Goddamn I love a good cover. There’s something so humanizing about having a band bare their influences to the world, and whether they choose to do something that reinvents a classic or they simply let loose and jam to one of their favorites, it’s so refreshing and a much-needed break from the temptation to always put up a serious front. Enter Inter Arma and their new covers album Garbers Days Revisited, which lets loose with a wide range of covers, inclusive of everything from Venom to Neil Young to Prince and Tom Petty, but never gives up the good-time vibes.
Richmond, Virginia’s Inter Arma became household names seemingly overnight (at least to me, anyway), and for good reason. They’re loathe to refer to themselves in any particular subgenre, but 2016’s Paradise Gallows put them firmly on the radar of sludge and doom enthusiasts, while still pushing through the thin veil of genre and incorporating soaring melody and bowel-churning depth. Last year’s Sulphur English saw the band make an attempt to both appreciate their roots and distance themselves from any expectations of what they “should” sound like. Brooding, angry, dark and obscenely heavy, Sulphur English garnered a ton of much-deserved acclaim and saw them push their sound into new and unexpected territory. It really makes sense, then, that the next release from the band would be a covers album. Two defining characteristics of Inter Arma’s meteoric trajectory are that their songwriting pulls from influences across the metal spectrum and beyond, and their M.O. is to always do the thing that people would least expect from them.
Garbers Days Revisited (named after the band’s old practice space) was recorded in pieces during their tour in support of Sulphur English, both as a way to pass time and a way to capitalize on, not only the vast array of influences that make up Inter Arma’s palette but also on the feeling of knocking back beers with your friends after a great show. “Hunter Thompson used to punch out pages of Ernest Hemingway on his typewriter ‘just to get the feeling of what it was like to write that way’,” says drummer and primary songwriter T.J. Childers. “The same can be said for anyone learning a great cover song: there’s a lot to be deduced from the information there. Actually, learning the songs can lead to inspirational, new musical ideas.” There are a lot of influences here that one would definitely expect from the quintet, such as Venom, Ministry, Nine Inch Nails and Cro-Mags. Unsurprisingly, the heavier tracks remain quite heavy, with the patented boom and bluster that exemplifies Inter Arma’s sound. Quite surprisingly, there’s also a fair bit of play with artists that many would not expect to be in the band’s back pocket, like Hüsker Dü, Neil Young, Tom Petty and Prince. It’s on these tracks that the band truly shines, I believe. Some, like Neil Young’s “Southern Man,” get completely turned on their head, re-imagining what was once an acoustic ballad with huge chugging riffs, thick layers of distortion and frenetic blast beats. Others, like their exemplary take on “Purple Rain,” are closer to the original but with the band’s fun-loving and laidback attitude stamped all over it. In the case of “Purple Rain,” the band felt that their performance of the song was almost too intimate to be put on the record. It was something that was originally only supposed to be reserved for getting a little too drunk with friends and letting loose, but ultimately, they were persuaded to put it on the record, and I’m so incredibly thankful they did.
I’m not always looking for a cover to be transformative, especially if you’re going to tackle a classic and especially timely song like “Southern Man,” but when Inter Arma does it, it turns the song into a monster of aggression and rage. It feels extremely appropriate given the subject matter of the song, and it serves to showcase the rage and sorrow that current affairs predicate. On a lighter note, their transformation of Hüsker Dü’s “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill” sees them go balls-to-the-wall with speed while keeping a melodic, almost post-black feel in the guitars. It amplifies what was already there to begin with instead of changing the song completely. Over the whole album it’s readily apparent just how much fun the band is having with these songs. Even tracks that read closer to the original, like “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” give you an idea of just how deeply this song is ingrained in their DNA, and the blistering solos that guitarists Steven Russell and Trey Dalton run away with are love letters to Mr. Petty himself. And then there’s “Purple Rain.” It’s insanely ambitious to even think about covering the greatest pop song of the 20th century (fight me), but the band absolutely does justice to the legend that is Prince. Childers actually takes lead vocals on this song, and instead of trying to out-Prince Prince, he leans into his own sloppy southern style. It’s oozes authenticity and honesty, and while only Prince could ever sing like Prince, you feel every drop of emotion in the song through Childers’ voice. For my money, it doesn’t get better than this. You feel like you’re hanging out with the band, like you’ve been friends with them your whole life, like you’re just kicking back and celebrating with them. I think it’s the feeling that we all desperately need right now, which makes it all the more emotionally powerful of a performance.
Childers says of Garbers Days, “Covers have been an integral part of Inter Arma since the beginning of the band and some of these songs have a direct lineage while others are a little more…obscure. As timing would have it, we hope this provides a bit of an escape for listeners, given the surreal circumstances we’re in at the moment, because after all, great art should provide an escape, which is part of why we chose to do this: sometimes you just wanna be runnin’ down a dream…” Couldn’t have said it better myself. Stay outrageous.