The Curse of Back-to-Basics Albums

Last week I reviewed Muse’s latest album, Drones, which has been described as a back-to-basics album, as it ditched the electronic elements of its predecessor, The 2nd Law, favouring a guitar-heavy sound instead. The album definitely showed many traits of previous records, including some blatant rip-off moments, in addition to reigning in some of the Muse bombast, but despite the attempts to rekindle the old formula, the record still fell flat.

The concept of back-to-basics albums is nothing new and neither is the flop of such albums. I can think of many more unsuccessful attempts to return to a band’s heyday than successful ones, but why is that?

The main reason is the inherent concept of such an album. An album’s musical style is more than just a particular genre or way of writing – it’s a creative process that stems from the band’s mindset at the time. Take Linkin Park’s most recent record as an example. The Hunting Party was a return to the guitar-driven sound of their earlier records, after a detour through electronica (similar to Muse in that respect), which missed the mark entirely. Linkin Park’s debut record, Hybrid Theory, was built on angst, which coincided with the height of nu metal’s reign – a circumstance that no amount of writing could reproduce. The band are no longer twenty and the rap-rock style no longer excites the bands members, so the album naturally felt uninspired and forced.

A slightly more successful attempt came from nu metal pioneers Korn, who released Korn III: Remember Who You Are in 2010 to combat the distinctly average Untitled. Korn III returned to the band’s roots by removing the polished and layered sound of previous records, hiring their original producer Ross Robinson and returning to simpler and heavier song structures. However, with the exception of a few tracks, the record didn’t seem to have the same spark that their other albums have shown, as forcing a particular sound rarely results in a convincing record, even if all the correct ingredients seem to be in place.

Compare this to the follow-up, The Path of Totality, which completely removed itself from the trademark Korn sound, replacing it with dubstep and electronica. Whilst the album’s bold direction naturally split fans, it is clear to hear that the band are inspired and focused on this record, regardless of your personal taste. This is all because The Path of Totality was a record that the band wanted to record, instead of one they made to satisfy the fans, which is how most back-to-basics albums are conceived.

That is not to say that back-to-basics albums can’t be successful. Perhaps my favourite example is another band that was produced in the nu metal era, Deftones. Their fifth studio album, Saturday Night Wrist, although being a firm favourite of mine, split the fan base with its more experimental and atmospheric approach. Its follow-up wasn’t only a return to the simpler guitar music of their past, but a complete rebirth of band that at one stage looked set to fold, after their bassist, Chi Cheng, fell into a coma (and subsequently passed away in 2013). The album, entitled Diamond Eyes, surpassed all expectations by rejuvenating the old formula with new inspiration and a truly brilliant vocal performance from singer Chino Moreno.

If a band feels it needs to write a back-to-basics album then perhaps it should follow Deftones’ blueprint. A back-to-basics album shouldn’t be an album of recycled ideas or a direct imitation of a musical style, but a rejuvenised and re-inspired version of the band’s earlier records.

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