Gone are the days when we’d get an oddball left turn like The White Album, or The Wall, or Physical Graffiti. Why push yourself when it’s easier and safer to stay on the straight path?
Risk should be applauded. Sure, it could be career suicide, but at least it’s on your terms, and it’s what’s in your heart. The potential payoff is becoming a legend instead of just one of many bands in a crowded heap.
Look at the career trajectories of some of the biggest bands in metal over the past decade and you’ll see what I mean. I say all this as a fan of nearly all the bands below.
UPDATE, 3:22pm EDT: To clear up some confusion expressed by MS commenters, I want to be clear that I am talking about well-established and popular metal bands only. Yes, there are plenty of great metal bands in the underground that are taking risks. For the purposes of this article I’m interested in those bands that seemed destined for greatness, that captured the imagination of a large swatch of metalheads, only to stagnate after time. Bands that could have taken risks but didn’t.
Lamb of God: Have basically written the same album every time since As the Palaces Burn with varying production aesthetics.
Mastodon: Started getting super-weird with Blood Mountain and continued that trajectory with Crack the Skye. With The Hunter they focused more on concise songwriting… but is that really risky? Risky would’ve been if the kept heading the direction they were going and went completely off the deep end.
Killswitch Engage: Wrote the same album three times in a row with diminishing returns starting with The End of Heartache. Jesse’s return definitely breathed new life into the band but I wouldn’t call anything on Disarm the Descent risky in the slightest. “Desperate Times” was the only risk the band took in the past ten years — how about an album full of songs like that? That’s risk.
Periphery: They’re on the verge of repeating themselves unless they really shake things up with Periphery III.
Machine Head: Took a giant risk with The Blackening and it paid off big-time, but they coasted on those good vibes through The Locust. Robb Flynn very much needs to avoid writing The Blackening Part 3 this time around; the new album needs to be different.
Tool: Peaked creatively on Lateralus. They better not release Lateralus Part 3 whenever the next record finally comes out, although I fear they will.
Gojira: Their music was different from the start, but they really need to mix things up with their next album instead of writing The Way of All Flesh Part 3.
Whitechapel: Got better at writing songs as opposed to leaning on deathcore tropes, but haven’t really stirred the pot that much — their progression has been a “safe” one, so to speak.
Avenged Sevenfold: Took a risk by morphing from an OC metalcore scene band into a GN’R-worshipping hard rock band. It seems to have paid off for them.
God Forbid: Took risks. Had the misfortune of being black guys in a very white scene.
Shadows Fall: Took a risk by signing with a major but didn’t accompany that with enough of a musical shift for it to work.
Unearth: Never took any risks. Should’ve let Ken Susi steer the band into something completely weird and fucknuts.
Trivium: Took a bit of a risk with Shogun but seem to have regressed since.
The Black Dahlia Murder: Write the same album every time but fans give them a pass. Let’s call it Slayer Syndrome.
Slayer: They write the same album every time and always have.
Anthrax: Stopped moving forward when John Bush left and Joey Belladonna returned, even if Worship Music ended up being a good record.
Megadeth: Risk happened.
Metallica: Took risks in all the wrong ways.
Kvelertak: Will never take a risk.
Emmure: Will never take a risk.
Dying Fetus: Will never take a risk.
Any and all Vest Metal bands: Will never take a risk.
Korn: Following trends (i.e. dubstep) does not connote taking a risk.
Morbid Angel: Took a horribly misguided risk twenty years too late.
Asking Alexandria: Don’t know the meaning of the word “risk.”
Hatebreed: “Risk” is not in the hardcore dictionary.
Converge: The exception to the “‘risk’ isn’t in the hardcore dictionary” rule, but it doesn’t really matter because all their fans think they fart perfume anyway.
Neurosis: Much like Converge, they could release a rap-metal album and their fans would jizz all over it regardless. When music can’t be judged critically and objectively, the idea of risk loses meaning.
Skeletonwitch: Found a formula that worked with Breathing the Fire and they’re sticking with it.
Protest the Hero: Found a formula that worked with Fortress and they’re sticking with it.
Devin Townsend: Seems to feel the need to hedge his bets by tempering very risky moves — Ghost, Ki, Casualties of Cool — with the more predictable heavy albums that fans expect from him.
Cannibal Corpse: They have no freedom to take any risks, fans would crucify them.
Amon Amarth: See Cannibal Corpse, above.
Nachtmystium: Black Meddle could be viewed as a risk against the backdrop of other black metal at the time, and its follow-up continued pushing. Unfortunately Blake Judd couldn’t keep the train on the rails, but we’ll see what he comes up with next.
Baroness: Took a big risk with Yellow & Green. Let’s see where it takes them. The jury is still out.
Enslaved: Their move away from traditional black metal to a more prog-based sound could be considered risky, especially considering how staid most black metal fans are. They’ve been coasting on that sound for a few albums now, though.
The Dillinger Escape Plan: This band has always been all about risk in every possible way, and their recent move away from spazzy freak-outs towards more song-focused music with clean singing was definitely a risk that could’ve alienated their core… but didn’t. Exhibit A for why more bands need to take risks.
Behemoth: Exhibit B for why more bands need to take risks. Only thing is I don’t see this band pushing much further now that they’ve experienced a period of sustained success.
Opeth: Took a risk, a big one, by morphing from a death metal band into a modern day version of Yes. And everyone hates them for it! Exhibit A for why other bands are afraid of taking risks.
Deftones: The public at large has maintained interested in this band in spite of (or probably because of) all sorts of personal and interpersonal storylines, but musically-speaking they’re pretty much the same band as when they started. OK, they stopped rapping, that was smart. Even if you can make the case that they’ve changed over the years, that change wasn’t risky.
Suicide Silence: Riding a public wave of goodwill after the tragedy of Mitch Lucker’s death they’re just gonna deliver what fans expect a Suicide Silence album to be — not going to take any risks.
The Faceless: Michael Keene’s trajectory for The Faceless has been all about risk; no album has been the same as the one before it. Let’s see where this goes in the future.
BTBAM: Alaska was a ground-breaking record, not just for them but for the entire genre. But starting with Colors they’ve basically written the same record every time, which is surprising for such a talented group of musicians. If new BTBAM sounded like Trioscapes THAT would be risk; why does such risk have to be relegated to “side project” status? It should be rewarded, not shunned.
Animals as Leaders: They haven’t been around for as long as BTBAM, and there’s definitely been some evolution from album to album, but similar to BTBAM / Trioscapes above I’m wondering why Tosin Abasi and Javier Reyes decided they needed a different name under which to release the T.R.A.M. record. Why couldn’t that have been an Animals as Leaders record? That would’ve been risky. And the fans would have gone along for the ride with them, I’m certain of it.
Dream Theater: Stopped pushing themselves after Scenes From a Memory.
Slipknot: Vol 3: The Subliminal Verses took things in a far more melodic / Stone Sour-esque direction (it has an acoustic ballad on it, for Chrissakes… a far cry from “People = Shit,”), and it could have blown up in their faces, but they just got bigger than ever. Then they made more or less the same album with All Hope is Gone. Now risk would be if they took off their masks, but I don’t see it happening.
Children of Bodom: Alexi’s ability to release the same album over and over again has reached comical status.
Five Finger Death Punch: This band’s very foundation is built on taking the safe road.
Great bands of today, where the hell are you? Take some fucking risks! Be bold, be brave. Show me some weird shit instead of the same old same old.