Classic Albums Revisited: Driving Mrs Satan’s Popscotch

Italian lounge-metal covers that work more effectively than you might expect.

I’m a big fan of the cover version (and perhaps this is why I don’t get worked up about film remakes) – not the sort of soulless cookie-cutter rehashes by a Pop Idol that invariably strips a song of any level of emotion and reduces it to a level of child-safe blandness without adding anything new or original to the mix, obviously. But when an act takes an existing track and gives it a new twist, it can bring something out of the song that didn’t previously exist. So I’ve generally been fond of those acts who take music from one genre and transpose it to another, which is precisely what Driving Mrs Satan does on Popscotch, with an easy-listening exploration of the world of metal music.

Of course, there’s nothing especially new or innovative about this. There are plenty of bands out there who have built careers by performing pop versions of rock and metal songs, or punked-up covers of pop tunes – from Me First and the Gimme Gimmes to Nouvelle Vague. It’s a genre – if you want to see it as a genre – that dances dangerously on the edge of the novelty record universe – and in the case of the (brilliant) Richard Cheese and others, often dances right over that edge. It’s a world awash with contrived reinvention and not all of it works even within that level – some bands seem to just be trying too hard and you suspect that there is no real respect for the material that they are reworking – and honestly, that feels like a necessary component or else it becomes superior sneering. But many of these acts do seem to have a knowledge of and love for the original tunes and are willing to take deep dives outside the predictable in search of a song that will work in a new format – and even the most overtly comedic of those acts can find something new and fresh in the songs they play. I’ve always assumed that a good song is a good song, and therefore should work in any musical genre (though some are definitely more challenging than others and that might be why we see very few lounge versions of Emerson, Lake and Palmer tracks), though of course it still requires a sympathetic re-interpretation. You can still murder a great tune.

Italian trio Driving Mrs Satan say this 2013 album “makes room for quiet into the history of heavy metal. Borrowing lyrics and melodies from the long-haired 80s heavy rock and conditioner-only washing them into the whispered politeness of indie-pop.” To put it another way, this is heavy metal made twee, with acoustic, jazzy pop interpretations – not exactly what you might think of as indie, at least not the smug and contrived indie music that the UK specialises in these days, but a lighter, fluffier, more summery lounge pop sound. More Saint Etienne than Idles, then. Thank God.

The album opens with their take on Helloween’s I Want Out, which is also the only song here I’m entirely unfamiliar with, so a direct comparison with the original is not possible – though I doubt Helloween went for the lush acoustic orchestral sound on display here, and I suspect they probably didn’t have the curious level of melancholy that is on display here. This might be tongue-in-cheek pastiche, but it’s not a smug piss-take, and the song holds up as a plaintive ballad, with the cello backing and Claudia Sorvillo’s vocals giving the song a real emotive drive.

Metallica’s Battery is given a jauntier, Sixties style Euro-pop feel – a chirpy, ye-ye style sound that works surprisingly well. Anthrax’s Caught in a Mosh, on the other hand, is given a spikily defiant rendition that works more effectively than you could ever expect – it’s chilled, yes, but certainly not laid back.

There are three Iron Maiden numbers here, and the least effective comes first, in the form of Killers, which is stripped down to absolute minimalism. The psycho-killer movie lyrics don’t really work in this version, which is admittedly dark and haunting, but not quite right somehow. Much better is 2 Minutes to Midnight, here given a curiously seductive and cynical whispered performance that is full of regret and sorrow – it fits the apocalyptic nature of the song rather well, the world ending in a whisper instead of a scream. Meanwhile, Can I Play with Madness proves itself to be a perfect little pop tune, an upbeat song of hope and defiance that works as a shameless feel-good number. Who knew it was such a happy song?

Motörhead’s Killed by Death is one of the weaker numbers on the record – the band seems to be struggling to find a pop tune in the song and you wonder why they persevered, especially with other, more pop-friendly Motörhead tunes available. They have no such trouble with AC/DC’s Hells Bells, though, which is given a stomp that probably isn’t that far from what that band would do with an acoustic version of the song. In that sense, it’s the least radical cover here, but as a track in its own right, it’s pretty damn good.

Black Sabbath’s Never Say Die was probably their most ‘pop’ song from their golden age, so it’s no surprise that it works well here as a lively, uptempo but oddly reflective version. Slayer’s South of Heaven, on the other hand, represents a bigger challenge, and despite (or perhaps because of) some male backing vocals that amusingly bring up memories of the Goombay Dance Band, this feels like more of a struggle, only really coming together on the choruses. It’s a noble try but honestly, not really worth the effort.

The album closes with Faith No More’s From Out of Nowhere, which returns to the rather wishful, reflective nature of the opening track, finding the romantic heart of the song.

Driving Mrs Satan (and yes, extra points for the band name even if it makes no real sense) is not exactly reinventing the wheel here – too many other bands have trodden this path beforehand for what they are doing to be seen as especially original. But these reinterpretations of familiar songs into unfamiliar forms are, for the most part, well-crafted and thoughtful and don’t seem as though they are mocking the original material. Instead, they are finding new meaning in these songs (and of course showing that many a metal number has both the lyrics and the melody to stand up to such radical reinvention), which is what all good cover versions should do. No doubt your more anal metal purist will see this as some sort of blasphemy, but for everyone else – whether they are a metal fan with an open mind or a lover of dream pop – this comes recommended.

DAVID FLINT

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