On Early Career Classics

I have always found it peculiar that for most musicians, their “career-defining” releases tend to occur early in their career. One would think that a twenty-something (or even younger) performer with relatively limited life experience and still growing skill set would be less likely to craft a masterpiece than the same performer with another decade or two under their belts, with more to say, more resources at their disposal, and possibly with greater skill in composition and performance.

And yet, examples of early-career pinnacles abound in the world of metal (and not only) music. While Iron Maiden continued to release quality albums for their entire forty-some year span to date, and Metallica still sells out stadiums, most fans would point to their respective 1980s periods as containing their absolute creative peaks. You can make a solid argument that Dio spent the entirety of his career attempting, and failing, to reach the heights of “Holy Diver” as parodied in a “South Park” vignette. With more modern examples, it is no coincidence that artists as diverse as In Flames, Paradise Lost, Halloween, and many others are making conscious nods to their early-period work with their most recent or upcoming releases. So, why does it seem that the band’s likelihood to create a universally recognized masterpiece seems to be inversely proportional to their tenure as a recording artist?

Personally, I think that much of it has to do with nostalgia. I found it peculiar that the older examples of many genres would be hopelessly naïve, poorly recorded, and sometimes even poorly executed by the modern standards – but the same people who would worship at the altar of “Skydancer” or “The Jester Race” would usually thumb their nose at something new released with similar production quality, regardless of the quality of writing or performance therein. Many albums made by overly enthusiastic teenagers retain their status as timeless classics not because they are objectively better executed than late-career works by the same bands, but because they made the largest impression when we first heard them, and the memory of that impression is powerful enough to subsume any realizations that maybe, just maybe, that mid-period record when the band flirted with (insert genre here: prog rock, pop, darkwave, you name it) was, objectively speaking, a more impressive piece of output.

In other words, I believe that in many cases we look at these “definitive” records with rose-tinted glasses, both because of when we first heard them (and what aspects of our life experience we associate them with), and because we might have been more willing to accept the idea over its execution at the time. After all, Celtic Frost’s early works are, objectively speaking, a barely listenable mess, however, it is those early records which captivate the public’s imagination over much more proficient “Monotheist”. Many other artists, metal and not, would spend their entire recording careers living off well-regarded early releases, constantly reuniting with those vintage lineups to perform the “classic (insert year here) release in its entirety” or to release new material as an excuse to go on tour and play the songs that their fans know. How often is it that we look at late-career output of any given band as masterpieces? Of course, it is easy to point out some specific examples if one wants to be a contrarian. That said, my point is that often those early career releases are assessed unrealistically, and are placed on impossible pedestals where nothing would ever compare. Corollary to that, for many listeners expectations of new music become similarly unrealistic. Oh, the irony!

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