Metallica, Covers, and the Nature of Originality: A Chat with Morten Müller
“When does a cover song become something original?” This question, along with others regarding the ownership of art and the life of a piece itself flitted through my mind one morning recently as I stumbled through YouTube’s Hall of Recommendations. The video that prompted that question was an intriguing one, an odd cover of a well known hit from metal’s biggest band. After pressing play once, twice, thrice, I just had to get an answer as to why exactly this cover, if it could even still be called a cover, existed, so I emailed Morten Müller of Bog Studios to ask him a simple question: “How in the world did you turn Metallica into Meshuggah, and more importantly, why?”
The video that prompted question was the provocatively titled, “Disposable Heroes – Meshuggah Version.” As longtime readers are well aware, I’ve long been a fan of both legendary acts, but I was frankly skeptical when I saw the thumbnail. YouTube is lousy with half-baked covers, aborted ideas, and soulless tributes. More interesting, though, is the stylistic schism between the two acts; Metallica, at least peak-era Metallica, is a riff-driven, more conventionally tuned metal band. Meshuggah, on the other hand, eschews traditional riffs and metal song structures in favor of a purely rhythmic and timbral approach. Although it’s well known that Meshuggah’s origins lie within the progressive thrash scene of the late 80s – one generously informed by Metallica’s own …And Justice for All – the contemporary sound attributed to Meshuggah bears little resemblance to anything Metallica has done for decades. What I wanted to know before pressing play was whether this cover would sound more like Metallica, more like Meshuggah, or be a flaccid foundering that fails to unite the two disparate streams.
What I got is something genuinely unique, something more reimagining than cover, and something that successfully captures the essence of Metallica’s riffs while translating them into a distinctly rhythmic format. The dropped tuning and polyrhythms add a bit of grit and darkness to the original, and the frantic pace is cooled as the main rhythm riff is relegated to an atmospheric element. The end result is a slower, more contemplative reflection on Metallica’s original piece, a grim tribute to the horrors of war. And it’s distinct, sounding like Meshuggah but with a harder thrash edge. It’s also not totally successful; I still prefer the original, but Müller’s work here seems to inhabit an adjacent space where both “versions” can coexist as genuine works, one an original, the other a contemplation or inversion rather than a reproduction.
Intrigued, I followed the links to two more of Müller’s Metallica covers. The first, “Moth Into Flames,” retains the jaunty nature of Metallica’s recent hit but imbues it with a bit more bounce and gravity thanks to Meshuggah’s lower register and propensity for rumbling bass. As with “Disposable Heroes,” Müller has rearranged the track into a different length and format. It’s a fun reinterpretation and displays a bit more of the variation in both bands’ sounds. I don’t like it quite as much as “Disposable Heroes,” but I have less emotional attachment to Metallica’s newer works, so this cover actually feels even more fresh and alien to me.
Müller’s third Metallica cover is also his best. The Meshuggah version of “Blackened,” one of my favorite metal songs ever, retains more of the atmosphere of the original, thanks in large part to Metallica’s nuanced and complex songwriting on …And Justice for All, but the snare hits and rapid, rhythmic notes capture Meshuggah at their riffiest; I could easily see this cover slotting in nicely as a complement to “Combustion” from ObZen, one of the rare moments when modern Meshuggah indulged their thrashy past. In preserving even more of the structure of the original Metallica while crystallizing Meshuggah’s unique approach to thrash metal, this cover of “Blackened” manages to, perplexingly, sound like both bands even more than the prior two covers while also maintaining its own identity. It’s gritty, aggressive, and technically complex, longer and more syncopated than the Metallica original but riffier than a Meshuggah track, and I’d love to hear more metal that sounds just like this.
After listening to these covers multiple times and deciding that, ultimately, Müller had created something new, I reached out to him to ask a few questions about his own motivations and perceptions.
W.: What caused you to start reconstructing Metallica songs in the style of Meshuggah? Meshuggah’s roots are obviously in the thrash genre, but your “covers” are clearly going for a post-Nothing Meshuggah sound.
Müller: The thought came to me when I was rehearsing at home on “Moth Into Flame”, because we were going to play it live with my Metallica tribute band, Metal Milita. I had one guitar at home at the time, and that was an 8-string. I practiced on that, and just played the riffs back and forth on the 6th, 7th and 8th strings. And I always record when I practice, so I ended up recording it in F# instead of E, and the thought occurred to me that I just do a “Meshuggah” version just for fun to send to the other guys. Bokn, my main drummer man, loved it so I wanted to take a chance on releasing it on my channel and it blew up, at least compared to the other cover videos I had already published. From then on I thought I should work on it and just see where it went. Now I have over 100k views for “Blackened” (much thanks to you guys), and it feels great!
On that note, these songs definitely feel more like reconstructions or reimaginations than actual covers. The end result is something between Metallica and Meshuggah. How difficult has that process been, and do you think I’ve characterized it fairly?
Your characterization seems very fair to me. I don’t really see the point in just re-recording the song with an 8th string guitar, same riffs and arrangement. That would, too me, defeat the purpose of the idea of the 7 – or 8 string guitar. Anyone with a guitar, regardless of number of strings, can record a straight cover. So yes, I am definitely doing reconstructions. I have to admit that trying to come up with Meshuggah-style riffs is somewhat hard, so on these three songs that I released I took a groove from a Meshuggah track and built the Metallica song around it. Blackened is built upon “Combustion”, and I’ll leave the listeners to guess where the two other came from 😉
A common (and I suppose fair) criticism I see of Meshuggah is that they don’t play riffs. However, you’ve taken two songs from Metallica’s riffiest period for this experiment. How difficult was it translating those riffs from a purely thrash style to a rhythmic riff style?
Actually, is wasn’t that difficult on these three. It was a very fluent process, and I think that’s why they work so well. But after “Moth” I tried a lot of other songs that didn’t work so well. So I guess it all depends on the song in question and which groove I shall use to reconstruct it. Like I said earlier. The grooves I borrowed from Meshuggah for these three tracks made the process a lot easier.
Do you have plans for other Metallica songs?
Oh yes. I have big plans, and I am working on 5-6 more songs right now. I don’t know if most of them will come to fruition, since I don’t want to force anything out, creatively. What I can tell you is that I just finished one of them, which is actually my favourite `tallica song of all time, but it shall remain a secret until I release it! 😉
Are the drums programmed?
The drums are programmed. Why? To make the whole process more efficient. I do not want to make this a very time consuming process, and drums is what takes most work and energy for me, at this point at least. So I program to my best ability. My drums skills are not nearly good enough for this stuff anyway, even though the drummer of my life (who also plays in Metal Militia with me), Jon Eirik Bokn, could pull of this shit in a heartbeat.
How important do you think Metallica and Meshuggah are for each others’ sound? That is, how much do you think the two artists influenced each other?
It seems fairly obvious to me that Meshuggah is very inspired by the early Metallica albums. That seems like a well established fact, as far as I’m concerned. What they have in common is that they both push boundaries. I think one of the reasons that Metallica is my favourite band ever is the fact that they take a lot of chances, not only music-wise, but also production-wise. They have pretty much done whatever they wanted to do. Same goes for Meshuggah, musically, most importantly. Maybe not so much when it comes to production, but definitely when it comes to songwriting. I mean, is not like Meshuggah are making songs that are easily devoured by the average pop music fan out here. Musically, they are probably one the hardest bands to listen to, if you know what I mean, but I also find them extremely easy to ENJOY.
Do you have an actual band with original music, or is this just a passion project? What’s your end goal?
I have several. My main arena for musical masturbation is Norway’s only true balkan metal band, TROLLFEST. We play hysterical and frenetical Balkan Metal. Check out “Helluva”. My grindcore outfit is called TOTTAL TØMMING and we play extreme music with a norwegian, humouristic twist, only for the brave and mad ones. Also, I just released the debut album of MANHUNTER, my doom/stoner project. It might be a cross between Type O Negative, Tool and Pink Floyd. I am also working on an untitled black metal project, which might release an EP. I have also released records with DEATH INJECTOR, and my first real love, DEAD TROOPER! And a bunch of acoustic shit might see the light of day one day.
Your efforts on these three tracks seem to be much closer to Meshuggah’s style than anything the modern wave of “djent” bands are doing? Would you consider this djent? What do you think of that genre as a whole?
My knowledge with “djent” as a genre ends with the name. I am not interested, nor have I ever been, in labels, boxes and genres. It feels like it is very comfortable for humans to categorize everything, but I don’t think it’s fair to put a label on art. The art, be it music, film, sculptures, whatever, is exactly what it is on its own and nothing more. I can’t answer whether or not I would call these three songs “djent”. Someone more familiar with the term should answer that. Fact is, I don’t care 🙂 And in order not to sound like a total hypocrite because I put my own projects in boxes in the previous question, I would like to add that in order to search through the tens of thousands of artists out there, it might be helpful to have some guiding lights along the way, in order to find whatever you are searching for, if you get my drift. Both Meshuggah and Metallica are genre-less bands in my opinion, they have long since transcended thrash as a label. It is much easier to categorize Slayer as a thrash band, for example, since they have changed their sound very little over the years. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but personally, I am more attracted to artists that take more chances.
If you were to continue this experiment of reinterpreting tracks from other artists into Meshuggah’s style, what other bands do you think could be converted well?
Doing some Pantera has crossed my mind. I was also thinking of reversing the whole thing and do Meshuggah songs like Metallica might have done it 😛 No promises, though…
So, you look a lot like Jens Kidman in your videos. I’m bald too, so I’ve met that comparison as well, but it seems like you’re really going for that look in these videos. Is this just a fun tribute to a big influence?
Thanks! He is one handsome dude! 😀 High five for the best haircut ever! I am definitely exploiting that fact, yes. I thought that I should go all the way with this project, I mean there’s nothing wrong with going all the way, is there? It would be wrong to call it an influence, a more fitting description would be that I think it’s just a funny coincidence that makes it easier for me to get this specific message through.
Many, many thanks to Müller for humoring my questions and for creating something that got me thinking. With all the boring covers and soulless reproductions out there, it’s fun to find an artist trying something different, even if that different is ultimately just combining two sounds he loves.
So now it’s your turn. Would you like to see Müller cover any other Metallica songs? What do you think qualifies art as original or genuine? Sound off in the comments below.
Be sure to subscribe to Müller’s channel here and check out his various bands at the links below.