What Happened to Disturbed?

Why didn’t the multiplatinum Chicago metal group’s new album debut at no. 1 like the five other albums that preceded it?

Evolution by Disturbed

On October 19, Chicago metal band Disturbed released their seventh studio album, Evolution. It was their first collection of new material in three years, following 2015’s Immortalized, debuting on the Billboard 200 at #4, behind the A Star is Born soundtrack (in its third week at #1) and two other debuts: Future & Juice WRLD’s WRLD ON DRUGS, and Greta Van Fleet’s Anthem of the Peaceful Army. An impressive showing…unless you’re Disturbed, whose previous five albums had all debuted at #1, an achievement they share with Metallica and the Dave Matthews Band.

The Future & Juice WRLD album was credited with 98,000 equivalent units. 8,000 of those came from conventional album sales, while the rest were “album equivalent units,” meaning streams that Billboard counts as sales. Greta Van Fleet’s album was credited with 87,000 copies in its first week of release, of which 80,000 units were traditional sales, and the rest were streaming equivalent units. Disturbed sold 65,000 CDs, and got 6,000 album equivalent units, bringing their first-week total to 71,000.

Now, you could argue that Billboard’s insistence on counting streams as sales is literally a false equivalency. If you take that position, there’s a chart for you; the Top Album Sales list is all about physical music (and paid downloads). On that chart, Greta Van Fleet is #1, Disturbed is #2, and A Star Is Born is #3…and, amazingly enough, former Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley has a top 10 debut; his Spaceman squeaked in at #9. But the story remains Disturbed’s fall. After five straight #1 albums with a style that, love it or hate it, is all their own, they’re being beaten out by a bunch of kids ripping off Led Zeppelin and pre-Neil Peart Rush?

Disturbed have always succeeded in the face of negative critical expectations. When they first arrived on the scene at the turn of the millennium, they were seen as nu-metal also-rans with a singer who made hilarious monkey noises. Unlike Korn or Limp Bizkit, though, their music and aesthetic never owed much to hip-hop; Disturbed was more of an industrial metal act, unsurprising for four guys from Chicago, home of Wax Trax! Records (Ministry/Revolting Cocks, Front 242, KMFDM et al.). They had big riffs, hard-punching electronic rhythms, and their choruses were meant to be shouted. They busted their asses on the road supporting their debut, which eventually went Top 30.

Disturbed 2018 tour shirt

In 2002, they returned with Believe, and their streak began. Released almost exactly one year after 9/11, it was a heavier, more traditionally metal album than its predecessor, and the lyrics were focused on sorrow and spirituality. Draiman’s vocals were less percussive and more theatrical, even cantorial, befitting his re-engagement with his Jewish background. It’s probably still their best album. Believe debuted at #1, featured three hit singles, and was ultimately certified double platinum.

Three years passed before Ten Thousand Fists was released in 2005. Their most explicitly political record, it was also their heaviest to date—the songs even had guitar solos—and custom-built for arenas. A regrettable cover of Genesis’s “Land Of Confusion” aside, it was about as good as mainstream metal got that year: catchy, fist-pumping, and aggressive without tipping over into full-on death metal. Disturbed weren’t Slipknot, and they weren’t trying to be. Five singles were released—“Guarded,” “Stricken,” “Just Stop,” “Land Of Confusion” and the title track—and it, too, went double platinum.

The fourth Disturbed album, 2008’s Indestructible, was their darkest and most punishing; songs like “Divide” and “Perfect Insanity” were basically industrial thrash, though singles like “Inside The Fire,” “The Night,” and the title track maintained the crowd-pleasing, anthemic qualities of their earlier work. By then the band was a known quantity, touring hard (and playing big venues) and receiving a warm welcome on rock radio. The album went platinum, and “Inside The Fire” was nominated for a Best Hard Rock Performance Grammy.

The band’s 2010 release, Asylum, upped the heaviness stakes again. The electronic and industrial elements of their sound were pushed into the background on many tracks; the first single, “Another Way To Die,” shifted from post-grunge doom to the band’s trademark face-punching, intensely rhythmic riffing. The title track was pure metal, as were the two follow-up singles, “The Animal” and “Warrior.” On the one hand, the songs were pretty samey; on the other hand, that’s called having a style. AC/DC songs sound like AC/DC; Slayer songs sound like Slayer; Disturbed songs sound like Disturbed. Still, Asylum didn’t do as well as its predecessors. It debuted at #1, but was only ever certified gold, not platinum like every Disturbed album before it.

The band took a multi-year hiatus after Asylum. When they returned with 2015’s Immortalized, they were on the ropes a little—Draiman’s solo project Device received mixed reviews, and Fight Or Flight, a band featuring guitarist Dan Donegan and drummer Mike Wengren, inspired even less interest or enthusiasm from fans. But it turned out that the core brand was still strong. While the sound of Immortalized was slightly different, thanks to producer Kevin Churko—less electronic, a little crunchier and more live-sounding—the songs held to the band’s long-established formula. Except for the cover that turned out to be their biggest single since “Down With The Sickness.” Draiman’s murmur-to-a-yarl version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound Of Silence” was a radio smash, its string-soaked arrangement and his almost Eddie Vedder-esque vocals resonating with audiences to an almost disturbing (no pun intended) degree. That song ultimately put Immortalized and Disturbed back in the platinum club.

Disturbed frontman David Draiman on the cover of latest issue of Metal Hammer sans hid famous chin piercings

So what happened this time? Theoretically, Disturbed are as big as they’ve ever been…but Evolution sold almost 25% fewer copies in its first week than Immortalized, which did 98,000. Well, it’s probably a confluence of factors. One is simple market erosion. Obviously, they sell records to people who still buy records, and there are fewer and fewer of those, because there are fewer and fewer places to actually buy records. Never mind actual record stores: big-box outlets like Walmart, Target, and Best Buy have radically shrunk their music sections, if they haven’t done away with them entirely, and Amazon—where everybody buys everything—doesn’t put new music releases on its front page or do much of anything to promote them. It’s also possible that their fan base has aged out. They’ll show up at the concerts, but might be content to hear the new songs on the radio, or on Spotify.

The music might actually be a problem, though. The truth is, Evolution is the worst Disturbed album in a while. The second single, “A Reason To Fight,” tells the story: it’s a bland power ballad that doesn’t even have one of the big, lighter-waving choruses they used to be able to write in their sleep. And there are three more of these weak acoustic numbers clogging up the record—“Hold On To Memories,” “Already Gone,” and “Watch You Burn,” the latter of which wastes a headbang-worthy title on a song that sounds like Extreme trying to rewrite Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” and falling asleep while doing it. That’s four lullabies on an album with only ten tracks (on the standard edition—the deluxe includes two bonus tracks, one of which is another fucking ballad; a remix of the first single, “Are You Ready”; and a live version of “The Sound Of Silence” with guest vocals from Myles Kennedy).

For close to 20 years, Disturbed were better than critics gave them credit for being. Unfortunately, given Evolution’s mediocrity, this sales slump, and their recent announcement that their upcoming arena tour may be their last before a slowdown in live activity, it’s legitimate to wonder if we’re going to see the end of Disturbed before long. Whatever happens now, though, their 13-year streak of five #1 albums has already cemented their status among the rock and metal elite.

 

 

Phil Freeman

Phil Freeman is a freelance writer whose work appears regularly in Bandcamp Daily, Down Beat, Stereogum, the Village Voice, and The Wire. He runs the arts and culture site Burning Ambulance and hosts the Burning Ambulance podcast, featuring interviews with jazz musicians.

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