Nowadays, the announcement of a collaboration between established artists is nearly exclusively met with cynicism and often outright dismissal. When a so-called ‘supergroup’ releases an album, readers are inevitably forced to wade through one-or-two-paragraphs worth of declaimer about how “supergroups are usually less than the sum of their parts” and, therefore “not very good”. It’s something I’ve been guilty of myself.
Yet, it wasn’t always this way, and there really isn’t any reason it should be like this now.
Supergroups have accounted for some of the greatest acts in rock and roll history. Whether via one-off special events like The Dirty Mac, or longer lasting collaborations like The Travelling Wilburys or The Highwaymen, alliances between some of music’s most important and talented artists have yielded impressive results.
There was a time when the supergroup was not only an inevitable feature of any notable musician’s career, but often a highlight. Eric Clapton managed to make an entire career out of them, having fronted the likes of Cream, Blind Faith and Dereck And The Dominoes. Free’s Paul Rodgers has done likewise, having gone on to form Bad Company and The Firm, as well as well as teaming up with the surviving members of Queen later in his career. Hell, even multi-platinum-selling cheese balls Journey began their career as a group of acclaimed session musicians, and the same period also gave us Asia, without whom South Park would be out one of its greatest-ever moments.
The prosperity of the supergroup continued well into the decade, giving us the now-legendary Temple Of The Dog, as well as The Bad Seeds and Mad Season. Meanwhile, on the more extreme end of things, Down’s fantastic debut record, NOLA (1995), allowed then-Pantera vocalist Phil Anselmo to explore the slower, sludgier side of his palette, alongside members of Crowbar and Corrosion of Conformity. He then returned a year later to deliver the slab of absolute savagery that was The Great Southern Trendkill.
Yet somehow, around the turn of the millennium, critics and fans alike seemed to have become so cynical in their outlook that the prospect of their favourite artists teaming up not only no longer excited them. Such announcements frequently came to be met with dismissal and even active disdain. However, such a response seems hardly warranted.
Sure, for every Audioslave’s first record (2002), there’s Audioslave’s every other record (2005, 2006), and indeed the early 2000s were pretty rough when it came to the supergroup side of things. Velvet Revolver failed to set the world on fire, no matter how much time and money their marketing team spent trying to convince you otherwise. Hellyeah failed to live up to the standard of either Pantera, Mudvayne or Nothingface. The decade was rounded out with the formation of both the cringey, dad-rock group Chickenfoot. Even the power-trio of Dave Grohl, John Paul Jones and Josh Homme – a.k.a. Them Crooked Vultures – wound up being only as inoffensive as they were unremarkable.
It’s understandable, then, that music fans might enter the new millennium somewhat jaded when it comes to supergroups. Yet the same period also gave us A Perfect Circle, who managed the outright-impossible task of (almost) equalling the output of not only frontman Maynard James Keenan’s main outfit Tool, but that of associated acts like Nine Inch Nails, The Smashing Pumpkins and Marilyn Manson.
Likewise, Bloodbath delivered on their promise by releasing not one but three of the best extreme metal albums ever committed to record. The brothers Cavalera teamed up with members of Gojira and Ill Nino to produce their best work since their prior collaboration in Sepultura, while Fantomas somehow continued to be the weirdest project Mike Patton and the members of The Melvins has ever participated in.
Although the heavier end of the rock ‘n’ roll spectrum seems to have a higher strike rate when it comes to successful supergroups, the same can be said of more mainstream affair, provided you know where to look for them. Queens Of The Stone Age have arguably been the most successful – and certainly one of the most important – rock acts of the new millennium. While they’re not commonly seen as one, it’s hard to deny the Californian supergroup’s status. The band were famously born form the remains of Kyuss, while the band’s current incarnation features former members of The Mars Volta, A Perfect Circle and the Eagles of Death Metal (all supergroups or noteworthy collaborations). Not to mention their on-again/off-again relationship with Dave Grohl and The Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan.
The same argument might also be made of The Foo Fighters, whose earlier works featured members of Sunny Day Real Estate, The Germs and No Use For A Name, alongside their ex-Nirvana frontman. Add The Mars Volta – whose debut album also featured members of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, among others, along its At The Drive–In core – and you’ve got yourself a rock n’ roll landscape dominated by supergroups. Albeit, ones in disguise.
2016: where are supergroups now?
This year in particular has been rife with them, especially at the heavier end of things. What’s perhaps more impressive than their sheer abundance, however, is that these supposably superlative outfits have delivered far more often than not.
Leading the charge, and inarguably the most successful of the bunch, were The Black Queen. The synthpop collaboration between members and associates of The Dillinger Escape Plan, Nine Inch Nails and (uh…) Ke$ha produced one of the year’s most haunting records in Fever Daydream, which is sure to wind up on many ‘best of the year’ lists.
As for a band whose output actually eclipsed that of its members’ original acts, Serpentine Dominion, which saw Killswitch Engage’s Adam Dutkiewickz collaborating with members of Cannibal Corpse and The Black Dahlia Murder, makes a strong play at being the best Killswitch album in years. The fact that current Killswitch vocalist, Jesse Leech wrote all of the album’s lyrics didn’t hurt one bit, and the record really sees Dutkiewicz flourishing in the more extreme setting.
Even when the results have been less than spectacular, they’ve often remained promising. Gone Is Gone’s debut EP – featuring members of Mastodon, Queens Of The Stone Age and At the Drive-In – was undeniably underwhelming. Yet it was only an EP, and its oddly hypnotic, post-rock canvass did more than enough to drum up interest in an upcoming full-length release from the band. Likewise, although the lead single from Crystal Fairy lead single sounded more or less like a leftover Melvins cut with a different vocalist, the song itself showed enough promise to make their upcoming record one to watch out for in early 2017.
Conversely, Broken Lines, the debut album from Giraffe Tongue Orchestra (Alice In Chains, The Dillinger Escape Plan, Mastodon, The Mars Volta), might not have lived up to its members’ lofty promise, nor did it even sound anything like their prior output. Yet, in and of itself, the album is an outstanding release that allows its line-up to experiment with styles that perhaps wouldn’t be welcome on one of their main projects’ records.
In fact, the only real ‘turky’ in the 2016 supergroup canon also happened to be its most noteworthy and widely publicised. When Prophets of Rage – i.e. Rage Against The Machine fronted by Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Cypress Hill’s B. Real, announced their existence back in May, they were met largely with scepticism. The ‘Profits of Rage’ headlines practically wrote themselves, and the resulting lacklustre EP and shaky live footage did little to dissuade the naysayers.
Yet, this one cynical disappointment shouldn’t be grounds to write off supergroups as a whole. Along with the more successful examples given above, there was also Post Pop Depression, which further balances out the high-profile disappointment of Prophets of Rage. The album saw punk icon Iggy Pop collaborating with Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme and Dean Fertita, alongside Arctic Monkeys’ drummer Matt Helders, and was well-received by critics and fans across the board.
It might be argued that the album’s softball, indie-rock orientation perhaps lacked the fire of its members’ earlier effort. Yet, there was also original Rage Against The Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha’s heartfelt collaboration with hip-hop producer extraordinaire El-P, whose own team-up with fellow-MC Killer Mike, Run the Jewels, has been setting the hip-hop world alight in recent times.
Supergroups serve many purposes. Often they allow artists to branch out and experiment with styles that likely wouldn’t be suitable in their usual setting. These experiments are often rewarding in their own way, and shouldn’t be written-off for not simply being more of the same. More rarely, supergroups can succeed as the true sum of their notable parts. For a perfect example of this occurrence, look no further than 2014’s Killer Be Killed, whose debut record was everything good that makes up The Dillinger Escape Plan, Sepultura/Soulfly and Mastodon, while also being one of the best albums released this decade.
Collaborations between your favourite artists should be cause for excitement and celebration, not dismissal, as is so often the case these days. In light of the evidence, it really doesn’t have to be. Of course, expectations have to be managed, and results might not turn out exactly the way you hoped. Yet they may very well and, if they don’t, you might just end up with something altogether different but no less worthwhile.
…Oh, and, if you haven’t checked out United Nations yet, you really should.