Heavy Blog Is Heavy’s Best Of series takes musical genres and categories and highlights our staff’s personal favorites. You can read more entries from this series here.
Sophomore albums are a tricky business: sure, there are plenty of great ones but, more often that not, something in them falls flat. Whether it has more to do with the expectations created in fans by the debut release or whether some sort of energy is lost between making that first, primal, vibrant creation and the second, we can say with certainty that creating a good sophomore album is an art in and of itself. On the other hand, when a band really manages to pull it off, it can serve as an important springboard: they’ve proven they’re not a one trick pony and that there is more to them than just one, glorious dose of creativity. And thus, we have decided to celebrate these successes, the engaging and downright important attempts to continue the momentum created by debut releases. As always, this Best Of list isn’t made to be exclusive; I can think of at least four or five albums we haven’t included here. However, it does represent what each author believes to be the pinnacle of that second attempt, the challenging reach for continuity and innovation.
How does one define a masterpiece? It’s obvious there is no perfection in the music industry, perhaps in the world at all. However, perhaps perfection is getting so close to that elusive boundary that it doesn’t matter anymore; that you can’t really tell the difference. That’s where Sound Awake is, the second album by the by-now famous Karnivool. Hailing from what can be broadly defined as the second wave of Australian metal, Karnivool set the path for many Australian bands to follow: progressive, dark, vocal centric. Sound Awake takes all of these elements, combines them with flawless production and a scope which, by sheer size, amplifies all the elements into amazing levels of power.
Opening with more aggressive, shorter tracks, the album soon let’s its hair down and turns to more contemplative creations. “Deadman”, linked below, is nothing more than a flawless exploration of disease, anxiety and death. Its main endearing quality, like much of the album, is how the bass seems to resound through all the other instruments and lift them up; it fills in the blanks, the spaces between the passages and makes the whole thing just so much more. Its more “grounded” sound enjoys a counterpoint from the soaring vocals, creating parallel boundaries that make the track make sense musically. The track, though long, never gets repetitive and is filled with little prog-rock/metal ingenuity to shake things up. It also somehow never loses its emotional punch, even in the midst of an advanced and often challenging structure. It’s a good example of an undeniable fact: Sound Awake is an important album not only for Karnivool’s career but for the metal scene all around the world.
The “best sophomore album” conundrum is certainly an interesting one. How could one define it? Is it in terms of the album’s overall quality, or is it that the second album is the band’s best, or, most convincingly, is it the way the record shows the band’s growth as a unit since their debut? The strongest case is for the third, and that’s led me to writing about Coheed and Cambria‘s absolutely phenomenal second album, In Keeping Secrets Of Silent Earth: 3.
Sonically, In Keeping Secrets is an enormous step forward from the much more post-hardcore/emo sound of Second Stage Turbine Blade, finding the band utilizing the tools at their disposal in a much better way: earworm vocal melodies are the best possible use of frontman Claudio Sanchez’s distinct voice, and the accompanying instrumentation is taken to a level that makes every song feel unique while still maintaining a cohesive feel throughout. The three prog opi that bookmark the album (one at the beginning, two at the beginning) are absolutely incredible tracks that manage to imbue a totally new life into the band’s poppy alternative rock formula than usual, and the more radio-friendly tracks, like “Three Evils (Embodied In Love And Shadow)” and “A Favor House Atlantic”, are some of the catchiest songs to ever grace a listener’s ears. All in all, Coheed’s second album is one of the best sophomore albums because it does what a follow-up album should do: it shows the band at their best, having found their footing, ready to release incredible material into the world.
It really takes a lot to make your second record stand out. It can fall victim to the curse of being a basic carbon copy of your first record, and for fans, this is never a good thing. We like to see bands expand and grow, both musically and conceptually. With Prehistoricisms, Intronaut achieved both these feats, crafting an unbelievable progressive metal album that rivals those that came before it. From the second the opening guitar riff kicks in, you can tell that you’re truly in for one hell of a ride. The album cycles through prog, sludge, and post metal effortlessly, almost as if you took four separate professors from different disciplines and put them in a room together to create one master thesis on the same subject. While the band have made strides to make albums that rival, and even surpass, this one, the release was an important milestone for the band. They used it to hone in on their perfect sound, and once they knew they struck it rich, they continued to expand and grow, giving back to the metal community with some absolutely beautiful releases that have followed it. It will go down as a landmark album in the genre in the years to come and will continue to influence countless other band who can only hope to do it as well as this band.
Tech death outfit Archspire’s 2011 debut All Shall Align was frankly absurd in its ambition, to say the least — opener “Deathless Ringing” kicked off the album at an inhuman 300 bpm, and the rest of the tracks followed suit with a barrage of furious gravity blasts alongside vocalist Oliver Rae Aleron’s hip hop-inspired lightning-fast delivery. But the band’s unrestrained ambition found itself at odds with the album’s production and overall execution, and that coupled with certain songwriting hiccups kept the album from truly achieving what it seemed to be striving so hard towards.
Now while three years may seem a fairly standard gap between studio albums, the jump in quality that followup The Lucid Collective had on display was absolutely unprecedented, to say the least. Archspire went from being a promising young band to one of the biggest names in modern tech death, with the album’s incredible production and mixing bringing forth the forward-thinking songwriting genius that the band had only partially unleashed on the debut by comparison; playing off existing tech death tropes at their leisure, but also managing to take their sound just that much further, the album’s chaotic nature kept within the boundaries of good taste by both measured song structuring and brilliantly executed hooks. From the frantic riffing of “Lucid Collective Somnambulation” — which immediately, and rightfully, became their flagship song — to the relentless rush of “Spontaneous Generation”, The Lucid Collective is one of the most complete, creative, and crushing releases that tech death has seen in years, and a sophomore album that utterly eclipses its predecessor in every way possible.
It’s rare to find single albums that almost singularly launch an entire genre and spectrum of music. It is not an understatement to call the second album from Chicago instrumental group Tortoise, Millions Now Living Will Never Die, one of those though. If their self-titled debut was a test run into the world of minimalist and krautrock-inspired instrumental rock with tinges of jazz and other elements scattered throughout, then Millions… was the official coming out party for the genre of music that would become known as post-rock. And if Mogwai’s Young Team (released in 1997 one year after Millions…) was the crystallization of post-rock’s, well, “rock” side in its emphasis on loud-soft dynamics, then Millions… was really all about the “post” part.
You can’t go far in talking about this album without bringing up lead track and centerpiece “Djed,” the 21-minute epic that encapsulates pretty much every part of Tortoise’s sound in the clearest way. Anchored by an upbeat and steady beat from drummer John McEntire and a bouncy bassline from then bassist David Pajo (of Slint fame), synth and guitar interplay in a brilliantly casual trading of melodies that forms a groove so deep you could lose an arm in it. The track morphs multiple times throughout, emphasizing its more overtly jazz side with vibraphone melodies, more electronic side with skittery beats and clicks, and its more modernist compositional side featuring looping melodies and building blocks that interlock, swell, and grow into fantastical clockwork-like machines. There was truly nothing quite like it anywhere in the music scene at the time, and that track alone has inspired countless musicians and bands ranging in styles in the process.
Which isn’t to say that the rest of the album isn’t impressive as well. The gorgeous “Glass Museum” remains my favorite all-time Tortoise track with its beautiful cyclical melody that launches into a thrilling mathy (and vibraphone-y) breakdown. “The Taut and Tame” is a compact and frenetic blueprint for much of their future material in TNT and Standards, and “Along the Banks of Rivers” is a gorgeous sprawling sendoff into the sunset, utilizing a Ennio Morricone-like spaghetti western quality the band would return to time and time again. I could honestly write more than an essay’s worth of words on the greatness and importance of this album, but really all you need to do to understand it is listen to it once and then listen to any number of post-rock bands today to hear their continuing influence spreading out like musical tendrils across various global music scenes.
Sophomore albums are a tricky beast – they can present a great opportunity for a band with raw but unhinged potential to finetune their sound, yet just as often they cause bands to stumble onto a creative slump. Every once in a while, though, comes a band that already gets everything right on its debut and somehow manaes to improve on the follow-up. Enter British progressive goofballs The Safety Fire, who did just that before disbanding earlier this year. Where Grind The Ocean, their first offering, is excellent in its own right, its successor in Mouth Of Swords sees the band dial everything up to 11. The production is crisper yet twice as organic, the riffs are catchier while retaining their complexity, and the playing of every band member in general remains incredibly tasty while eliminating what little self-indulgence was there before. Sean McWeeney’s performance here is one for the ages, redefining how much wriggling space metal vocalists can have in terms of matching the intensity of the rest of the music through ways that are decidedly “unmetal” (whatever that means). The rhythm section also sees some notable improvements, in no small part thanks to the sharper production which gives bassist Lori Peri a lot more moments to shine.
But what ultimately stands out the most about The Safety Fire is that no single member, in fact, stands out above the rest. They sound like a band in the truest sense of the word, a well-oiled machine in which each part is just as crucial for it to keep running, and Mouth Of Swords is a perfect showcase of this. Every track on the album has it all: an onslaught of riffs that are simultaneously techy and melodic, at least a handful of brilliant basslines and drum patterns, and that moment where Sean’s sublime vocals hit a heart-gripping emotional peak. For a band that sounded so much in unison, it’s a tragedy and even more of a surprise that The Safety Fire broke up as soon as they did, but this album is one hell of a way to soften the blow, as the phrase “going out with a bang” doesn’t even begin to convey how good of a send-off Mouth Of Swords really is.
Drive Like Jehu certainly demonstrated an enormous amount of potential on their self-titled debut, but the album still has a freshman sheen that every so slightly holds back the grandiose ideas packed into a relatively compact package. Then again, this commentary is made retroactively and after having heard DLJ’s sophomore triumph Yank Crime, an undisputed top 5 album in the post-hardcore hall of fame. From the sneering thwack of the opening bass riff on “Here Comes the Plows,” DLJ deliver instrumental and vocal performances that capture the fresh blood attitude of their debut with immeasurably greater attention to detail in terms of their songwriting. These songs bring everything that warrants the post-hardcore label to the table in its finest form, shifting seamlessly between noisy hardcore and melodic punk via Fugazi and ample experimentation that harken back to Black Flag’s avant-garde releases. Yank Crime is as perfect for genre newbies as it is on its umpteenth listen by a seasoned listener; every track and moment is a necessary piece to its immaculate whole.