At age 22, I’ve already seen countless bands announce their retirement. From the almighty Isis calling it quits in 2010 to The Safety Fire using April Fool’s Day as a means to actually announce their breakup, to even bands like Rush announcing that after more than 40 years of touring that their last US trek would be the end—we’ve seen great bands come and go. However, it is a common trend that once a band has disbanded, the populace, particularly in the music scene, begins to talk about their legacy. This leads to some major differences depending on the band. The whole point of a legacy is to do something that warrants novelty, that makes a large impact on something in its respective field in some way. But how do we accurately define what a “legacy” truly is in a way that makes it uniform for all bands, short lived or otherwise?
First we will address legacies stemming from short tenures in the music scene. This applies to bands that released 3 albums or less that made a significant impact on the music scene. A band like Joy Division is always a fantastic place to start. Only releasing two studio albums before lead vocalist Ian Curtis tragically hung himself, the band are the epitome of depressive post-punk and no-wave music, and planted the seed for countless bands to follows such as Swans, Baroness, and Radiohead, who have elements of Joy Division within their own music that can be clearly singled out from the rest. Their legacy is largely due to the fact that the band was so short lived that their music has taken on a greater life after their disbanding. The two albums the band released are among the most influential, and both albums are considered classics. The band didn’t have time to have missteps like most bands do with long careers, and instead just made two very good albums and called it a day.
There are exceptions to this, however. Up until recently, Cynic could be considered a band with a short term legacy. They released one album in 1993 before disbanding, only to reunite 15 years later and released the critically acclaimed Traced In Air. Cynic have been regarded as one of the best metal bands ever, and many cite their debut, Focus, as being significantly ahead of its time. Today we can even see bands that take that influence and apply it to their music. Rivers Of Nihil take influence from their atmospheric elements, while bands like Arcturus utilize clean vocals over harsh music. After recently announcing the end of the band, Cynic have released 2 EPs and 3 studio records, so technically speaking their tenure was not as short as a band like Joy Division, but is comparable to it.
Legacies from long tenures, however, are a completely different story altogether. The classic example of a band like this is Rush. 20 studio albums, dozens of live releases and an induction in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame later, the band have cemented their status as progressive rock icons. Their legacy lies with the continued release of quality progressive rock music. The band went through phases and experimented, separating audiences new and old in the process. After successfully re-writing the rules of progressive rock, the band shifted to a more radio friendly, synth-laden sound with less complex times signatures and more catchy choruses. The shift in sound alienated many fans of earlier Rush, but also welcomed in massive fame and brought in a new audience of fans who have never been into them before. Ater this, they began returning to their rock roots, releasing some of their heaviest works in the late 80s and early 90s, which alienated some fans of their synth-heavy sound of the 1980s, but also brought back fans of their earlier works. Now, the band have found a way to have all their experimentations combined to form a cohesive unit, and after 40 years of hard work, fans from both sides of the fence unite.
Not many bands can do what Rush did and get away with it scot-free. Just look at the uproar Opeth has created in recent years after abandoning their death metal roots in exchange for 70s prog-influenced music. Completely abandoning their death metal influences, many fans, and even myself, still feel that they don’t feel like the same band anymore, and that their new music is far more inferior to their death metal stuff. Metallica nearly lost all of their fans in the 90s when they released Load and ReLoad, which I still contend would have been smash hits had they been written by another band (or at least released under a different name other than Metallica). Even Parkway Drive is being questioned for turning in a metal U2 and their incorporation of rap-rock-style vocals on their singles from their upcoming album. A band that has released 20 albums better have a legacy that is translated over their entire career, otherwise it’s no legacy: it’s one lucky strike in a mine of simple stones.
So where does this hold for bands in the middle? What about those bands that have yet to call it quits but are already changing the game? As far as those bands go, I think it is unfair to talk of their legacies just yet. After all, they might have released some great albums, but who knows what the future holds? Many fantastic bands lose their steam after too many albums, and it gets harder and harder to recreate awe-inspiring music every single album. There are a few exceptions to the rule, however, as bands such as Deftones, Converge, and Between The Buried And Me have continued to do so, with some for as much as 20+ years. Any active band that truly wants their legacy to become true needs to stay hungry, and keep fighting. Play every show like it’s your last one. Keep the same mentality about delivering quality music that you always have. The second you abandon your will to do so and become complacent means you become lazy, and then you might fall victim to the common trap of releasing albums past your prime. Slayer has done just that with their newest album, and should have called it quits after Jeff Hanneman passed away. The whole reason Isis disbanded was because they said they’d rather go out on a high note than a low one, and said they didn’t feel as though they had much more to say. The same applies to the short-lived UK metal band The Safety Fire, who called it quits after just 2 studio albums.
Everyone can talk about bands with clear legacies. The Beatles, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and so on. But it is a lot harder to discuss what would have happened had these bands decided to press on, or if they had not been hindered by tragedies. Only speculation will suffice, but for now, at least we know that we have been fortunate enough to hear some bands leave such a large footprint in the music world.