The ship of Theseus, also known as Theseus’ paradox, is a thought experiment that raises the question of whether an object that has had all of its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object.
If you know anything about Napalm Death you probably know this bit of trivia: the band contains no original members. While they are known for the revolutionary Scum album, not even their oldest current member played on it. But, like I said, you probably knew that. And there are very, very few bands that share this particular oddity.
But when it comes to members leaving, dying or being fired, when is a band no longer the same band?
Sepultura has made plenty of people angry through the years, but they didn’t start losing large swathes of fans until Max Cavalera left and they retained a name that really no longer seemed appropriate. The dark stretch of Ripper Owens is another example — Judas Priest probably should have thought twice before trying to sell that name sans Halford.
Of course, there are plenty of examples to prove the opposite. It would have seemed impossible for Black Sabbath to carry on with their moniker minus Ozzy, but Dio proved that wrong… at least for a little bit. And it hasn’t bothered anyone for a long time that Cannibal Corpse retained their name and songs with replacement frontman George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher. And let’s remember that while Blaze Bayley filling in for Bruce Dickinson was a fradulent advertisement of Iron Maiden, it would have been foolish to ditch that radical name when Dickinson replaced Paul Di’Anno.
To get into more extreme examples on both sides of the argument, only 20% of the Dillinger Escape Plan remains from their Calculating Infinity days, but have seemed like roughly the same band thanks to the sheer will of guitarist Ben Weinman. Alternatively, while Page Hamilton has always been the heart of Helmet, when he began again without any members from the halcyon days, the magic was gone and name besmirched.
Steve Austin is Today is the Day regardless of who happens to be on stage with him, whereas Om was just two members for five years and three records. When a new drummer came on and a third guy was added, does the name really seem appropriate anymore?
This may seem like a pointless conversation; that it’s just a name. But there is a lot of power there. That’s why there are things like the lawsuit who could be called Queensryche (as explained by Editor-in-Chief Albert Mudrian on NPR). Albums released under a certain band name is like a stamp from the USDA, authentication that the music has reached a certain level of quality. None of Mike Patton’s countless projects receive a tenth of the attention and scrutiny he got from last year’s underwhelming Faith no More comeback.
So clearly, when it comes to the musical equivalent of the ship of Theseus, there are no hard-and-fast rules. The question is, are there any rules at all?