Written by Brandon Biallas
Is a band defined by the band name or the individual members themselves? If most or all original members have left your favorite band, do you still consider it the same band? Let's take a deep-dive into some notable examples from two different genres and see if there are any answers.
There’s an old philosophical thought experiment that goes something like this: If you have a ship and over time you gradually replace all of its original parts with brand new parts, is it still the same ship? If not, at what point should the ship be considered an entirely new ship? These are the basic questions posed by the idea behind Theseus’ Ship.
These concepts have been pondered in many different permutations — cars, machines, and even the human body itself as we approach a future where robotic replacement body parts become closer to reality.
In most cases, the replacement of every single component on any of these systems is incredibly rare or non-existent. However, the philosophical concept of Theseus’ Ship has modern parallels in some surprising areas in our world today.
For instance, take a band like Brazilian metal band Sepultura, whose last original founding member, Igor Cavalera, left in 2006. This poses the following question: Is Sepultura the same band today as when it was founded? Some might argue that it isn’t because they’ve undergone stylistic changes, in addition to numerous personnel changes. Others will no doubt disagree as the modern version of the band still plays much of the same music and honors the legacy of the previous lineups.
To analyze this further lets take a deep dive into the band’s background a bit. Sepultura was founded in Belo Horizonte, the capital city of Minas Gerais, Brazil, in 1984 by brothers Max and Igor Cavalera. The band would go on to produce a prolific music career spanning 30 plus years of genre-defining metal. Incorporating elements of Latin music, Samba, and Brazilian traditional music, this was a rare combination of genre-bending that the world at large had not previously heard before their formation. Releasing many iconic albums throughout the 80’s and 90’s such as Beneath The Remains, Arise, Chaos A.D., and Roots, tremors from the band’s impact on the metal scene are still being felt today. Roots especially, is considered a landmark release in their history, as it is widely considered to be one of the first Nu-Metal records ever. It also has the unique distinction of incorporating traditional Brazilian percussion into their sound. Indigenous members of the Xavante tribe in Mato Grosso recorded their unique percussion for the track, with many of the lyrical themes also paying tribute to the tribe members and their life experiences.
Now fast forward to today. The metal band Sepultura is still going strong and coming off the heels of a collaborative quarantine album titled SepulQuarta released this year, there’s no sign of them stopping anytime soon. I don’t try to hide the fact that I’m a bigger fan of their earlier music but I also have nothing against the modern incarnation either. Vocalist Derrick Green is exceptional at what he does. And to be fair, lead guitarist Andreas Kisser has been with the band since 1987, and bassist Paulo Jr. has been with the group since 1984. They’re still churning out great metal after all these years and furthering the legacy of a great band, no doubt. But I’ll pose the same question: is it really the same band? The band has largely abandoned the Brazilian elements of the former incarnations’ sound. While a band is certainly allowed to evolve, at what point does it begin to lose all traces of what once defined their core identity?
For most people this just boils down to semantics and probably isn’t worth debating. However, I still can’t help but find it fascinating. Certainly most people may agree with the statement that the role of a vocalist carries with it a large piece of a band’s “identity.” So I’ll provide another example to help illustrate what I’m trying to say.
The Dead Kennedys are an American punk band formed in San Francisco, California in 1978. The band created some of the most iconic political satire and celebrated punk music of the 1980s with four classic albums, culminating in their final studio release to this date, Bedtime For Democracy in 1986. Since the ousting of founding member and lead vocalist Jello Biafra the band has since reformed without him and gone on to perform on many tours. The other remaining members won a bitter legal battle against Biafra for song and royalty rights to their music. It all leaves a sour taste in my mouth whenever I read about it. Biafra is undoubtedly one of the main attractions to their studio recordings whenever you put them on. The biting political satire, the cartoonish tone of voice, the energy and passion behind his delivery, it’s all so unapologetically him. Without Biafra, what are you left with exactly?
It goes without saying that the other members of the band also played pivotal roles in the creation and sound of the music. At the same time, especially considering the bitter falling-out of the members with Biafra and the ensuing legal battles between both parties, the remaining members of the Dead Kennedys almost seem to be continuing out of spite. It’s a tragic, slow death for a band to die. It appears as little else than a pathetic attempt at a cash-grab and a milking of a once-great band’s legacy. Replacing vocalists is not unheard of, and in some cases even works to the band’s benefit. But I don’t consider this to be one of those cases. Fortunately Biafra has gone on to take over the influential record label Alternative Tentacles as well as continue to pursue other musical projects, like record albums with his new band, Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine. For anyone still looking to get their fix of him there’s plenty out there to consume.
Wherever you stand on this issue you’re probably right about it. It’s a matter of perspective and little else. As long as the music speaks to you in a meaningful way the band is doing what they were formed to do and contributing to the creative landscape. At the end of the day, whether the band’s motivations are greed, the love of music, or perhaps somewhere in between, I don’t really think a band is harming anyone by continuing a legacy. It’s the legacy they chose to lead and whatever they choose to do with it going forward is entirely their business. I just can’t help but wonder how much better The Dead Kennedys would be with Jello Biafra still at the helm.