Covers: the good, the bad, and the specimens

What can we learn from them? Covers are something of a catch 22. They tend to generate more scorn because they are treated as the defamation of something beautiful. We know the real potential in the music, and some other artist came along and slaughtered right in front of our innocent eyes. It’s very easy to sit here and endlessly berate artists for butchering the classics, but the intentions behind covers are usually far less lofty than original material. A fun nod to a surprise influence. An homage to a much-loved artist. Or in some cases introducing the fanbase to an artist they may never have come across otherwise.

Many of these covers are the result of at least one of these reasons, or a mix of all three. Does that excuse them? Should we leave them be? The below is a list of examples of metal artists forcing themselves out of their comfort zone for a bit. This can be a necessary road map out of stagnation. Expanding the gene pool in one of the most insular subcultures going. It may not always be pretty to witness, but for musician and fan alike it’s an important element of developing one’s pallet, and pointing the way to possible futures.

Cradle of Filth: No Time to Cry

Cradle of Filth were really quite good once. ‘Dusk and Her Embrace’ (1996) and ‘Cruelty and the Beast’ (1998) are solid slabs of British extreme metal. From there they kinda morphed into a chimera of Iron Maiden and Marilyn Manson via the hot mess that was their major label debut ‘Damnation and a Day’ (2003).

Couched somewhere in this clusterfuck of influences was ‘Bitter Suites to Succubi’ (2001), a collection of re-recordings, some passable original material…and a cover, of The Sisters of Mercy. It’s hardly a shock that Dani is a massive goth, but there is merit in using your prestige amongst a fairly broad fanbase to introduce them to influences they may not have been aware of before.

This cover is a straightforward case of playing The Sisters of Mercy in the style of CoF. Fine. Innocent and maybe it’s fun, I guess. But what kept CoF’s worst excesses in check up to this stage of their career was intelligent, ambitious compositions, aided by the OTT high drama of Dani’s lyrics and vocals. ‘No Time to Cry’ is essentially a pop song, made unique by the drab aesthetic and subtle melodies. If you strip that away, then replace it with distorted guitars, overblown synth, and screeching, you lose both the appeal of the original, and the appeal of CoF’s style into the mix.

Judas Priest: Diamonds and Rust

Judas Priest, widely regarded as the first self-identified heavy metal artist, decided what their third LP (1977’s ‘Sin After Sin’) needed was a Joan Baez cover. As far as motivation goes I’m honestly not sure. Was Joan an influence on these Brummies? Maybe they just liked the song. But this isn’t just a metal version of Joan’s lament to Bob Dylan. Priest have thrown in a disco beat and pumping bassline for good measure. In many ways a precursor to Kiss’ ‘I Was Made for Loving You’.

It was a risky strategy. But one that resulted in a surprise belter. I doubt the venn diagram of Baez and Priest fans altered much as a result. But it’s a worthy stand alone cover. Often overlooked due to their next cover of Spooky Two’s ‘Better By You, Better Than Me’ and the resulting musical controversy of the decade.

Pist.On: Shoplifters of The World Unite

One must tread carefully here. The Smiths fans are a passionate lot, all the more so recently owing to Morrisey’s insistence on serving up warm diarrhoea for soundbites. Pist.On are a great mid 1990s alt rock band, known to many as ‘that band like Type O Negative’. They may be slightly more straightforward meat ‘n’ two veg rock than the drab four, but the comparison is more than justified.

So what did they do to The Smiths? This is neither a grand re-imagining or a complete gutting of the original. It’s simply what this song would sound like played by a heavy rock band. The Smiths are so universally loved (until recently I guess) that the choice of cover will come as a surprise to no one. I for one find the no nonsense American aggression laced into this quintessentially deadpan British pop song a real treat. You may view it at as tantamount to murder however.

Fear Factory: Millennium

On the face of it Fear Factory have stuck so close to the Killing Joke version it renders this whole exercise pointless. There’s nothing wrong with Fear Factory’s version, but you might as well listen to the original. I beg to differ from this reading however. Fear Factory used their status as giants of American metal to introduce their fanbase to artists they may not be aware of.

Not that Killing Joke are particularly obscure, but they are to the average fifteen year old Kerrang! reader. This was certainly the case with their cover of Head of David’s ‘Dog Day Sunrise’. One which led me down the rabbit hole of Justin Broadrick’s distinguished career. A worthy use of the cover version to my mind.

Sepultura: The Hunt

Released on 1993’s ‘Chaos A.D.’, Sepultura’s transitional album between the worlds of sublime thrash metal to cheap nu metal cash grab, I cannot help but feel this New Model Army cover was well intentioned. If we look at this in terms of where it sits in Sepultura’s career, after their apex defined by ‘Beneath the Remains’ (1989) and ‘Arise’ (1991) but before their collapse into pop rock, they still had something to offer.

They were also about to reach the height of their popularity, so why not use the chance to introduce fans to some of their influences outside the world of metal? NMA are known for their mix of post punk and folk, aggressive enough to get the blood pumping, but melodic enough to hum along to. Sepultura made the choice to stay pretty faithful to the original musically, but Max Cavalera’s dirty, distorted bellowing annihilates the subtle melodies of this track. The result is a bit of a mess.

Averse Sefira: Get into the Groove

This is a black metal cover of Madonna, kooky. Averse Sefira were one of the most humourless set of musicians I’ve ever come across, in a field where the competition is pretty stiff. Not helped by the fact that they’re American and so suffer from a congenital inability to understand culture. But it warmed my heart to see them loosen up and apply their well-crafted-if-a-little-bland take on black metal to a bubblegum pop song.

Vader: I Feel You

Vader’s career was a gradual and well deserved rise to pillar of Eastern European metal over the course of thirty plus years. With a brief left turn in the mid-1990s to release an album of covers, 1996’s ‘Future of the Past’. Some are exactly who you would expect, Slayer, Kreator, Sodom, then there’s Depeche Mode.

Does it work for the boisterous yet flamboyant Depeche Mode song that is ‘I Feel You’? It’s actually surprisingly underwhelming. Dave Gahan’s vocals on the original are so confident, self-assured, domineering, that Vader are actually not up to the task of matching Depeche Mode on their home turf. If they had reworked Depeche Mode for their brand of skull pummelling death metal it may have failed spectacularly, but the resulting specimen would be one worthy of much study.

Nokturnal Mortum: Night in White Satin

At this stage in their career, Nokturnal Mortum were moving away from their occult symphonic metal into more of an epic folk direction. This sound was heavily informed by 70s prog. In this context this cover makes complete sense. It almost feels like an exercise in forcing oneself out of the comfort zone. Cover an ethereal, gentle ballad, without hiding behind any speed, or blast beats, or distorted vocals. Can you still carry your style and make it your own?

Oh sure, this version is heavy, but only when compared to the original. Alongside ‘The Voice of Steel’, the re-issue of which this cover was released with, it’s a sanctuary of calm. Some may find the mellow power metal aesthetics a bit much, I for one think it’s epic.

Voivod: Astronomy Domine

Ah Voivod, an old school thrash outfit boasting more integrity, creativity and talent than the big four combined. By the 1990s they also developed a passion for working British prog leanings into their bizarre brand of psychedelic metal. Covers soon followed, with Pink Floyd and Kind Crimson both receiving a hearing. The first of these, a cover of ‘Astronomy Domini’ released on their LP ‘Nothingface’ (1989) is easily the best. It also earned them a fair hearing on MTV for a time.

Voivod deliver a much sharper, more focused take on what is at times a chaotically loose track. The drums are sharp and clear, the guitars bright and almost cheerful. The result is decidedly less heavy than the original, but allows the keen listener a better look at the musical architecture of this piece. Unlike many on this list, Voivod found the balance between paying homage to an artist very different from themselves but nevertheless influential, stamping their own sound onto the music, without completely destroying the song.

My Dying Bride: Scarborough Fair

In many ways this was inevitable. A band that has built their reputation on gloom, taking a song known for its delicacy in the Simon and Garfunkel version, and somehow stripping it back further into the depths of melancholy. I wouldn’t trust anyone but My Dying Bride to do this well (Disturbed, see me after class please).

Honestly cannot fault what MDB have done with this song. It carries the haunting melodies and moods and adds tasteful dollops of doomful misery to the mix. A complex balancing act they manage to pull off with class.

Celtic Frost: Mexican Radio

This is one of the weirder choices on an already pretty weird list. This cover of Wall of Voodoo was released on 1987’s ‘Into Pandemonium’ (1987); a divisive album which somehow manages to the best and worst thing to happen to music simultaneously. In this context opening the album with a cover of the quirky new wave outfit Wall of Voodoo is entirely appropriate.

Celtic Frost take the original, reimagine it in their own style of primitive thrash, with ill fitting clean backing vocals. Honestly, this description doesn’t come close to describing how inexplicable the creative choices at work here were. And the album only grows more inexplicable from there.

Megadeth: Anarchy in The UK

Don’t.

3 thoughts on “Covers: the good, the bad, and the specimens

  1. Interesting piece, I would have recognised a few of the artists you picked for covering songs but for different covers. You are probably well familiar but if not, check out Cradle of Filth’s ridiculous version of Devil Woman by Cliff Richard. Cradle of Filth were always an utterly ridiculous band but this pushes the envelope. Judas Priest did an excellent take on Fleetwood Mac’s Green Manalishi. Also for a band covering Priest, check out Death’s Painkiller. My favourite metal take on a song is actually Disturbed’s Land of Confusion. I am a huge Genesis fan and it really hits the spot for me. Disney version of Sound of Silence notwithstanding, Disturbed are a great cover band but their own stuff doesn’t do anything for me. Many bands have covered the Sisters of Mercy. I think Paradise Lost’s Walk Away is pretty decent. It doesn’t really bring much new to the table but then again do you need to? Voivod did a great cover of Pink Floyd’s The Nile Song too. The song is less technical and more raw than Astronomy Domine which suits a metal band. Metallica, although guilty for crimes against music with their take on Whiskey In The Jar, did great covers of Killing Joke’s The Wait and Diamondhead’s Am I Evil. As you might imagine, Sepultura’s The Hunt was well popular in the metal boozers of Bradford when it first came out. It was ace to see a major metal band playing a song which originated from our city. I kind of like it equally to the original for slightly different reasons.
    As for Megadeth, two words – “These Boots”. You’re welcome.

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  2. Thanks, I did have a few of the ones you mention above shortlisted for this but decided to keep the list a bit shorter. I was specifically interested in what happens when metal bands cover non metal songs although I do love death’s version of painkiller, and Metallica’s version of The Wait is surprisingly good. Was also gonna look at paradise lost’s cover of small town boy, maybe I’ll do a volume two.

    As for Megadeath…I’ll probably save that one for a rainy day.

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