This week, Austin Winkler and Hinder – the band that he has fronted since its inception in 2001 – parted ways for reasons that are not entirely clear. The reaction to the announcement was met with disbelief, disappointment, sadness and even anger by diehard Hinder fans. Many fans believe that Winkler’s distinct voice will be impossible to replace, and that the band should change their name if they are going to change singers. Given that I was initially drawn to the band because of Winkler’s vocals, I can see why the general consensus seems to be that Hinder will never be the same again unless the band reunites in the future.
There is an inherent risk to changing singers, particularly for established bands that have built a loyal following. Throughout the course of history, numerous hard rock bands have replaced their original singer with varying degrees of success.
AC/DC’s Bon Scott was beloved, but the band overcame his loss and achieved its greatest success with Brian Johnson fronting the band. Of course, Scott’s death gave fans no choice but to accept a replacement. Most people would agree that the Bruce Dickinson era of Iron Maiden is far superior to the early days with Paul Di’Anno. Johnson and Dickinson proved that bands can reach new heights after replacing a singer, but not every singer can escape the shadow of their predecessor.
Motley Crue was at the top of the hard rock food chain with Vince Neil singing lead, but became something of an afterthought during the John Corabi years. Only after a reunion with Neil did the band reclaim their elite status. Judas Priest was an iconic heavy metal band with Rob Halford at the helm, but many of their fans ignored the work that they did with Ripper Owens. When Halford returned, so did the fans who had abandoned the band.
The movie Rockstar is loosely based on the career of Owens, who got his start in a Judas Priest cover band. And though an example was set by Owens’ stint as a sound-alike replacement singer, it has not stopped other bands from taking the same approach.
Journey replaced the legendary Steve Perry with Arnel Pineda, a close proximity, but not quite Perry. Meanwhile, the legal battle for the Queensryche name has resulted in two current versions of the band, one of which features Todd LaTorre on vocals. LaTorre sounds like a lot like Geoff Tate circa 1984, but diehard fans will notice a difference, no matter how slight.
While there may be a temptation to replace an iconic singer with someone similar, often times the best course of action is to evolve into something new and different, but even that approach does not guarantee success.
When Ian Gillan first parted ways with Deep Purple, he was replaced by David Coverdale. Deep Purple’s musical direction changed with Coverdale, and he did an admirable job, but fans were thrilled nonetheless when the band reunited with Gillan. The second time that Gillan left the band he was replaced by Joe Lynn Turner, but the combination of Turner and Ritchie Blackmore felt more like Rainbow 2.0 than Deep Purple. Both Coverdale and Turner brought something new and different to Deep Purple, but to diehard fans of the band, Gillan is the only singer that ever mattered.
Replacing a singer with a strong identity may be difficult, but it is not impossible.
When Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne parted ways, the idea of the band carrying on without him seemed implausible, but they reinvented themselves with former Rainbow frontman, Ronnie James Dio. Like Black Sabbath, Rainbow also had a very successful run with Dio, but their greatest commercial success occurred when Joe Lynn Turner joined the band. The gap between the Dio and JLT eras of Rainbow was bridged by Graham Bonnet, who recorded one album with the band. Though Rainbow changed singers twice, they never missed a beat, due in large part to Blackmore’s guitar virtuosity and songwriting ability.
However, even guitar virtuoso’s can face fan backlash when choosing the wrong frontman.
Eddie Van Halen, one of the greatest hard rock guitarists of all time, enjoyed tremendous success with David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar singing lead, but the majority of Van Halen fans wanted no part of the Gary Cherone era (or error as the case may be).
For better or worse, hard rock fans largely identify their favorite bands with the singer. Whenever a change is made, bands run the risk of alienating their fanbase if the replacement singer is perceived to be subpar, or at the very least, a poor fit.
In the day and age of social media, bands can get a relatively instant gauge of the fan reaction to a replacement singer. Based on the reaction to the news of Austin Winkler’s departure, the new singer of Hinder will be facing an uphill battle to win over the band’s dedicated fanbase.
Only time will tell if the new singer will keep the band’s momentum going, or “hinder” their ascension in the hard rock community.