Some years back I had the chance to interview Daniel Smith of the Danielson Famile. The band is known about equally for its extremely idiosyncratic songwriting and its Christianity. When I talked to Smith, he explicitly linked the two. To create, Smith said, was to imitate God. God was infinitely creative and original; to honor him, therefore, you should be creative and original. When I asked him what he thought of most so-called contemporary Christian music, he looked pained.
Like Danielson Famile, Stryper is a Christian band that’s positioned itself (more or less) in the mainstream rock world. They’ve essentially spent their career demonstrating that a Christian band can be as boring as a secular one, and vice versa. In that sense, their new album, The Covering, seems to be an inevitable culmination. Like the idiotic title says, this is (mostly) covers of FM staples.
Nobody says that covers have to be unoriginal. The Danielson Famile’s version of the Shagg’s “Who Are Parents?” is both reverently faithful and mind-blowing. Smith and his cohorts reproduce, note-for-note, the insane, dysfunctional, metrically-crippled Shagg original. It’s like watching someone drop a glass bottle on the floor and then perfectly reconstruct it from a thousand scattered bits so that you can’t even see the cracks. It’s miraculous in a way I think God would appreciate.
The Covering is not miraculous. And though I don’t want to presume about God’s aesthetic impulses, it’s hard to imagine how any being, finite or otherwise, could find much to like in this rote slog. It comes across as a kind of anti-creativity; everything is taken and borified by, say, 70 percent. The harmonies and cheesy proggy changes of Kansas’ “Carry on My Wayward Son,” are dumbed down with clunky drumming and pro-forma hard rock trundling. On Van Halen’s “On Fire,” Michael Sweet proves himself utterly unable to channel the bloated Vegas charisma of David Lee Roth, while some hapless guitarist demonstrates to a world that knew it already that he’s no Eddie Van Halen. And then there’s Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” Why, Lord, why? Best, perhaps, not to speak of it.
Stryper found someone else’s rut to wallow in; Deicide, at least, built its own. One of the classic 1980s death-metal bands, Deicide has experienced numerous personnel changes, but little alteration to its winning formula—fast, hard, brutal death metal with blasphemous lyrics.
In fact, the recently released To Hell With God gets into trouble not when it’s true to form, but when it innovates. Early Deicide albums sounded like they were recorded somewhere south of your basement; the latest effort is more polished and crisp. And where, say, “Blaspherion” managed to be both propulsive and evilly slogging, the title track on the latest effort drifts perilously close to actually having a rawk-anthem melody. You could see people raising their lighters and shouting “To hell with God! You don’t want to be forgiven!” like they were at a High on Fire concert or something.
Not that Deicide’s totally lost its way. They certainly haven’t embraced the post-grunge emoting behemoth metal zeitgeist the way Metallica has, for example. The riffs still come at you like you’ve stuck your face in a ceiling fan, just the way they should. It’s only when you listen closer that there’s a little disappointment; the rhythmic, stuttering maelstrom of old tracks like “In Hell I Burn” are gone. “Into the Darkness” is fierce, but it’s a more predictable fierceness, like Pantera. And I like Pantera. But they’re not classic Deicide.
So would it be better if Deicide were doing now exactly what they were 20 years ago? Obviously that seems kind of pointless. Maybe frontman Glenn Benton should’ve retired. He could have called it quits a couple of years ago when he had the crucifix brand in his forehead surgically removed, for example. But then there’s always the great beast Mammon to consider. The irony is that by sticking around past their sell-by date, Deicide may actually have finally attained the blasphemy they claimed to be going for all along. To Hell With God doesn’t spit on the deity the way Stryper does, but it does have about it the whiff of defilement. Those old Deicide albums though—I have to think they’re on Jehovah’s iPod.