I love cover bands. I can’t help it. We’re supposed to look down on the bar band in the corner banging out “Don’t Stop Believin” or “Livin’ On A Prayer” for the zillionth time. But, I am helpless to their charms when they are really good, like the seasoned pros in New Orleans and Nashville or Steel Panther when they do their cover show in Hollywood. I have my own damn cover band I like them so much.
It can be murky territory to traverse when original bands do the occasional cover tune. Busting out a crowd pleaser at a live show is fairly low risk and high reward, knowing a well-worn Iron Maiden or Pantera classic will appease the masses for at least a few minutes.
Recording a cover song is a drastically different undertaking. As the years have rolled on, I have developed a sort of unofficial rulebook on the do’s and don’ts of recording covers:
There is nothing wrong with the cover version of the song. It’s pretty damn close to the original, which itself is impressive to accomplish. But, what exactly is the point of recreating a monumental classic virtually identical as it was? Your version will not supplant the original in cultural zeitgeist. The original was just too impactful. To the contrary, you are best off recording something obscure with minimal history. Which brings me to my second rule.
2. Make the song your own. If you are going to cover a famous song, make sure you do it in your style. This is easier said than done because: a.) Your band needs to have a definitive style to begin with, and b.) It requires significant creative depth to be able to look past the origins of a tune and envision it in a new light.
3. Avoid recording something that has been recorded and executed too well. There are a few bands whose music musicians should avoid recording, because the originals were just too virtuosic and transcendent. Artists I put in the category are The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Pantera, Van Halen, etc. There have been some good covers of these bands, but these are tall mountains to climb. A good example of someone attempting and falling flat is the Thriller: A Metal Tribute to Michael Jackson album because MJ is just to damn good. It’s not that the musicians involved aren’t excellent.
4. Conversely, you want to set yourself up to win, record a cover of a good song that had shitty production, and was performed just ok. This is why Metallica has so many great cover songs; they picked NWOBM hidden gems that had a fantastic foundation with mediocre presentation. This is the original, modest version of “Breadfan” by Budgie.
Keep in mind that there are exceptions to all of these rules. For example, if you are going to cover a really famous song, make sure it came out a really long time ago. I’m talking about a 30-40 year statute of limitations. You can get away with 15-20 years, but then you have to make sure it was from another genre altogether. This can often work for songs that have success at radio like The Ataris’ cover of Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” or Fear Factory with “Cars”. Successful doesn’t always mean “good” though. Not that I don’t like the aforementioned cover songs. A Metal band covering a Pop song can have a novelty appeal, which can really go either way. After a lengthy forward, on with the list:
Metallica – “Mercyful Fate” (Mercyful Fate)
As far as Metal bands go, Metallica may be the best cover band of all time in terms of quantity and quality of cover songs released. They wrote previously stated rulebook. In general, they picked material that was obscure, modestly recorded, and when it’s all said and done, it sounded like a Metallica song. When I first discovered Garage Days Re-Revisited, I felt like I was getting a new Metallica album. “Mercyful Fate” is an 11-minute medley of 4 songs from Danish legends, Mercyful Fate, released on Garage Inc. in 1998. To me, it was evidence that Metallica was not done with real Metal post-Load, and educated me that I needed to respect the epic riffage laid down by Mercyful Fate. I had some Metal history to learn. Pro tip, “Mercyful Fate” is the best bang for your jukebox buck.
Sepultura – “Symptom of the Universe” (Black Sabbath)
I have big pet peeve when bands on the extreme end of things cover classic songs; I hate it when vocalists scream songs that were previously sung melodically. My old band God Forbid was guilty of this on a Guns N Roses tribute. It even bothered me when a band I love covered another band I love like when Arch Enemy covered Megadeth. For reasons I am unable to articulate, Sepultura pull this Black Sabbath cover off seamlessly: even with Cavalera’s signature grunt. The song sounds like it is just another tune from Chaos A.D. It’s heavy as nails, Igor Cavalera shines behind the kit, and the outro is smooth as hell, showing you the Brazilians are versatile.
At The Gates – “Legion” (Slaughter Lord)
“Legion” is a B-side recorded during the sessions for the Melodic Death Metal instant classic, Slaughter of the Soul. I never heard of the band that wrote “Legion”, Slaughter Lord. All I knew was that I had a slightly more groovy and Slayer-ized At The Gates song to jam out to. The original sounds fucked up, like it was recorded underwater at half speed. It’s Cvlt as fuck. At The Gates followed the rulebook on how to record cover songs. They turned lemons into Mike’s Hard Lemonade. If this song doesn’t make you headbang, than maybe Metal just isn’t for you.
HIM – “Wicked Game” (Chris Issak)
HIM might not be very Metal, but they are peripherally part of our twisted family of heavy music due to their Gothic leanings. I know all you hardliners are secretly visiting the Goth clubs looking for some strange. Let’s face it; “Wicked Game” is just a great song. The Chris Isaak original is iconic, especially the sensual music video. This is just a case where HIM, and Ville Valo in particular, were the perfect conduit to reimagine the song. The HIM version is heavier and different enough to make it their own, but the soul of the tune remains the same. I suggest you hardcore metallers put this song on and get pumped up to score some strange. I believe in you.
Killswitch Engage – “Holy Diver” (Dio)
This is a perfect example of when you can break certain rules, but following the other rules more than make up for it. Killswitch covered a very, very popular Dio song, which is often a no-no. But, they made it sound like a Killswitch Engage song with all of their signature affectations including the pinch guitar squeals, bruising low end crunch, and a much improved guitar solo section. What is so peculiar about this song is that KsE never did a cover song before or since, and by most metrics including YouTube and Spotify plays, it’s their most popular song. I think it’s because they are reinvigorating the song for a whole new generation, which is amazing for young fans and in honoring the late Ronnie James Dio.
Body Count – “Institutionalized” (Suicidal Tendencies)
At first thought, the idea of anyone covering Suicidal Tendencies immortal classic, “Institutionalized”, seems ill-advised. The original video is perhaps the most iconic music video ever aired during MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball glory days, which makes its resurrection even more sacrosanct. Out of the gate, we understand that it’s not a direct cover song. Ice-T updates the song by creating his own original verses that address a handful of grievances and annoyances. The Body Count version is absolutely hilarious, and is equally an homage as it is a cover. “I just want to play X-Box” is definitely the new “I just wanted a Pepsi”.
Shadows Fall – “Welcome to the Machine” (Pink Floyd)
Covering Pink Floyd is ballsy. A Metal band covering Pink Floyd is even ballsier, because there is a higher probability you will fall on your face than do it justice. The Shads hit this one out of the park though. The guts are relatively the same, but there are distinctions marked by an infectious opening riff, a marching drum groove, and a tasty guitar solo by Jon Donais that is hair raising. The Art of Balance is my favorite Shadows Fall album, and this song as a closer provides a somber and fitting conclusion.
Six Feet Under – Every cover ever (But mainly AC/DC)
I had the fortune to tour with Six Feet Under in 2001, when the band was at its peak playing big venues. The band released a covers album in 2000 called Graveyard Classics featuring Death N Roll renditions of Classic Rock standards like “Purple Haze” and “Smoke On The Water”. The track that really stood out was the band’s version of AC/DC’s “TNT”. On the surface, the experiment may be a bit absurd, comparable to an act like Richard Cheese, a singer that does tongue-in-cheek lounge versions of popular songs. “TNT” was so popular that it led to Six Feet Under recording Graveyard Classics 2, composed completely of AC/DC songs, and a 3rd, more Thrash inspired covers album. You need this in your life. Tongue firmly planted in your cheek or not.
Nevermore – “The Sound of Silence” (Simon & Garfunkel)
To be truthful, this “cover” of the famous Simon & Garfunkel song is only a cover in the lyrically sense, even if the intro guitar section pays homage to original’s vocal melody. To be even more truthful, I will use any excuse to champion the criminally underrated Nevermore, and their classic 2000 release, Dead Heart, In A Dead World. I’m not alone in this crusade as thriving New England Metal band, All That Remains, deftly covered “Believe In Nothing” from the same album. This method of lyrical covering was also exhibited by the infamous and haunting rendition of Slayer’s “Reign In Blood” by singer-songwriter Tori Amos. Getting back to Nevermore, let us appreciate that fight riff 1 minute into the song. This is a great song from a great album.
Vitamin String Quartet – “Schism” (Tool)
I unearthed this treasure when I came across an mp3 pack for Apocalyptica. My iPod was stolen, I lost the track, and I couldn’t find it in the time since. Researching this article, I discovered that it was in fact performed by a group called Vitamin String Quartet, not Apocalyptica. Anytime you hear an excellent classical interpretation of an epic Metal song, it makes you appreciate the original even more because you realize the writers have great compositional minds, but just utilize different mediums than the classical composers, like this beautiful piano version of Mastodon’s “Oblivion”. I put Tool in the category of being almost impossible to cover, but this interpretation is irrefutably moving. Especially the bridge, which reminds me of composer Clint Mansell and the Kronos Quartet’s brilliant work on the score of Darren Aronofsky’s film, The Fountain.
Bullet For My Valentine – “No Easy Way Out” (Robert Tepper)
Because Rocky IV is more important to America than the Constitution. Because in the 80’s, you would solve your problems by having contemplative walks or drives with a montage of your trials and tribulations, and bitchin’ song in the background. Because Rocky IV ended the Cold War. Because Bullet For My Valentine killed this Robert Tepper cover, and had the balls to do it. Because,” If I can change, you can change. Everybody can change!”
Marilyn Manson – “Sweet Dreams” (The Eurythmics)
The inclusion of this cover was a given. Marilyn Manson’s interpretation of The Eurythmics classic smash kicked started not only Manson’s entry into the mainstream, but also a trend of Rock bands repackaging Pop songs from the 80’s as a lynchpin to prosperity at radio and MTV. Notable examples include breakout hits like Alien Ant Farm’s version of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal”, Orgy doing New Order’s “Blue Monday”, Fear Factory with “Cars”, and Limp Bizkit breaking big with George Michael’s “Faith”. Manson followed most of the covers rulebook, and made “Sweet Dreams” a song that you have to associate with him almost as much as The Eurythmics. The music video is also incredible.
Cave In – NIB (Black Sabbath)
I didn’t grow up with Black Sabbath. I didn’t have an uncle or cousin to school me on the classics. I had to do my own homework as a young man to learn up on Metal’s history. When I discovered this song on a Relapse Records sampler, I was hypnotized. As far as I’m concerned, Cave In are one of the greatest bands of all time. I love their Metalcore stuff, and I love their Space Rock stuff. Cave In performed “NIB” completely in their own atmospheric style, as they have done with some other classic tunes including Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” and Bad Brains’ “I Luv I Jah”. I can’t make you love Cave In as much as I do, but I will certainly try.
Gojira – “Escape” (Metallica)
Metallica is another one of those bands that is very difficult to cover, especially if you try to do something from Master of Puppets through the Black Album because the production and performances are so phenomenal. Most of the time bands can only get a very close replica like Trivium’s version of “Master of Puppets.” You have to do a double-take to realize it’s not the original. Gojira knock this version of “Escape” out of the park without even having to change the song. Gojira’s signature dense, detuned guitar tone and Joe Duplantier’s distinct vocal grit just own the track.
Hatebreed – “Ghosts of War” (Slayer)
I almost included Hatebreed’s cover of Metallica’s “Escape” as a double-feature in the above post, but Gojira had a slight edge, and Hatebreed totally crushed Slayer’s “Ghost of War”. Like Gojira, Hatebreed did not need to change the song’s structure or style, outside of tuning the guitars down a bit. It’s Hatebreed’s tone and attitude making a standout Slayer jam even heavier, intense, and more pissed off. I hear this track and want to kick an old man down a flight of stairs. (Disclaimer: No old men were harmed in the making of this article).
Korn – “Word Up” (Cameo)
I have a soft spot for clever cover choices, and I guarantee you that zero bands in the heavy music world were thinking about covering any songs by R&B, Funk band, Cameo. This might be a little too funky and anti-Metal for the hardliners, but it’s an awesome rendition of an irresistibly catchy song with a hilariously charming music video, and has become one of Korn’s most popular songs. Reintroducing old, great songs to new fans is the best reason to do a cover song. I love it.
Nine Inch Nails – “Dead Souls” (Joy Division)
This may be a sentimental pick, but like many children of 90’s who enjoyed all things dark and macabre, I was obsessed with the film, The Crow. The Crow had a legendary hard-edged soundtrack including Pantera, Stone Temple Pilots, Rage Against The Machine, and this Nine Inch Nails cover, which is played during a pivotal moment in the film. The lyrics and gothic ambience meld perfectly with the aesthetic and narrative of The Crow. This is also another example where the cover version is dramatically better than the original.
Unearth – “Sandblasted Skin” (Pantera)
Pantera may be the most difficult Metal band to cover, period. Avenged Sevenfold did about as good as I’ve heard with “Walk”, but they were clearly trying to match Pantera’s tones in the original recording. Unearth did a few things that really made their cover their own and truly kill: They covered an album track from the worst sounding Pantera album. They also picked a song that was straight-up underappreciated and unheralded. “Sandblasted Skin” just happened to fit perfectly with Unearth’s style signified by the hardcore energy, swampy groove, and Trevor Phipps’ vocals matching the backdrop without doing a Phil Anselmo impersonation.