The Power of Sweden

If you live in Europe, or Australia for that matter, it won’t have escaped your notice that the Eurovision song contest was held this weekend and Sweden once again won the honour. It got me thinking about why Sweden are so good at this contest (they’ve won it twice in the last three years and six times overall) and then to why Sweden seem to have such a high quality musical output across all of the genres.

Whilst I can’t provide a detailed answer to that question, other than to propose it’s because they’ve been brought up on a diet of ABBA, I can provide an overview of three of my favourite albums to have originated from the Scandinavian country.

In Flames – Come Clarity

In Flames are a long-standing melodic death metal band who have released eleven albums since their inception in 1990. Over the years their albums have become increasingly melodic and they have begun to integrate some electronic elements into their more recent work. The album that most stands out to me is their eighth effort Come Clarity, which alongside its follow-up A Sense of Purpose, managed to achieve the right balance between brutality and beauty, as showcased with the immense Dead End.

Recommended: Come Clarity, Reflect The Storm, Dead End

Pain of Salvation – Road Salt One

I’ve talked about Pain of Salvation before and maintain that they provide a refreshing take on the progressive rock genre. Road Salt One is the first part of a double concept album that tells its story not only through the lyrics, but through changes in musical styles, becoming increasingly darker as the record progresses. Road Salt One takes inspiration from classic rock, orchestral music, country and metal, which is all brought together in to a very tidy and focused effort – a pinnacle of their left-field career.

Recommended: She Likes To Hide, Sisters, Darkness of Mine

Wisdom of Crowds – Wisdom of Crowds

Wisdom of Crowds is a fantastic collaboration project from Jonas Renkse of Katatonia and Bruce Soord from The Pineapple Thief, which came to fruition in 2013 with the release of their self-tiled debut album. The combination of the two art rock veterans helped to produce one of the most unique records in the genre, with bleak soundscapes composed by Soord that are overlaid with Renkse’s powerful and emotional vocals. On a similar front, Steven Wilson and Mikael Akerfeldt’s Storm Corrosion project is another excellent British-Swedish duo effort, which narrowly missed on a place on this list.

Recommended: Radio Star, Frozen North, Stacked Naked

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– James

Top 3 Covers

Over the last two weeks I’ve reviewed two cover albums (Stone Sour’s Meanwhile in Burbank EP and A Perfect Circle’s eMOTIVe), so I thought I’d round off this theme by discussing my 3 favourite individual cover songs.

Apocalyptica – Helden

Apocalyptica’s take on David Bowie’s Heroes is one of the most unique covers I have ever heard. The effect-laden musical backdrop of Bowie’s version is changed for emotionally-charged cellos and the understated vocals are swapped for Till Lindemann’s (Rammstein) deep, brooding tones. The greatness in this cover is that although it is played in a completely different style and has lyrics that are unrecognisable to the non-German speaker, the key melodies are faithfully reproduced, making this song instantly identifiable, yet completely fresh. The strength of Apocalyptica’s cover should come as no surprise though, as the quartet began with cover records, before working in their own compositions.

Johnny Cash – Hurt

The sign of a great cover is when people don’t realise it isn’t an original song. I have had to tell many people that Hurt was originally by Nine Inch Nails (NIN), which is testament to Johnny Cash’s version, especially considering that NIN’s version is considered to be an industrial rock classic. Where the original was a landscape of cold and harsh sounds with fragile vocals, Johnny Cash’s interpretation uses the warm tones of an acoustic guitar accompanied by a piano, but manages to maintain the poignant feeling. What makes this version of Hurt even more special is the eulogy-like video and its timely release, seven months before his death.

Marilyn Manson – Sweet Dreams (are made of this)

Marilyn Manson has a history of great covers, including Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus and Soft Cell’s version of Gloria Jones’ Tainted Love, but perhaps his greatest cover song is Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams. With each of his covers, Manson manages to impose his own gothic style onto the music, often completely changing the emphasis of the song and making you forget they aren’t the original version. Sweet Dreams is top of the pile mainly because of its significance in their career, as it launched them to mainstream success with a music video that has stood the test of time and remains as creepy and bizarre as it was in 1995, twenty years ago.

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– James

The Cover Album

Sticking with the theme from last week’s review of Stone Sour’s Meanwhile In Burbank, I thought I’d talk about A Perfect Circle’s eMOTIVe, which tops my list of favourite cover albums. A Perfect Circle are a side project of Tool vocalist Maynard James Keenan, which is led in equal part by ex-Tool guitar tech Billy Howerdel, however they are currently on an extended hiatus and have been since 2005, only releasing one new song through a compilation record during this time.

Although it’s been over ten years since the release of eMOTIVe, the album has lost none of its initial appeal and still gets a regular spin in my CD player, which is a rare trait for a cover album, as most are quickly left by the wayside. Its success began in its initial conception as a war-themed cover album, giving the project much more of a purpose than just a collection of the band’s favourite songs.

However, having such a powerful theme does have its drawbacks, as well as its advantages. On one hand they could choose proven and influential war tracks that, if covered right, would have the desired impact, however, on the other side they left themselves with a very tricky set of songs to cover, including the John Lennon’s timeless classic Imagine.

Fortunately the particular style used to cover these tracks meant that eMOTIVe was a success. Not one of the songs present on the album is a direct copy; instead they have been made darker and often, as in the case with Imagine and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, they have been stripped down to a much rawer sound. The drums are a particular area that have been focussed on, and have a real depth to them, mirroring the weight of subject matter.

Alongside the covers there are two original A Perfect Circle songs: one completely new, in the form of Passive and another, Counting Bodies Like Sheep to the Rhythm of the War Drums, that is a re-working of a war-themed track from their second record, Thirteenth Step. Passive is a powerful track that sits happily along side the proven covers, without sounding like a parody or a dodgy imitation, whilst Counting Bodies takes a harsh industrial approach, painting vivid imagery of the war scene it describes, much more successfully than the original version.

Perhaps the strongest component of the record is the great vocal variation employed by A Perfect Circle, helping to further the unique style of these covers. Part of the variety comes from both Keenan and Howerdel offering vocals to the record, but also due to the incredible vocal diversity Keenan provides. The bleak scene-setting opener Annihilation (originally by Crucifix) features menacing whispers, whilst Black Flag’s Gimme Gimme Gimme sees Kennan switching between rasping raws and a softer timid voice and Fear’s Let’s Have A War showcases both his falsetto and a rumbling tribal vocal.

Combining all these aspects means that eMOTIVe is essentially an album of covers disguised as originals. This is the real strength of the record, as their unique twist on the covers means that nothing here is predictable, giving the songs the longevity and repeatability that usually evades most cover albums.

Overall: 9/10

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– James

Stone Sour – Meanwhile in Burbank

When a band releases a cover record it isn’t uncommon to feel disappointed, as, in most cases, you’d rather they concentrated on new material. However, if they are going to release covers, perhaps an EP is the best medium for it, instead of a whole album. It just so happens that Stone Sour agree with me, releasing Meanwhile in Burbank last week, which is a selection of five covers that represent the band’s influences.

Whilst there is nothing too surprising, there are some pretty brave song choices on show. The EP begins with a rendition of Alice in Chains’ We Die Young and closes with covers of Metallica and Black Sabbath. And if that wasn’t enough the middle two songs were originally performed by Kiss and Judas Priest. A lot could go wrong here!

Thankfully though, it doesn’t.

Corey Taylor does a good job channeling his inner Layne Staley on We Die Young – a style he used briefly on Stone Sour’s self-titled debut, but has since gone missing. However, Taylor doesn’t stick with the grunge vocals throughout, opting instead to let his impressive vocal style shine. Likewise new guitarist Christian Martucci (who controversially replaced Jim Root last year), alongside founding member Josh Rand, get the chance to show off their new partnership with beefy chugging and streamlined solos.

Taylor also does his best to imitate Rob Halford on Heading Out To The Highway, but even Stone Sour can’t make the average fifth chord riffing and mid-tempo head-nodding of Judas Priest exciting. The same can’t be said about the cover of Kiss’ Love Gun, which has enough octane injected into it, to make it seem like the band actually wants to perform it, rather than simply play along to the original.

However, it’s the closing two songs that are the most memorable.

Metallica’s Creeping Death is given back all the energy, that the early-80s production took out of the original (sorry early-Metallica fans). Thankfully Taylor doesn’t try to match James Hetfield grunt for grunt, instead he takes the lyrics into his own style, ripping through the “die, die, die” bridge, making the song sound like it belongs to their own discography. However, the most impressive detail of the track is the way Martucci keeps up with the shredding of Kirk Hammett, whilst still showing off some of his own individual style.

Finally we get to a cover of Black Sabbath’s Children of the Grave, which apart from sounding fresh and heavier than it ever has, really let’s the musicality of the group shine. The bass is not mechanical, but has a twang and looseness about it, which is matched by the excellent drumming from Roy Mayorga. Both Rand and Martucci show that no guitarist’s boots are too big to fill and Taylor once again elevates the vocals, keeping their integrity, whilst pushing his own technique.

The only criticism that I have, is that the song choices are very predictable, so much so that it begins to sound like a classic rock radio playlist. I don’t have any particular quandaries with the artist choices, afterall, they are the band’s influences. However, why not pick an obscure track – surely their favourite songs are not solely from the greatest hits? I know mine aren’t! Stone Sour have a further two cover EPs planned for the future, on which it would be nice to hear something a little different – perhaps something that makes me say “Wow, I’ve never heard that played before”.

Overall: 6.5/10

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– James