
And please note:
Tool‘s first album, ‘Undertow,’ doesn’t compare to the eccentric majesty of the next one, ‘Aenima.’ Same with Type O Negative‘s ‘Slow, Deep and Hard’ debut, a curious and interesting hangover from Pete Steele’s previous band, Carnivore, whereas the second Type O, ‘Bloody Kisses,’ was a definitive and now-legendary masterpiece. Even the feeble first Cure album pales in the shadow of ‘Seventeen Seconds.’ I could go on…
Get what I’m sayin’ here? Development, gelling, and forward momentum actually results in a superior second album in most cases. Let’s not swallow that “first album is best” nonsense anymore. Listen, think, and rock the f— out.
Stay tuned for Jeff Wagner’s next ‘Mean Deviation’ column on April 1!