The 3rd Album Syndrome: Changes and Risk or Stability and Safety?

To which extent should rock bands experiment with their music?

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The third album syndrome term refers to the dreaded pattern numerous bands have fallen into upon the release of their third studio effort. The group kicks things off well with a solid, sometimes even chart-topping effort, follows it up with a natural musical progression on the sophomore release and then reaches somewhat of a creative crossroad.

A few years have passed, the guys have matured a bit and want to take things further, but are they up for the task? They went through thick and thin together and picked up a wide array of influences along the way, but can they implement them in their music properly and is that who they really are? Things start cooking up, the album drops and flops and the band had just suffered from their very own third album syndrome.

But it's always a flop of course, it can be a success as well ("London Calling," "Master of Puppets," etc.), as long as it's executed properly. In fact, it doesn't exactly have to be a third album either, it's the changes we'll be mostly focusing on. Whether it's the uncharted waters or the safe side the band has opted for, both approaches come with their own set of pros and cons.

When You're Through Changing, You're Through

Changes come as a natural life progression, so of course they're bound to occur in music as well. Musicians are the kind that is expected to find new ways of expressing themselves through their work, so it's not really a matter of whether they'll change, but whether they'll express such change in their music.

Change for the Better or for Worse

Pantera often pops up first as the most clear example of a band changing for better because their case is simply not debatable. They went from decent, some say mediocre or even plain bad glam rock/metal to essentially the inventors of groove metal. Granted, the glam phase did have a few catchy tracks, like "All Over Tonight," but in no way can it compare to some of the monster tracks Texas four-piece unleashed in the '90s.

Not all experiments can be a success, of course, so it's expected that a certain portion of them fails miserably. It's music we're talking about, so matters are highly subjective, but some of the changes embraced by the likes of Korn, Morbid Angel or Queensryche were deemed atrocious by the fans. "The Path of Totality," "Illud Divinum Insanus," "Dedicated to Chaos," just to name a few.

The Debatable Ones: Change to Success

No matter how much you're familiar with the subject, Metallica will likely always be the first band that comes to your mind first when it comes to sound changes. The commercial success is clearly out there, but the artistic value and overall music quality of their later work is a subject to hundreds, if not thousands of debates. Similar could be told for Pink Floyd and their road to superstadom kicking off in the early psychedelic days.

Linkin Park is yet another band that had its fair share of controversy due to the changes they embraced, but still remained one of today's most popular rock acts. If we were to go back to the early days, there's Fleetwood Mac and a portion of their fans who still yearn for the early Peter Green blues days despite the band becoming one of the most successful acts of all time after his departure.

Constant Change

We should also mention the prog domain, a genre where constant changes and experimentation are essentially a must. Take King Crimson as an example - comparing the band's early stage with the Adrian Belew-fronted era of the '80s is like comparing two bands from different genres, proving the fact that the diversity of the prog world is basically a subject of its own.

Sticking to Your Guns

Sticking to the same style and expression in music is a funny thing, especially among more "hard core" fans of a certain sound. People have this interesting tendency to bash bands who change their style, even if they still produce high-quality music, just take a look at Opeth and some of the fans' reactions to "Heritage." Similar goes for Megadeth's "Risk" or Metallica's "Load"/"ReLoad" era.

It's not a rare case that you see fans basically forcing themselves to praise a bland release just because the group is supposedly staying true to their sound and label other albums as garbage because the band "sold out," when in fact they still have very solid and tasteful efforts at their hands. Accusing bands of making music only for the sake of money when in fact it comes directly from the artist's heart is another thing and just goes to show how hard can accepting changes be. But let's stick to the subject, shall we?

Nurturing the same sound for decades can also come with its set of pros, just look at the likes of AC/DC, Motorhead or even Slayer. Constantly revolving the band's sound around the same formula with just a pinch of that magic added once in a while can also result with success. Granted, it can also result in a band releasing a series of indistinct albums year after year, with the notable ones popping up only once or twice a decade. But it will definitely help in making the group's message clear, and if such message was a simple one in the first place, then all the better.

Your musical preferences and fondness of either of the two approaches can actually tell a thing or two about your character, so we'd like to know which of the two groups is the dominant one in your music collection. We've just scratched the surface here, so feel free to get more specific about the subject in the comments section.

40 comments sorted by best / new / date

    How is there an entire article about change in musical direction without a single mention of Kid A?
    The article is about "The Third Album Syndrome". Kid A is Radiohead's fourth album.
    With radio head ok computer was pretty much a perfect crossroads between there old rock oriented sound and the electronica mind****ery that was to come, love all their albums but I always found myself going back to that one.
    Aye, Radiohead are a prime example because their change was so drastic and, arguably, successful.
    Exactly. Not to mention Radiohead are a good example of third album success, OK Computer is in many people's opinions; one of the best albums ever made. Although I'd say Kid A wasn't even the first time they made a major shift in style, their first four albums atleast are completely different animals. More variety on one R'head album (hell, one song) than most band's careers.
    Rush is also a fine example. I have to admit that I like their "synth era" stuff really much.
    QOTSA are a band that come to mind when I think of bands that are constantly changing their sound, but always manage to keep the same edge on all of their albums
    Good article. a few examples come to mind oasis - be here now - criticised for being too similar the verve -urban hyms - success arctic monkeys - humbug -flop? aerosmith - toys in the attic - success primal scream - screamadelica - massive change instyle and success
    The best example for me personally is Rammstein's third studio effort "Mutter". While the 2 first had the same taste and ideas, the 3rd really reinvented the band with a new sound but even better music. God, I'm so happy they made that decision...
    RHCP, first band came to my mind, diverse sound yet a consistent mojo through all their albums. maybe its just me.
    My Last Words
    I like it how this article solely focussed on metal and rock to a lesser extent.
    Welcome to Ultimate Guitar, remember, if there is anything within a article that bothers you, the author most likely does not give a damn!
    One word (or name): Yngwie. He hasn't stopped playing the same stuff since his '84 debut, and I lost interest after Facing The Animal. In a sense I respect him hugely for sticking to his guns and never giving a damn about experimenting just because it's the cool thing to do, but at the same time you're going to have increasingly limited appeal if you never try something new or take off in a completely different musical direction.
    link no1
    Change your sound = people complain Keep your sound = people complain Metallica probably have the same percentage of people complaining about their change in musical direction as Slayer do with people complaining they never change. People are impossible to make happy.
    The human race: We as a species can't be satisfied by anything anyone does, ever!
    Without constant dissatisfaction where would we get the drive to do more and more in an endless cycle of exponential growth that can only end in peace health and happiness for everyone?
    Reminded me of Caress of Steel, honestly. I don't care what anybody says. I still love that album.
    Changing style isn't a risk, making a new album no matter what you're doing is a risk. Doesn't matter if you're changing style (/selling out) or sticking to your guns (/resting on your laurels), making music is never clean cut. The only real difference in music is quality, the only significant change a band can make is quality. Only two genres of music exist as far as I'm concerned: Good Music and Bad Music.
    Smashing Pumpkins and their 3rd album- Mellon Collie.Success all the way
    reliable master
    More of a "flop" but, The Crusade by Trivium would be a good example of this, complete change from Ascendancy and Ember to Inferno. Still a fairly decent album though!
    The 5 albums they've released so far all sound very different from each other. But they all still manage to sound like trivium. All 5 are brilliant albums as well.
    with trivium theres different sounds between the 5 but nothing is completely standout. most of the stuff there is done better by other bands and did it before trivium. they dont have the feel of a continually changing band they have the feel of a band who hasnt found their own niche sound yet. if you didnt know trivium well at all and you showed someone 5 different songs from each album i dont think that person can say that that sounds like one band
    I don't really agree with you on that. Ember to Inferno was pretty straight forward metalcore, with ascendancy they made it a bit more progressive and put in more interesting chords and guitar harmonies. Then on The Crusade they got even more progressive and changed the metalcore element to straight on metal, and on shogun they made it even more progressive and more brutal. Finally on In Waves they "found their sound" incorporating elements from all the other albums and going a bit heavier.
    What about Cage the Elephant? I loved the first album, and while most of their songs that I know come from the second album, I found their second album to be a bit of a disappointment. Yet at the same time I love half of that album's songs.
    Darth Crow
    For me the best example of "sticking to your style" is Dream Theater. Of course their music has evolved over those long years, but the core is still there - it always feels like DT.
    "Metallica will likely always be the first band that comes to your mind first when it comes to sound changes"... Actually when talking to people about sound change in a band, I've meet more people immediatly mention Alice in chains, or Radiohead - only once ever Metallica. Nevermind, excellent article anyway!
    Hmh, my first thought was Iron Maiden and Number Of The Beast. A marked change in style (forgetting the quasi-punk roots as well as switching to a far more versatile vocalist) resulting in creating one of the biggest bands of its genre of all time.
    Iron Maiden? They've always had a pretty similar sound when they have Bruce singing.
    Unfortunately one shocking 3rd album- Rush's Caress of Steel. truly shocking. (love every other rush album btw )
    Our Lady Peace often gets bashed for changing...although the only album that really wasn't any good was Healthy In Paranoid Times...They change their sound every album...personally it keeps me interested in what they're going to come up with next, and I love it all. A solid band is a solid band. Period.
    Everything Devin Townsend does seems to be different in some way or another, but always has that same signature Devin feel going for it. It's pretty cool stuff.