The anniversary covers album, behind the scenes, is a political and diplomatic nightmare. You approach your A-list of dream acts you’d like to contribute and, sure enough, they all want to do the big hit single. Before you know it you’re imposing your own personal pecking order on the whole panoply of music, puncturing egos left, right and centre and offending your entire contacts list just by trying to get someone to cover ‘Outro (Weird)’.
When it came to a 30th anniversary charity version of Metallica’s self-titled 1991 metal milestone – commonly called ‘The Black Album’ – they came up with a novel solution. Simply let everyone cover whichever of the record’s 12 songs they like, and include them all. Hence a total of 53 acts contribute covers, including a grand total of 12 versions of ‘Nothing Else Matters’. Special mention must go to Goodnight, Texas and Rodrigo Y Gabriela, the only acts to offer to cover ‘Of Wolf And Man’ and ‘The Struggle Within’ respectively, and to French producer SebastiAn, who throws himself fully into the concept by mashing up two tracks into an electro-orchestral funk frippery clumsily titled ‘Don’t Tread On Else Matters’.
This is a record that makes ‘DONDA’ look positively zippy. Inevitably, the record descends into a series of multi-band cover-offs, the listener acting as Caesar, deciding which ‘winning’ version should really have made the cut. Half the time you feel like you’re doing the compiler’s job for them.
In the battle for ‘Enter Sandman’, Rina Sawayama’s crazed electro-storm narrowly triumphs over Weezer’s power-chord overload, with the rear of the field made up by Ghost’s gloss-rock pantomime version and Mac DeMarco’s spirited if wobbly attempt to give it its full metal dues. Royal Blood and St. Vincent go to war over ‘Sad But True’, the former channelling faithful Kirk Hammett riffage and the latter taking it for an art-pop frolic through an industrial wasteland. Both trump Sam Fender’s soul effort, but face stiff competition from Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit (demented skiffle rock) and the Mexican Institute Of Sound (carnival freak rave). Four-way draw. Next!
Biffy Clyro make an early claim on ‘Holier Than Thou’ with a sophisticated yet brutal reading plus anthemic coda, only to be assaulted in a dark alleyway by speed-punk gangs The Chats, OFF! and PUP, before having it ferociously wrestled from their grasp to present to their ruler and ringleader, Corey Taylor. Cage The Elephant’s take on ‘The Unforgiven’, giving James Hetfield’s struggles with religion upon his mother’s death a cultured psych-rock soundtrack, does the trick straight off the bat. Yet further variants on the doom ballad theme from the likes of Vishal Dadlani & Divine (intense), Diet Cig (grungy), Ha*Ash (folk-poppy) and Moses Sumney (soulful and fiddly-fingered) feel like vast overkill.
Over time, two sorts of cover stand out: those that artfully draw the melodies within Metallica’s songs into gentler genres, and those that totally deconstruct the originals. After Flatbush Zombies turn ‘The Unforgiven’ into gnarled electro-rap, there’s a refreshing stretch where J Balvin, Chase & Status and The Neptunes all remould the eastern textures of ‘Wherever I May Roam’ into modernist dancefloor destroyers. Later, Portugal. The Man bring a certain Pac-Man element to their very metal ‘Don’t Tread On Me’ and all manner of pop, samba and jazz metal mayhem is unleashed upon three re-workings of ‘My Friend Of Misery’.
Such playfulness, though, ultimately runs face-first into ‘Nothing Else Matters’, which dominates the record’s back-end. If you’ve ever idly strummed along to it anywhere near an Alexa, you might well be on this album. The marquee names are instantly apparent: Miley Cyrus ropes in Elton John and Chad Smith (among others), complete with unnecessary violin solo; Phoebe Bridgers produces a far more gorgeous, vaporous junk piano take; and Depeche Mode‘s Dave Gahan was born to sing it, swathed in an electronic miasma.
And that, really, is all the ‘Nothing Else Matters’ you’ll ever need. Particularly – as we find over 9 further versions – because it’s also a song prone to bombastic indulgence. Kudos to My Morning Jacket and (oh yes) Roxette for banging out pop versions below four minutes, but there are few more dispiriting moments in music than when you realise, after almost an hour of solid ‘Nothing Else Matters’ in every funereal style right up to Chilean pan-pipe, that country blues croaker Chris Stapleton is now going to wang on for over eight.
After what amounts to ‘Nothing Else Matters’ aversion therapy, IDLES deliver a sonic slap in the face with ‘The God That Failed’, and the rest of the album is quickly dispatched. Once it’s all over, with the help of a decent online support group, or a saint’s patience, you can pick out a fantastic tribute to one of metal’s sacred texts. Maybe even two.
Release date: September 10
Record label: Blackened Recordings, Inc.