Love them or hate them, cover versions of old songs are a fact of life, and there are more of them around now than ever before, with everyone from Justin Beiber to Miley Cyrus getting in on the act. These efforts are often done as tributes to the original artists – imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all – but they very seldom come close to matching the quality of the source material.
There are some exceptions that prove the rule, however, and most of them come from heavy metal bands. Maybe it’s because the unique style of the genre allows artists to change songs enough to make them stand out but not so much as to be indistinguishable from the original? Maybe it’s because these are the musicians most adept in combining instruments and vocals in interesting ways? Or maybe it’s just coincidence? The answer may not be clear, but the impressive quality of many heavy metal covers of classic songs certainly is. Here are ten of the best.
10 Careless Whisper – Seether (Wham/George Michael, 1984)
With its instantly recognizable saxophone intro and somewhat clichéd lyrics, Careless Whisper is regarded as a typically cheesy 80s classic, but a classic all the same. One of George Michael’s first hits, he wrote the song when he was only 17 years old, proof of his natural musical ability. The tune has been the go-to heartbreak song for many ever since.
When Seether decided to cover the song for Valentine’s Day in 2009, they did so purely as a joke, but the plan backfired somewhat as their version, a distinct departure from their regular style, proved so popular that many of their younger fans were unaware that it was, in fact, a cover. When they officially released Careless Whisper as a single, it climbed to 63 on the Billboard Hot 100 in no time. Seether kept the essence of the original but ‘metalled’ it up with some crashing power chords and replaced the sax with an equally effective guitar riff. With Shaun Morgan’s gravelly voice in place of Michael’s silky tones, it could’ve gone either way, but the combined effect is perfect for the song that’s about infidelity and betrayal, making Seether’s cover a definite improvement on the original.
9 Carry On My Wayward Son – Anthrax (Kansas, 1976)
Anthrax was one of the original ‘Big 4’ thrash metal bands that rose to prominence in the early 80s and are known as early pioneers of the genre. With their fast, heavy-handed style, they would seem to be an unlikely band to cover a classic rock song, especially one like Kansas’ Carry On My Wayward Son that relies on melodic vocals and no small amount of keyboard work, neither of which are exactly Anthrax’s forte.
Surprisingly, then, they not only recorded a cover of the song in 2017 but did such a good job of it that it’s difficult to tell their version from the original. Moving away from their signature sound, the thrash legends nailed the cover, getting it note-perfect and even enlisting the services of the famed Fred Mandel on keyboard to round out the effect. Lead singer Joey Belladonna showcases his vocal dynamism on the track and his unexpectedly effective singing is perhaps the standout feature of the song. Anthrax’s version of Carry On My Wayward Son met with resounding approval and founding Kansas member, Phil Ehart, personally gave it the thumbs up.
8 Wish You Were Here – Avenged Sevenfold (Pink Floyd, 1975)
Wish You Were Here is a timeless Pink Floyd classic with powerful lyrics that change in meaning with each new listen and, indeed, with the state of the world as well. The song is unique in that it was one of the few collaborations between Roger Waters and David Gilmour, who otherwise preferred to operate independently despite being in the same band. Wish You Were Here is one of Pink Floyd’s most successful tracks, and it’s been covered several times, most recently by Avenged Sevenfold in 2017.
As a group constantly adapting its style and trying new things, Avenged Sevenfold seem to get it right more often than not, and their version of Wish You Were Here is a perfect example. The original was recorded in a way to create a sense of distance and separation for the listener. The cover emphasizes Gilmour’s previously muted interlude solo, keeping it the same but moving it from acoustic guitar to electric for a punchier feel. That, along with M. Shadows’ unique vocal style, gives the whole thing a new clarity and crisper feel. The band stated the lyrics of the song were apt, given what was going on in the world in 2017, and the same could be said of right now, proving that Pink Floyd’s masterpiece is, indeed, timeless and now, thanks to Avenged Sevenfold, it’s been introduced to a whole new generation.
7 Bad Company – Five Finger Death Punch (Bad Compnay, 1974)
Bad Company formed in the early 70s, borrowing the name from the classic western film starring Jeff Bridges. They also chose that as the title for their first, and most famous, song, which could be seen as a tribute to the movie after which it was named. Stephen King used some of the lyrics in his western sci-fi series, The Dark Tower, but beyond that, neither band nor song received the wide recognition they deserved for what is an exceptional piece of classic rock.
Acclaimed metal outfit Five Finger Death Punch gave Bad Company new life when they released an excellent cover of the song on their 2009 album War Is The Answer after fans demanded a recording of the track that had become a mainstay of the band’s live shows. As one would expect, their version is much heavier, with the piano replaced by guitars and some minor lyrical adjustments. The effect is a cover more powerful than the original, and after Five Finger Death Punch recorded the music video while playing for the troops in Iraq, their updated version of Bad Company has come to be regarded as a tribute to the men and women serving in the armed forces.
6 Wicked Game – HIM (Chris Isaak, 1989)
Chris Isaak’s sensual song about obsessive love has featured on several movie and TV series soundtracks as well as a line of Jaguar commercials, and the artful, black-and-white music video is considered one of the sexiest of all time. It’s not surprising, then, that Scandanavian ‘love metal’ band HIM decided to cover the song in their first official album release in 1997 in an effort to break into the lucrative mainstream western market.
The result is an excellent cover that speeds things up a touch and adds a lot of typically metal-style palm-muting and some effective, if not particularly intricate lead guitar work. While Scandanavian metal is notoriously heavy and is often associated with screaming rather than singing, the vocals on the cover are on a par with Isaak’s distinctive crooning, making HIM’s version a bit darker, a bit edgier, but just as sexy in its own right. And that, of course, was the intention all along. The music video for their version of Wicked Game isn’t half bad either.
5 Heroes – Motörhead – (David Bowie, 1981)
On December 28, 2015, the world lost a music icon when Motörhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister passed away. David Bowie, another legend, died only two weeks later. Both men are known not just for the tremendous impact they had on music in general and their respective genres in particular, but also for their dare-to-be-different approach. They were rebels who defied convention and showed a whole generation that it was okay to be different. One of Bowie’s most famous songs was Heroes and, in a serendipitous development, Motörhead covered the track in what would turn out to be one of Lemmy’s last ever recordings.
The defining feature of the original is David Bowie’s passionate vocals. Lemmy didn’t even try to match that in the cover, sticking rather with the throaty growl that made tracks like Ace Of Spades world famous. With this unique singing style, some slightly altered lyrics, Motörhead’s heavy sound, and an exceptional guitar solo thrown in for good measure, the cover is both a tribute to the original and a notable improvement on what was already an excellent song, to begin with. The title is also fitting as both Lemmy and Bowie were, and always will be, true heroes.
4 The Sound Of Silence – Disturbed (Simon and Garfunkel, 1964)
Simon and Garfunkel’s popular song is about as far removed from metal as you could get, and yet it has the kind of darkly ominous feel that would make it perfect for the genre. Nu-metal band Disturbed seemingly agreed, and their 2015 cover version of the song has become wildly popular and has received endless accolades, with actor Russel Crowe recently calling lead singer David Dralman’s singing on The Sound Of Silence perhaps the greatest rock vocal ever.
Unlike other metal covers, Disturbed’s version slows the tempo down, adding to the heavy, ponderous feel of the song. Also notable here is the complete absence of the electric guitar, as the band instead goes with a symphonic sound and some minor acoustic inclusions. The focus is, of course, Dralman’s voice and it is something to behold as he sings with careful precision initially, building to a stunning crescendo later on. The effect is goose-bump-inducing, and the lyrics of The Sound Of Silence have become starkly relevant of late, as anyone who saw the Youtube video of the song playing over images of deserted cities before it was taken down will know.
3 When A Blind Man Cries – Metallica (Deep Purple, 1972)
Metallica is one of the most successful metal bands in history and they have among their vast store of exceptional original material some noteworthy cover songs as well. They paid tribute to their musical influences in their 1998 album Garage Inc, with covers of tracks by Black Sabbath, Queen, Blue Oyster Cult, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, to name but a few. Arguably their best effort, however, came years later, when they released a bonus recording of their version of Deep Purple’s When A Blind Man Cries on their 2016 album Hardwired…To Self Destruct. And what a fitting tribute to one of their biggest musical influences it is.
James Hetfield shows just how far he’s come as a vocalist on the track and the contrast between the gentle intro, verse, and solo parts and the crashing interlude with Kirk Hammet’s mesmerizing lead guitar work elevates the song, which original writer Ritchie Blackmore has never been particularly fond of, to another level of greatness. Worth mentioning as well is Lars Ulrich’s performance on drums because, even though he often comes in for heavy criticism, his percussive flourishes certainly add depth to a song, as is the case with When A Blind Man Cries. Metallica fans will know that covers are close to the band’s heart as their first album included an excellent take on a song by a then-unknown band that just happens to be up next.
2 Immigrant Song – Diamondhead (Led Zeppelin, 1970)
Diamondhead were key figures in the emergence of heavy metal in the early 80s and, along with the likes of Saxon, Iron Maiden, and Def Lepard, formed part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement. But, unlike their contemporaries, Diamondhead, through a combination of bad luck and worse management, never quite reached international stardom and were known for years only as the band who inspired Metallica’s early thrash sound.
They’ve made good in recent years with some excellent albums, however, and finally seem to be getting the recognition they deserve. In 2020 they released a rerecorded version of their 1980 album Lightning To The Nations, which features a standout cover version of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song. Many will recognize the song from the soundtrack of Thor: Ragnarok, and Diamondhead’s heavier version is even better suited to the theme of a Viking invasion than was the original. Brian Tatler’s excellent vocals are just as good as Robert Plant’s, but his Viking warcry that opens the song is a decided improvement on Led Zeppelin’s version, and the solo before the final verse is so good that it’s hard to believe that it’s Diamondhead’s own and that Jimmy page, no slouch in the solo department himself, didn’t include something similar in the initial recording some 50 years ago.
1 In The Air Tonight – In This Moment (Phil Collins, 1981)
One of the shining lights of the emerging metal scene over the last 20 years, In This Moment have produced some excellent albums and if they continue to change and evolve as they have been doing, exciting things lie in store for them in future. For proof of their talent, one need only look as far as their exemplary cover of Phil Collins’ monster hit In The Air Tonight.
The song has been covered many times before, of course, but never quite like this. The original relies on Collins’ vocals and minimal instrumental backing as it builds to the famous drum explosion near the end. It has a subtly ominous, vaguely threatening feel, and In This Moment identified what made the song great and enhanced it magnificently. Maria Brink’s voice seems made for the song and the heavily distorted guitar feedback effect in the initial parts leave the listener with a sense of impending drama, like dark thunderclouds gathering on the horizon, soon to burst. When the inevitable percussive climax arrives, it is a thing of beauty and one can only listen in awe to the powerfully explosive conclusion. Everything is upped several notches here, making In This Moment’s version of In The Air Tonight one of the best metal covers in recent memory, if not ever.
About The Author: About the author: I’m 32 years old and I live in South Africa. I work full time in logistics and I’m a freelance writer in my (limited) spare time. I have various projects in the works, including a potential novel, and I regularly participate in the Reedsy Prompts short story contest, where a growing collection of my work is available for reading. I have been a shortlisted finalist there twice so far.