Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Five Best Metal Interpreters

Frank from Metal Injection once told me that he thought Testament deserved to be in Metal's Big Four and not Anthrax. This seemed like it was worth fighting over, so I informed him that he was wrong. I stand by my case, but he did make one point that I could not counter, which is that Anthrax's best songs are all covers.

Recorded metal covers don't usually do much for the original or the interpreter. Watching the Dillinger Escape Plan roar into Nine Inch Nails' "Wish" in person is a favorite memory for anyone who's been so lucky, but no one who owns Broken needs another version. It takes some extra character to successfully reimagine a song with a tape rolling, and for that we salute these five.

1. Anthrax

Anthrax have no shortage of great originals, but it was their charisma--Scott Ian's tones, Charlie Benante's blast beats, the entire band's penchant for comedy, comic books and Stephen King--that edged them past Testament, Exodus and Overkill. They elevated Public Enemy with "Bring the Noise," spanked Trust with "Antisocial" and topped themselves with this d-beat breakdown of of Joe Jackson's "Got the Time." Flea once observed that this song "made my kidneys flip upside down."

2. Faith No More

FNM won metal hearts in 1989 with a take on "War Pigs" that remains the best cover of the most-covered metal band in history, then proceeded to weird out listeners with faithful, unironic takes on the Commodores' "Easy" and John Barry's Midnight Cowboy theme. Check out their video for the Bee Gees' "I Started a Joke" and keep waiting for the punchline. There isn't one. 

3. Guns N' Roses

They did "Live and Let Die" better than Paul McCartney, "Mama Kin" better than Aerosmith and "Since I Don't Have You" about as well as the Skyliners. Other than the obvious choice of Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower," I have never heard a better Dylan cover than GNR's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." It reminds me of Nick Hornby's take on pre-sellout Rod Stewart in 31 Songs*.

4. Metallica

It takes more than original songwriting to become the greatest metal band of all time. The $5.98 E.P: Garage Days Re-Revisited did more for underground metal than any fanzine ever did, and its '90s sequel is Metallica's most underrated release. Who knew what a great song "Breadfan" by Budgie was until James Hetfield's downstrokes invigorated it? When Hetfield retires, his right hand should be enshrined in a museum, next to Axl's larynx and Ozzy's liver.

5. Rage Against the Machine

On their last studio album, Renegades, RATM ran Dylan, Springsteen, Eric B. & Rakim, the Stones, Minor Threat, EPMD, Devo and more through Tom Morello's effects pedal wizardry and Zack de la Rocha fiery delivery. It all sounds like Rage; in short, it's fantastic. Any other metal band would be laughed at for taking on Afrika Bambaataa's "Renegades of Funk," but with Rage at the helm it's as potent as "Bulls on Parade."

*On Stewart's version of "Mama You've Been on My Mind." "Stewart's evident love for the song rescues it, or at least spotlights it: where Dylan almost throws it away, with the implication that there's plenty more where that one came from, Stewart's reverence seems to dignify it, invest it with an epical quality that Dylan denies it. I probably like both version equally now, but if it hadn't been for Stewart, I never would have been able to spot that there was anything there."

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