There's an old music business adage that artists have their whole lives to make their first album, but only six months to make their second. While the math doesn't always work out exactly that way — it took Guns N' Roses over four years to follow Appetite for Destruction with Use Your Illusion I and II — there's no question that crafting the follow-up to your debut can be an incredibly daunting prospect, especially if said debut was especially well-received.
But every once in a while, an artist flips the script by coming out with a second album that not only equals their debut, but actually surpasses it — and sometimes even reveals musical, lyrical and conceptual elements that their first musical missive only hinted at. Take Metallica's Ride the Lightning. One of the greatest second albums of all time, it significantly raised the bar for thrash metal while also showcasing the astonishing creative growth that had occurred within the band during the year following the release of Kill 'Em All.
In that spirit, here are 11 great metal albums that defied the "sophomore jinx" by massively improving upon the debuts that preceded them.
Sure, the Sabs' infernal doom-blues attack already sounded fully-formed on their self-titled 1970 debut, but Paranoid — released a mere seven months later! — took it to a whole other realm of hellaciousness, with more ominous riffs, tighter arrangements and grooves that swung even harder. Toss in classic songs like "War Pigs," "Iron Man," "Hand of Doom," the trippy "Planet Caravan" and the rampaging title track, and it all added up to one of the greatest albums of all time.
After the low-budget misfire of 1974's Rocka Rolla, no one could have foreseen that Judas Priest would bounce back brilliantly two years later with the darkly majestic Sad Wings of Destiny. Though the record wasn't a commercial success, Sad Wings firmly cemented the sonic trademarks — Rob Halford's operatic vocals, and the twin-guitar wizardry of Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing — that would mark the band's subsequent work, while introducing such killer tracks as "Tyrant," "The Ripper" and "Victim of Changes" to the Priest canon.
Kill 'Em All was brutal and badass, but Ride the Lightning was where Metallica really became Metallica. James Hetfield's vocals were more nuanced and confident, and thanks to a sympathetic producer (Flemming Rasmussen) and input from Cliff Burton and Kirk Hammett, the band's music achieved a greater depth, complexity and power, with tracks like "For Whom the Bell Tolls," "The Call of Ktulu" and the chilling ballad "Fade to Black" demonstrating that there was more to Metallica (and to thrash metal, in general) than just pushing the boundaries of speed and volume.
While 1984's dark and desperate Morbid Tales was a thrashy revelation in its own right, Celtic Frost made an ambitious leap into the deeper pits of hell with the following year's To Mega Therion. The addition of orchestral instruments and ambient textures somehow made the band's music seem even more forbidding, while dynamic tracks like "The Usurper," "Circle of Tyrants" and "Necromantical Screams" would profoundly influence countless black- and death-metal artists to come.
1985's Killing is My Business… and Business is Good! established Dave Mustaine's new band as a force to be reckoned with, but its raw, rushed recording did the songs no favors. However, Peace Sells... not only contained a brace of stunning tracks (including "Wake Up Dead," "Good Mourning/Black Friday" and the title track) that gave full vent to Mustaine's acidic world view, but (the Capitol Records-mandated) Paul Lani remix of the original tracks gave Megadeth's music plenty of room to breathe, charge and devastate.
Three years after Undertow marked them as one of the more interesting and unusual bands to emerge from the grunge era, Tool followed it up with Aenima, a record far more mysterious, multi-layered and emotionally impactful than their full-length debut. New bassist Justin Chancellor certainly helped the band delve further into progressive-metal territory, but between tracks like "Pushit," "Forty Six & 2" and the nearly 14-minute "Third Eye," and weird-ass interludes like "Message to Harry Manback" and "Die Eier von Satan," Aenima made it clear that Tool were now entirely on their own trip.
It's no easy feat to make your second album weirder and yet more commercial than your first, but that's precisely the trick that System of a Down pulled off with Toxicity. Adding elements of everything from the Beatles to Frank Zappa — plus a new emphasis on harmony vocals — to their arty thrash-punk hybrid, the band created one of the strangest albums to ever top the Billboard 200.
White Pony may have been the Deftones' commercial high point and most critically acclaimed release, but its predecessor, 1997's Around the Fur, was their creative turning point when the band really found itself and the full range of its expansive, expressive sound, pulling from New Wave, post-punk and shoegaze as well as hardcore and metal. Which is probably why even frontman Chino Moreno cites it as his personal favorite Deftones album.
When it came time to record their second album, Slipknot were in a dark place even by their own fucked-up standards. The Nine were shocked by their sudden stardom and ill-equipped to handle it. From groupies to drugs, the band members spiraled into unhinged debauchery and crash-landed in deep depression. They channeled it all into Iowa, which is universally regarded as the band's heaviest and most brutal offering. Songs like "People = Shit" and "The Heretic Anthem" flirt with full-on death metal in their extremity, both sonic and thematic, as the group embraced misanthropy and misery with open arms.
Many Mastodon fans would have been perfectly happy if the Atlantans had continued in the more straightforward and aggro vein of 2002's Remission, but that wasn't what Brann Dailor had in mind. Inspired by Herman Melville's epic novel Moby Dick, Dailor and his cohorts created an equally epic concept album that likened their own artistic quests to that of 19th century whalers, and planted the band firmly at the forefront of progressive metal.
While 2011's Roads to Judah was acclaimed by the few who had the pleasure of hearing it, Deafheaven wanted to take things to a "bigger and slicker" level with their second album. Recorded with greater attention to detail and enough effects to stock a Guitar Center, Sunbather accomplished just that. By streamlining the band's atmospheric sound and intensifying its dynamics, the album transformed Deafheaven into metal's critical darlings — and lightning rods — of the moment.