Photo of one of Zao's best line-ups.
By Chase Macabre (STL)
When the Dallas Mavericks defeated LeBron James and the Miami Heat to win the 2011 NBA Championship, the whole story line for the Finals was experienced veterans versus the young, athletic upstarts, and how fantastic it was that, after 17 years in the league and having had two chances in the past with the New Jersey Nets, Jason Kidd is finally a World Champion at the ripe old age of 38.
In fact, the entire playoffs' story line was this "changing of the guard." The older players, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, Tim Duncan and the Spurs, Dirk Nowitski and the Mavs, are trying to hold on against this rising tide of young talent in Oklahoma City, Chicago and Miami. Inevitably, as the older teams are defeated, the question of whether an athlete can still succeed when they have "passed their prime" comes up. This made me wonder if bands, like athletes, also have "primes"?
Are there specific periods in a band's life where they are at the peak of their powers and release their most compelling, ground-breaking and influential work? I think there is compelling evidence that there is! And if that's the case, what contributes to that break down? What athletes do they resemble most? I'd like to start with my favorite band from when I was in high school: ZAO.
ZAO started in 1993 and released two rather mediocre records in the early stages of metalcore before entering their prime with When Blood and Fire Bring Rest in 1998. The album represented a leap in songwriting, live performance and overall attitude, and songs from this record have been performed live throughout the band's career, even after releasing multiple new records.
The following two albums, 1999's Liberate Te Ex Inferis and 2001's (Self-Titled) were both equally as strong as Blood and Fire, but the band was on their way downhill after that. Parade of Chaos sounded like castaway songs from the (Self-Titled) sessions, and the band re-recorded All Else Failed to fulfill a contract liability to tepid results.
After briefly breaking up (this happened quite a few times in the band's life, actually) there was a brief glimmer of hope of a resurgence in "athletic" ability (perhaps HGH-induced) with Ferret Records' 2004 release, The Funeral of God. The record had several strong songs, including "The Rising End" (see video above), which is one of my all-time ZAO favorites, but the band never achieved the same heights again. Each subsequent release has been bearable at best. Possible reasons they lost it: the final exit of Russ Cogdell (guitar) and Jesse Smith (drums), followed by a revolving door of singers, bassists and drummers.
Comparable Athlete: Shaq.
With a trio of fantastic records akin to Shaq's three titles with the L.A. Lakers, and the last hurrah of The Funeral of God representing his No. 2 role in Miami for the 2006 title, but each following record was like each team Shaq jumped ship to from 2007-2011. ZAO should follow Shaq's example from this past year and retire as well.
Converge is another of my all-time favorite bands. Converge started off their career in 1990, slowly getting better with each new album. By 2001, and the release of Jane Doe (which is the best metalcore record ever), the band transformed into a monster. Each subsequent record has been on par in terms of performance, creativity, audio quality and diversity, but the band has yet to really knock it out of the park with any of them like they did with Jane Doe, although the band's latest album, 2010's Axe To Fall, was widely praised.
Maybe the band has lost a step? After seeing them live a few months ago in St. Louis, I felt they were starting to show their age, but because of the great things they've done in the past, I can't count them out or write them off (much like how everyone thought the Lakers would win the 2011 title. They were given the benefit of the doubt on past glories.)
Comparable Athlete: Tom Brady.
After being taken at No. 199 in the NFL Draft in 2000, Tom Brady had to compete for his spot on the team before settling in as Drew Bledsoe's backup. After a an injury to Bledsoe, Brady took over the starting job and eventually led the team to Super Bowl championship in 2001. This parallels When Forever Comes Crashing, showing a band with obvious talent with flashes of greatness to come. Two Super Bowls in 2003 and 2004, including a 14-2 record in that year, is the utter domination of Jane Doe. Each subsequent year the Patriots and Brady would get close. Losing in the the Divisional round (No Heroes), the AFC Championship game (Axe To Fall) and in the Super Bowl (You Fail Me) represent how close Converge have gotten to greatness, but each time just falling just short. Also, it doesn't hurt that Converge are from New England, the same area where Brady plays.
As if we couldn't talk enough about Mastodon on this site lately, I feel like the band are the perfect example of the aging superstar. Their first several releases, including the EP Lifesblood, and the LPs Remission, Leviathan (definitely their finest hour) and Blood Mountain, are all excellent. Leviathan is constantly mentioned in top albums of the Aughts lists (by Decibel and NPR, among others). I haven't found their recent work compelling. Crack the Skye was sterilized by its attention to detail and The Hunter feels undercooked. Mastodon needs to rediscover their center, and who knows if that'll happen or not.
Comparable Athlete: Derek Jeter.
Derek Jeter is the starting shortstop for the New York Yankees since 1996. He won the Rookie of the Year award that year, and helped take the Yankees to their first title since 1978, which is one of four titles his team would win in a five-year stretch. Hmm, four titles and four albums? Sounds like Mastodon to me. The Yankees went through a title drought since then (with the exception of '09) and Jeter has lately fallen under some criticism for his lack of performance. Once the leading superstar of an unstoppable juggernaut, many critics question whether he still has it especially at his defensive position of shortstop. And the Yankees were just knocked out of the 2011 race. Jeter's showing his age, and so is Mastodon.