It’s a fact of life that most bands that break up come back, those that don’t seem to be the exception in fact. Here are a few albums by bands that broke up afterwards only to come back later thereby putting their one time last musical will and testament in an odd spot. I’m focusing on the rare bands that came back with significant artistic statements afterwards so all those 80s hair metal bands that broke up and got back together repeatedly can stay far away
By the time Swans release what was intended to be their (ahem) swan song, they had been around since the early 1980s and their sound had changed a lot. This record feels like an attempt to catalogue all of the different styles Swans had explored in a single massive chunk. It has a White Album like schizoid template as it bounces from gothy numbers like open “Red Velvet Wound” into post rock sprawls like “The Sound” which, in hindsight seem to anticipate not only the later work of Swans that would come many years later but the bleak soundscapes of Godspeed You! Black Emperor whose seminal F#A#~ came out within a year. Also of note is that this is the last time that Jarboe takes lead vocals as much as Michael Gira does, though they did collaborate a bit on the later albums this is the peak of Swans with her as an equal artistic partner.
Another album that came out in 1996 was Skinny Puppy’s final record until 2004, “The Process”. It’s an odd album because by 1996 all the bands that had been inspired by Skinny Puppy and Ministry were starting to hit it big, Rob Zombie, Korn, Marilyn Manson all owe a debt to Skinny Puppy. But what’s odd about it is how 1990s the whole things sound, like they were absorbing their offspring. Ostensibly a concept album about a psychotherapy cult in the 1960s, lead singer Nivek Ogre’s madman howlings are interspersed with acoustic guitar and piano and the kinds of sound effects that they had never really used before. Still it’s much too weird to have hit the mainstream the way they may have been hoping it would. Good but very much of its time, 2004’s “The Greater Wrong Of The Right” feels much less encumbered by such concerns.
“Red” is the final King Crimson album of the 1970s and the last to feature John Wetton on bass and lead vocals. This version of the band (who changed lineups faster than anyone except The Wu Tang Clan) was perhaps the most consistent, having released three records between 1973 and 1974. This is a brutal, punishing listen. At a time when metal was infiltrating pop music and would continue to do so for the next 15+ years King Crimson went the opposite direction. Robert Fripp’s guitar has never sounded farther from the jazzy soundscapes he was playing with Eno around the same time as this record and Wetton’s vocals are weary, desperate things. This is a progressive metal album that menaces the listener at a time when such a thing wasn’t very common at all. Closing title track “Red” nicks its tune from a Stan Tracy tune but warps it into something thrilling and frightening. Some fans of this band, including myself, might recommend stopping after this album because even though the later work with Adrian Belew was enjoyable: this was as far and as extreme as they would ever go.
James Murphy has made a career out of sounding like a sad sack whose biggest problem is that he’s much too aware of it. This album was his final testament as LCD Soundsystem (unless you count him mutating Arcade Fire into sounding a lot like his band when he produced “Reflektor” in 2013 which I might). A collection of imminently poppy dance punk songs, this sounds like the end of something and he even accompanied it by a very maudlin concert in Madison Square Gardens. On songs like “Drunk Girls” and “Dance Yrself Clean”, Murphy sounds like he’s on the edge and even disco might not be offering him sanctuary anymore. More than any other album on this list, the finality of this collection is very deliberate. So what are we to make of LCD Soundsystem reuniting a mere six years later? Who knows, the record hasn’t come out yet but it already has me feeling as crankily nostalgic as James Murphy would have us believe he is.
When I was growing up, this was generally considered David Bowie’s final album. And it was until he came back with “The Next Day” in 2013 and the very recent (and actually final) “Blackstar”. “Blackstar” and this record then, have an odd sort of relationship since each is a death record. “Blackstar” is about real, physical death and “Reality” is about the death of disappearance. For a decade afterwards, Bowie was (excepting a few acting cameos) gone following a problem with his heart in 2004. “Reality” is like a puzzlebox, on one hand he’s having fun doing things like covering The Modern Lovers “Pablo Picasso” but he’s also confronting the same dreamlands that haunt so much of his music on songs like “Fall Dog Bombs The Moon”. Now that we have David Bowie’s real final record, “Reality” stands as a mystery in his catalogue and one that demands close listening.