Monday Muse: Astronomy

As I have meandered down the road we all tred towards rigor mortis, I find myself trying, within the bounds of reason, to be less judgmental about the music I don’t like. I’ve even taken a second look at stuff that younger me hated and learned to like it.

But sometimes something is shit, and I’m here today to tell you that while Astronomy by Blue Öyster Cult is one of my favorite songs of all time…

…this cover of Astronomy by heavy metal legends Metallica is terrible…

Now if you have known me a long time you know that I have never been a fan of Metallica. I still remember the look on brothers face when it was revealed that Jethro Tull’s Crest of a Knave had won the very first Grammy for Best Metal Performance over Metallica’s …And Justice for All. But I’m not gonna be obtuse about it, they appear to be really good at what they do well. And as you can hear, they appear to be very bad at anything else.

Astronomy first appeared on BÖC’s third studio album, 1974’s Secret Treaties, and was revived as a piece of their 11th (and final major label) album, the sweeping mystical concept album Imaginos. Both Eric Bloom on the original and Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser on Imaginos bring just the right amount of spookiness to the lead vocals to echo the Bouchard brothers poetry, and the band supplies an eerie backdrop, supporting the lyrics wonderfully until Buck’s virtuoso guitar leaps out of the mist at you.

Compare and contrast to Metallica’s version. Included on their 1998 Garage Inc.  album of cover tunes, you can easily imagine Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield spinning some Cult as kids as they learned to shred. But they are just completely out of place covering this song. Hetfield’s lusty growl, which made Enter Sandman an iconic hit, grates against Bouchard’s lyrics like an old transmission grinding gears. I’m pretty tone deaf, but I’m not sure that he’s staying in key the whole time either. And he adds a bunch of “YEAHS!” and other metal grunts that detract from the mood. The Schmoo couldn’t understand what he was singing at all and I nodded because I only knew because I know the lyrics.

And as for the music? I guess they did their best, but by the time they get to the main guitar solo the song has lost all of it’s mysticism, the subtle interplay of lyric and sound brutally squashed under what feels like “generic Metallica grinding guitars.” What we end up with is a product that just exposes all of Metallica’s weaknesses without highlighting any of their strengths. And that’s the sad part because there are plenty of BÖC songs that would sound great in Metallica’s style. The high speed attack of 7 Screaming Dizbusters,  the crunchy goofiness of Godzilla, or the classic metal licks of Career of Evil  (written by Patti Smith of all people.) It’s like they picked one of the least “Metallica” songs they could to cover.

I guess I came out ahead though. Due to the chaos caused by the creation of Imaginos and the conflict it opened in the band they had dropped Astronomy from their touring set for years. The only time I’ve ever had the chance to see them live, with Blum, Lanier and Buck Dharma at Annies down on Kellogg Avenue. And lucky for me, because Metallica had released their cover earlier that year they had put it back in. So thanks got Metallica I got to hear my favorite Cult song live.


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