16 Bands with Freaky Parallel Career Arcs

Artistic growth is impossible to quantify. Every subsequent work an artist makes is a conversation between their previous output, the life experience they’ve had since, and the expectations of their fans. Do you make the same piece over again? Do you build on what works? Do you throw it all away?

Every time a musician goes to make a new album, this discussion plays out. The variables are weighed, and (usually) they come to a different conclusion.

However, there are a few acts across music history where two different acts make strangely similar paths. And I’m not talking about copycats and ripoffs, or even soundalikes. Rather, I’m talking about bands that took similar routes through their respective journeys.

Radiohead & Thrice: the Hard Left Detour

I’m not the first person to notice a similarity between these two careers. Thrice has been nicknamed “The Radiohead of Heavy Music” ever since Vheissu dropped in 2006. Fans and critics alike pointed to how that record took a similar detour into electronic experimentation as Radiohead’s Kid A, a record so synonymous reinvention that every other band that changes up their sound between two releases is compared to it.

But their arcs are a lot more similar than just that changeup would suggest.

First, each band has a debut that isn’t super notable among the rest of their output. Then there’s the second record, The Bends and The Illusion of Safety, both considered classics that brought them some real attention. Then, each of them made an album that many think to be the peak of their respective genres. OK Computer is an alternative masterpiece, and many people consider The Artist in the Ambulance to be the best post-hardcore record of the early 2000s.

Then, on their fourth record, they each give their sonic palette a huge shake-up. They each get even more experimental on the next release (Amnesiac and The Alchemy Index) before releasing a string of more accessible records while still retaining a bit of that experimentalism. The Radiohead of heavy music indeed.

And you know what, Wilco follows roughly the same path too.

Cave In & mewithoutYou: Heaviness Bell Curve

At first blush Cave In and mewithoutYou don’t really have a lot in common. They occupy very different corners of the East Coast hardcore megascene. But when you take a birds eye view of their catalogs, things start to look a little similar.

Both acts started out with a blistering fury, Cave In offering fiery metalcore and mewithoutYou thrashing around the stage with a frantic talkcore. As they go on though, their albums get more and more melodic. Then, they each released an album with none of their original sound.

For Cave In, it was Antenna, a spacey arena rock record that got them a tour with Foo Fighters. For mewithoutYou, it was it’s all crazy! it’s all false! it’s all a dream! it’s alright, a quirky folk album that took most of its influences from Neutral Milk Hotel and Bob Dylan. Compared to their debuts, each of these records was a shock, causing many fans to walk away.

Thousands of heavy bands have softened their edge as they go on. But Cave In and mewithoutYou both took an odd turn after this: they each started to go back to their heavier sounds. Cave In’s Perfect Pitch Black has a few songs with screamed vocals; mewithoutYou’s Ten Stories has plenty of Aaron Weiss’s trademark holler. Cave In’s next record, White Silence, is almost purely a metalcore record, with far less clean vocals and nary an anthemic chorus to be found. mewithoutYou’s later records likewise have several moments of fury not unlike the wild early records.

While their paths diverge again after this point, the general trajectory is the same.

Sunny Day Real Estate & Weezer: Breakup Won’t Take

For this one, I’m going to pretend that the last, I don’t know, twenty-five Weezer records don’t exist. Rivers & Co. have definitely jumped the shark a few times, and I don’t want anyone to think I’m accusing Sunny Day Real Estate of doing the same. Because if we look past the Toto covers, Lil Wayne features, and whatever the hell “Beverly Hills” was, there’s a strange symmetry between these two bands.

Both acts have debuts that are almost universally beloved, Blue by Weezer and Diary by Sunny Day Real Estate—both of which were released on May 10, 1994. Freaky.

After this, they each released a sophomore record that was a huge departure from their debuts: Pinkerton was raw and confessional (some would say overly so) while LP2—often referred to as The Pink Record…coincidence?—was ragged and obtuse. Both were poorly received, and the bands would break up (technically, SDRE was all but broken up while recording LP2).

Both of these breakups would prove to be temporary though. Sunny Day Real Estate reunited in 1998 to finish some half-written songs for a rarities compilation and ended up releasing How It Feels to be Something On. Weezer, after discovering that Pinkerton had become a cult classic on internet forums, got back together and released Green.

Sunny Day would only release one further album (The Rising Tide) before breaking up, compared to Weezer’s endless deluge of whatever it is they’re doing. However, three of the four original members of SDRE later formed a project called The Fire Theft, which is also wonderful—even if they only released one record.

Bon Iver & Bob Dylan: Going Electric

Bob Dylan has far too expansive a catalog to do a one-to-one dissection, but there are some broad strokes that we can shrink down to a microcosm. And while there have been plenty of acoustic acts that have adopted full band palettes with drum sets and electric guitars, I don’t know if too many other acts have encapsulated the Judas level betrayal most fans felt when Dylan went electric at the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival as Bon Iver’s 22, A Million.

For Emma, Forever Ago was a near-perfect record, and its man-in-a-cabin origin story lifted Justin Vernon to Rustic Folk Singer of the Moment much like Dylan in the early 60s. Bon Iver’s palette was substantially expanded on the second record: electric guitars, drum sets, Fender Rhodes, and horn sections were ubiquitous. But they were used tastefully enough that it still felt like the Bon Iver we all knew and loved.

Then came 22, A Million, an experimental electronic album that tore all of that apart, glitching drum machines fizzling under synthesizers, samples, and dozens of autotuned layers of Vernon’s voice. I remember getting texts from multiple friends when the single “Beth Rest” released, all of them lamenting that they couldn’t follow Bon Iver on his new record.

Like Dylan, Bon Iver has softened their hostility a bit. Where i,i still had plenty of experimental textures, it was a much gentler record. Now I guess we wait to see if he makes a Gospel record?

Mogwai & The Flaming Lips: Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop

At the time of their debuts, it would have been preposterous to most people that Mogwai and The Flaming Lips would still be active in 2023, let alone relevant. But both the post rock pioneers and the alt rock freakers have managed to have prolific careers that hit far more often than they miss. Both of their catalogs are filled with experimental albums, soundtracks (both real and invented), and collaborations with other artists.

Each act have also mastered the sonic pivot—not quite as drastic reinvention as the Kid A overhaul, but steadily morphing while remaining recognizable. Mogwai has had records like Mr. Beast, Rave Tapes, and As the Love Continues, each marking a new period in their creative process. Similarly, The Flaming Lips seem to signal a new period every decade, with In a Priest Driven Ambulance, The Soft Bulletin, Embryonic, and now American Head.

And even though each act have had decades with prolific output, they don’t seem to be running out of steam anytime soon.

NIN & The Smashing Pumpkins: Epic Ambitions

The nineties were a weird and glorious time: major labels were throwing untold sums at weird and heavy bands in hopes of finding the next Nirvana (note: both Sonic Youth and Drive Like Jehu both had major label releases).

For two bands in particular, those gambles seemed to pay off. Nine Inch Nails and The Smashing Pumpkins both started with brilliant albeit humble debuts (Pretty Hate Machine and Gish respectively). Their debuts brought a flurry of notoriety, sold out tours, and hugely anticipated sophomore records.

Those two records—The Downward Spiral and Siamese Dream—were instant classics that remain perfect records. And at the time, it turned them into superstars. Both records moved massive units, and when the time came for a follow up, they were essentially given a blank check from the record label.

Both bands would use the resources at their disposal to release sprawling double albums that can only be described as epic. Fragile would clock in at an hour and forty-five minutes; Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness surpassed two hours. And despite the stereotypes about their attention spans, teenagers everywhere devoured them. The Fragile would go double platinum, while Mellon Collie would earn a rare Diamond certification from the RIAA, selling over 5 million copies.

My Bloody Valentine & Portishead: The Delayed Third

Both My Bloody Valentine and Portishead were immensely influential 90s acts, adored by fans and critics alike. Each released two records (we don’t talk about the pre-Kevin Shields-fronted MBV records) that defined their respective genres. Loveless remains the Platonic ideal of shoegazers everywhere, while Portishead’s first two records are as close to perfect trip hop records as anyone got (okay, Massive Attack got there too). And then, they stopped for a bit.

That’s not where it ends though. Because if you were to try to make a list of 90s bands that made two excellent records and then disappeared, you’d be busy for a while (Neutral Milk Hotel, anybody?). But what makes MBV and Portishead’s paths so similar is the comeback.

Eleven years after their self-titled record, Portishead released Third. My Bloody Valentine would stretch their followup even further, offering up m b v an eternity-seeming twenty-two years after Loveless. The most surprising part about m b v though was that it came out at all—Shields had been saying a new album would release “any day now” since 2007.

Where most comeback attempts are ill-fated, both follow ups managed to hold on to what made each band special while pointing in exciting new directions. Sadly though, the biggest similarity to date is that Portishead and My Bloody Valentine both have yet to release another record, despite both bands being mostly active in the years since.

Even if you chalk this all up as coincidence, you’ve got to admit that there are some undeniable similarities between the arcs that these artists have taken. And some of those similarities are even just a little freaky. So if you don’t mind, I’m going to put my tinfoil hat away and try to clean up all these red threads and thumbtacks on the wall.

But if you have any other examples, keep the conversation going in the comments.

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