When anybody asks me who my favorite musician of all time is, I don’t hesitate to tell them that it’s David Bowie. He was a man who was of his time, ahead of his time, and before his time. Pop musicians before Bowie never really evolved their sound. Yeah sure Ozzy Osbourne’s sound drastically changed when he left Black Sabbath, and had Rand Rhoads as a guitarist. There are probably innumerable examples like that.
But nobody before Bowie, killed a persona at the height of it’s popularity, to pursue something entirely different. Not only would he pursue something different, but each time he changed his sound, he evolved his sound. The best analogy I can make is imagine a martial artist, who is the world’s greatest kick boxer. Who after winning the heavy weight championship of the world, decides to get into Sumo Wrestling. Trains super hard, and becomes the world champion of Sumo Wrestling, then changes to Brazilian Jujitsu. Meanwhile, as he changes from sport to sport he adds his own personal flair to it, adds it to another sport, and BAM he creates something entirely original and destroys the competitors while doing it.
So when any artist is doing a cover of Bowie, we’re also participating in a piece of musical history. That’s mainly because Bowie was the king of being into something “Before it was cool.” There’s so many different genres, artistic influences, cultural references, and soundscapes that it’s only now with the globalized digital world we live in that we can see how the fuck the underground gay scene, mimes, kabuki theater, Pink Floyd, and Andy Warhol can even be synthesized into something entirely new.
With this broad spectrum of musical creativity, an artist has so much to work with. Even in this album, since Bowie used so many different genres techniques, sounds, and influences that any artist doing a cover of Bowie can almost do anything, and still it’s within the realm of possibility for a Bowie song. For example if you ask me to play a Black Sabbath sounding song, I’m not going to bring out a synthesizer. Ask me to play a Kraftwerk sounding song and I’m not going to bust out my ole acoustic guitar. Ask me to make a David Bowie sounding song, and I can literally do anything.
So with that preface, let’s dive in and review this wonderful album. The first song Cyber Monday – It’s No Game (Part One) already starts strong with the very first sample. In Bowie’s original It’s No Game (Part 1) it starts off with what sounds to be a tape recorder, maybe a cassette, or even a Walkman. I don’t know. Mainly because I never grew up using a cassette player. Yet when Cyber Monday uses that old classic internet dial up tone, we already know what it is.
It’s genius because it does two things, one updates a classic, because more people probably remember the internet dial up tone than a cassette player. And two provides a sort of commentary on music itself. We aren’t finding music rummaging through Record stores, we find music by internet streaming services. This kind of meta-commentary is often used by Vaporwave and if you’re going to be covering David Bowie, what’s a better place to start than by using a variety of different genres?
Next we go to the actual musical arrangement of this song. Where instead of using heavy reverbed out guitar, they use these spacious shimmering synths. Which anybody who really has dived into Bowie’s catalog knows how forward thinking he was in regards to synthesizers, and pioneered many of the sounds we take for granted. Using synths to cover guitar based songs can be tacky, if not out right disrespectful, to an original song. Yet this is David Bowie we’re talking about. In South Park it’s a running gag that any idea that’s out there, “The Simpsons already did it.” Which in this case, any musical idea can be answered as, “Bowie already did it.”
So when in the original song, the guitar sounds like it’s hooked up to an amp that is sparking out, short circuited, and on fire. The question is: how you can provide the same type of sound using a synthesizer? Then the next question that has to be asked is: does it sound good? The answer to that is: yes, to both of those questions. The synths take on this razor thin electronic hum that sounds so sharp that it would cut your ear drum. It’s the perfect synth answer to the bizarre guitar tone on the original song, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better synth tone.
Yet there’s something missing in this track that’s not in the original. That is the sample of a Japanese woman speaking. Now when Scary Monsters was released in 1980, hearing a Japanese woman speak on an album would call back to some exotic, mysterious world. Since at that time, unless you were incredibly cultured, or were David Bowie himself, Japan was still an enigma to most Westerners. Now with anime, video games, manga, etc. Japan doesn’t really hold that sense of mystery. I already have some conception of Japan. So listening to it now, it doesn’t provide the same emotional response as it would back in 1980. So when Cyber Monday removes it from their cover. It improves the song for modern listeners.
Because let’s face it, if there was a movie that had a bunch of Indians eating frozen monkey brains it would seem tacky, stereotyped, and not true. But in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which was released in 1984, it seemed more believable. Mainly because people were ignorant of India, and it’s in that ignorance that you’re able to feel some sense of exploration into unknown territory. Yet we’re not as ignorant as we were 30 years ago. So when listening to this song now, it’s a great rock track with some Japanese woman speaking for some reason.
So next up is Foreign Technology – Up The Hill Backwards. The original Up The Hill Backwards is a lot more stripped down in terms of bizarre guitar tones. While at the same time is very vocal centered, with a droning organ, heavy hitting drums, and has an incredibly interesting groove. The main takeaway for this track would be, that it is a rock song. You could see almost any rock band covering it, and it would still work in their style. It’s a basic rock song, as much as David Bowie could be considered basic. With this simple foundation, the surprise will be how Foreign Technology utilizes this simple structure, to express their own sound.
So when listening to this track the first thing that you have to notice is the beefed up guitar tones. Then there’s the almost bagpipe sounding synths. Which before the droning organ in the background was so distant you’d swear you were hearing it from another county. You know when a cover is going to be great, when it already sounds ten times larger than the original.
The other thing is that while the original track was stripped down, it provides a lot of opportunity for experimentation. Which is in and of itself exciting, it’s like when you ask a Jazz musician to play their own version of say, Jingle Bells. Each musician’s interpretation of the song is going to sound incredibly different, yet each one is going to be jingle bells. You’re not excited to hear jingle bells, you’re excited to hear the artist play their version of it.
While the intro is hard hitting, beefed up, and sounds gigantic the rest of the track takes on a more spacious quality. Both in terms of sound, and thematically. While Bowie’s original song had the vocals in the forefront, and instrumentation in the back. This song does the complete opposite, and provides an entirely different kind of experimental tone. To begin with, the distorted vocals sound like an Astronaut floating out in space. Combine that with the reverb drenched spacious instrumentation, that constantly shifts, changes, and mutates. Kind of calls back to some sci-fi space exploration into some new unknown world. And what’s a more fitting tribute to the Man Who Fell To Earth?
Next up we have Depussy – Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). The original Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) is still as fresh today, as it was the day it released. It’s so entirely bizarre, and thoroughly entertaining. It’s the song that also kind of bridges that gap between Berlin Trilogy Bowie, and “Phil Collins” Bowie. Basically after overcoming drug addiction, experimenting with Kraut rock, electronic, ambient, and world music. All of this to spite his former manager who ripped him off. He needed a way to branch out from the world of experimentation to the popular mainstream. And no song really encapsulates this better than Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps.)
This song in particular, since it is the namesake of the album, has a lot of potential for any artist covering it. Since it is the song, of the album, that transitioned Bowie from Experimental artist to Phil Collins 2.0. There are either two ways to go about it, you can make it more pop friendly, or more experimental.
Or instead you can do what Depussy did, which is make the song live up to it’s name “Scary Monsters.” From the bass thumping Techno beat intro, to the menacing vocal growl, this track lives up to the name “Scary Monsters.” In fact if they ever made a remake of Blade (which I know they won’t because Hollywood sucks) this would be a perfect song for it. This song is so menacing, yet with the upbeat tone of the original song it doesn’t go overboard into edge lord territory. In fact with it’s fast paced hard hitting synths, it provides the track with a lot of energy, and provides action to an upbeat albeit experimental song.
This kind of heart pumping beat provides the song with a pop edge. Because let’s face it, everybody loves a song that pumps them up. There is nobody on Earth who just listens to music to contemplate the nature of existence. Sometimes you just want to let loose, get in a fight, dance at a club, or dunk on some fools who think they’re the next MJ.
So like the original song, while it is experimental, it still retains a pop edge. Though how David Bowie accomplished it, and how Depussy accomplished it are two entirely different means, they still nonetheless accomplished an experimental pop song. So while each version ended up in the same destination, the journey taken was wildly different.
Next up we have Destination – Ashes To Ashes (Destination’s Messed With Major Tom Mix). Ashes to Ashes is one of my all time favorite songs. Ever. I cannot understate how much I love this song. It’s a song that I would always skip, when I first discovered David Bowie. Mainly due to it’s bizarre intro, and the bizarre groove it had. Then there was David Bowie’s fragile vocals. His voice (which at the time) sounded like it was going through puberty. I couldn’t listen to the whole song all the way through. I kept skipping it, over and over again. It wasn’t until a girl I had a crush on started to date another guy that I was finally in the right headspace to listen to the song.
Which really fits in well with the theme of Ashes to Ashes. David Bowie’s first hit was Space Oddity. A song that got him to the top of the pops. Yet a song that almost doomed him to be a one hit wonder. Created during the time of the Apollo moon landing. It was a song about a man, Major Tom, an astronaut who gets launched into space. Who the public admires as a hero, only to then have his communication cut off from the rest of the world, and now drifts helplessly out in the black abyss of space.
Then Bowie defied expectations, became Ziggy Stardust, and became the rock star he longed to be. Then came the drugs, the alcohol, the terrible management, a divorce, sobriety, a different, sound, and now we get to Ashes to Ashes. A song where the heroic astronaut finally is able to get back into communication with the rest of the world. And when he does, the world is horrified to find out that he’s become a junkie. Where the general public doesn’t want to know what shirt he wears, rather they tell their kids that if “You wanna get things done, you better not mess with Major Tom.” A man that fell from grace to become a loser. So when a romantically rejected 16 year old me gave this song a second chance, well you can see why it resonated with me so much.
So with that kind of emotional baggage, Destination has a lot to live up to. The question is, are they able to live up to this epic tragedy? Well obviously I’m writing a review on it, so yes, they are. One of the reasons I passed on the song originally was because of the bassline, and the groove. It fit incredibly well with the theme of the song, that is of drug addiction, and emotional isolation. Everything felt off kilter and as a result you don’t immediately understand the tragic nature of the song during the beginning parts. Destination, on the other hand does an excellent job of setting up the immediate tragedy of the song.
How do they do it? Well it’s mainly due to the instrumentation that they’ve chosen. The plucking bass in the original highlights that kind of false sense of bravado when you’re under the influence. While the electronic keys provide that melancholy sound that the song is themed after. When you combine these two elements, at first listen, they clash together. Which is why I suspect I kept skipping this song when listening to it. Destination on the other hand does something different. They focus on the melancholy keys, distort it, allow it to mutate, and it conveys both inebriation and tragedy very effectively. While the bassline is instead replaced with this synth swirling around your ears.
By utilizing modern techniques of electronic music, Destination is able to convey the melancholy theme of the song in an incredibly effective way. Yet there is one thing that is impossible to do. That is have David Bowie’s vocals. Like I said before, David Bowie’s vocals, when I first listened to the track, turned me off from the track. His vocals were so vulnerable, and it sounded like he was fucked up when he sang about being fucked up. They were so experimental, and he pulled it off so well that it cannot be replaced. They are vocals that each time I listen to them, they resonate more and more with me. Mainly because I’ve matured both as an artist, and as a musician.
Don’t get me wrong I believe that the singer for Destination did a fantastic job. She has a beautiful voice, that is a pure joy to listen to. Yet in this track out of all the tracks in the album, I firmly believe that nobody can surpass Bowie in his vocal performance. It would be like if Hollywood did a remake of The Godfather. No actor would even remotely want any of those roles. Mainly because the shoes that they have to fill are far too large for any actor to fill. Likewise with this song, and Bowie’s experimental approach to his vocals, no singer could ever replicate the depth of emotion that he brought to the track. But I have to hand it to Destination they got closer to capturing the emotional vulnerability of Bowie, than I thought that anybody could.
Yet due to Destination’s strength of being able to effectively use synthesizers, utilizing nearly every tool at their disposal they were able to convey that level of emotion that was in the original. This track is a behemoth, it is so well done, that for any band to convey the complex emotions of the original deserves a listen. This out of all the songs on the track is the most daunting challenge, and Destination did an amazing job. It took a lot of courage to even cover this track, and I have my utmost respect for them as artists. They were Rocky Balboas against an Apollo Creed, and the fact they are able to go the distance and stand on their on two feet, is something to be proud of.
Next up is Dead Amps – Fashion and unless you literally have had no contact with the outside world for 30 years, you’ve undoubtedly heard this song. It’s an incredibly pop sounding song. While yes, it’s still David Bowie, and it still has his unique flair. It’s so popular that there’s a realm of possibilities with the song. To understand what I mean, take Black Sabbath’s Iron Man. It’s an incredibly popular song, yet there’s still a lot that can be done on it. For example, the guitars could be heavier, Ozzy could be replaced with anybody, the guitar solo could be improved, etc. It’s the same principle with this song. Bowie doesn’t have to be singing on it, like with Ashes to Ashes. It’s just a fun song about fashion.
So with that in mind we have to look at how Dead Amps approaches this song. Like I’ve said before it’s a fun song about fashion. So what they really have to do is capture that fun. After all David Bowie wasn’t just a pioneer in music, but in fashion as well. This song while at times is incredibly goofy, is also capturing Bowie’s emotional reaction to one of his favorite past times that is fashion.
So let’s see how they go about this. Instead of the guitar intro, they use a heavy distorted synth. Which works so well for this track. The guitars in the original, while yes they were excellent, they also could be seen as abrasive. Which can be attributed to the specific guitar tone that is used throughout the album. By using a fuzzy distorted synthesizer, the song is able to be more pop sounding, and thus friendlier. And if a song is friendlier, well it’s going to be more fun.
Then there’s the vocals where the track really shines. Like I’ve mentioned before there are some songs where the vocalist can be replaced, and it wouldn’t make a difference, or even improve the song. While Bowie is an excellent vocalist, his vocals are not needed in this track. Yet with Dead Amps female vocals, and particularly the chorus “Turn to the left, Turn to the right.” By double tracking the vocals, and adding a bit of female charm to the track, the track instantly becomes so incredibly fun. Then there’s the fact this is a male song, sung by a female there is a possibility of a duet, while before there was only Bowie. The interaction between male and female vocals works so well for this track. And then just to add even more charm there are the robotic vocals. Which is just the icing on the cake.
All throughout these various synths are used throughout the song, and provides it with such a campy feeling. Then when there is guitar it’s so well produced and does such a great job at providing a funky rhythm section that, I can honestly say that this song is great on it’s own, without the baggage of being a David Bowie cover.
Next up we have Nathan Carlson – Teenage Wildlife. It’s a David Bowie song that looks back to the past. To those 1950’s teenage Americana of getting your own car, and driving Pacific Coast highway. It’s his most nostalgic, and has those 50’s throwback sounds. With the crooning background vocals, old rock rhythm sections, of the 50’s with the perfected guitar tones of 1980. This is the song, where if you don’t like the guitar tone of the album, this is the track that you just have to admit sounds good. It captures that sense of nostalgia that we all falsely have of our teenage lives.
So I highly doubt that Nathan Carlson has the 1950’s as a frame of reference for his teenage years. I know nothing about the guy, but just call it a hunch. Then what would be our version of the 50’s? What genre tropes can we use to invoke those feelings of nostalgia? If only there was a retro genre that captured that wave of emotion of our youths…Oh yeah, retrowave. That was probably the worst sentence I’ve ever written, but you get the idea.
Even if you didn’t grow up in the 80’s, you had parents who listened to 80’s music. We all latch on to certain aspects of it, the synthesizers, the robotic vocals, the electronic bass, etc. If Bowie was alive today he would have remade his song the way that Nathan Carlson has. Because it’s not the particular sounds that makes this song what it is. But it’s the emotions the song invokes. That of nostalgia. For people in Bowie’s age range, it would have been the 50’s. For us it would be the 80’s-90’s. This song excels because it so well captures the 80’s aesthetic. Instead of great guitar tones, it’s great synth tones. Nearly every compliment of the original song can be attributed to this song, except it’s with synths.
Now we’re getting into some interesting territory with, Waffensupermarkt – Scream Like A Baby. The original track is very dramatic. With a nearly campy start, with it’s drama, then it’s spooky synthesizers, and various people’s vocals double tracked. Is a lot like Fashion in that it’s a fun song. All though it’s not because Bowie is really into babies screaming like he is into fashion, but because it’s just a fun campy song. I mean there is a misconception about experimental music. Most people have this image of a tortured soul living down deep in a basement. Alone with their synthesizer/guitar/whatever and making bizarre tragic music, to make sense of their bizarre tragic nature. When in actuality making experimental music is just having a party by yourself, and trying to see how much weird shit you can get away with.
So with a name like Waffensupermarkt what kind of music do you imagine they create? Hip hop? Bebop? Surf Rock? No. You don’t have a name like Waffensupermarkt without being experimental. Like I said before the track has a dramatic beginning, the riddle to this song is how Waffensupermarkt combines the drama, and experimentation into something his own. He beyond exceeds expectations.
The vocals are beyond creepy, and the synths can be so overpowering that they overwhelm you. Yet like I’ve said, making experimental music is incredibly fun. Listening to this track you know that this was probably a joy to make. Each synth is so unique, and something you’ve never heard before in your life, and just when it gets you to a point of familiarity, everything changes. Then you’re back to the experimental playground that Waffensupermarkt has provided.
Yet it’s the ebb in flow of the experimentation where the drama occurs. Where the atonal soundscapes provide the tension rather than Bowie’s dramatic vocals, and composition. By constantly shifting from the familiar to unfamiliar, we as a listener get conflict, resolution, and then more conflict. By embracing the experimental Waffensupermarkt is able to create a song that combines the creativity and forward thinking that Bowie was famous for. And it is definitely not a song for the faint of heart. Yet if you’re like me, make music, or just want to listen to something new. Then this would definitely be the track to checkout.
Now we’re in the homestretch 3 more songs to go. Next up is SutajioWest – Kingdom Come. Now Kingdom Come is another song that I believe is perfect. It’s the song where all the ideas of Scary Monsters come together and get ironed it. If I wanted to introduce someone to this album, this would probably be the song I would show them first. It does the best job at summarizing everything that the album is about. While at the same time, it’s a song that can stand on it’s own. Nearly everything about the track I believe is perfect the guitars, the bass, background vocals, Bowie’s vocals; everything is just perfect.
So now with SutajioWest he doesn’t really have the luxury of being able to create a summation of the cover album. Mainly because it’s a collaborative effort. Yet if there is one theme on this album it would be the creative interpretation of an artist who was renowned for his creativity. With that summation of the album SutajioWest does what this album does best, which is to be creative.
While the original song was very much a refinement of all the ideas that was throughout the album. SutajioWest creates something wildly different, yet somehow it captures the same kind of emotion. The song itself is about a man who has a rough life, either due to economic circumstance, or some emotional turmoil. Who just pleads for Kingdom come, where he no longer has to endure what he’s been put through.
Bowie used the backlog of all the techniques used in the album to convey this kind of quiet desperation, while SutajioWest has a different approach. From the distant vocals that sound so broken down, to the thumping trudging beat, and the synths that seem to never find a resolution, everything in this track paints a bleak picture. Then coupled with the electronic soundscape creates a cold and unwelcoming environment. While Bowie avoids synths during this song, and instead uses guitars, bass, and back up vocals. Bowie’s song sounds far more optimistic. While SutjijoWest’s cover sounds like a cold mechanized walk to the gulag. And what’s more relevant to our modern lives than some cold mechanized environment? Which like previous tracks on this album is a different journey to the same destination.
Now we get to the last song with vocals, Mark LaFountain – Because You’re Young. So with the original the track immediately starts off with some western kind of twangy guitar, and then there’s the glittering synths that flutter in the background. It’s again one of those incredibly upbeat fun songs that leaves the audience demanding an encore. The ending vocals in particular will knock you on your ass. It’s just so well executed, usually when you get to the end of an album, or on the B-side it’s where the creative spark of the artist begins to die. Yet with this song, it still maintains so much potential that it makes you excited to listen to the whole album all over again.
Yet this album is a collaboration, there isn’t any artist fatigue when there’s a collaboration like this. And when you listen to every track you can tell that each and every single artist has poured their everything into it. And Mark LaFountain is no different. While the bass was great in the original track, it’s in this track where the bass really takes off and becomes it’s own. I mean when listening to the original track, I’ve never thought the bass could be improved but God Damn Mark LaFountain has proved me wrong.
Then there’s his vocals. And God Damn this man can sing. Truly if there was a contender for a Bowie vocalist, this guy would be it. Nearly everything in the original has been improved in this track, and I don’t say that lightly. I mean David Bowie was known for being a great Saxophone player and I can imagine him listening to this, and going “Damn I should have played the sax in this song.” Then there’s the synths, guitars, everything is just pure excellence. If Mark LaFountain isn’t on your radar, then you need to readjust your life priorities and listen to this man’s music.
Finally we get to the end of this excellent album, of a collaboration of fantastic musicians with REKKT – It’s No Game (Part Two) [Instrumental]. Now even though the original had vocals, it wouldn’t be insulting to a David Bowie song for their to be an instrumental cover. After all this was a man whose B-side contained some of the greatest instrumentals of all time. And like the rest of the B-sides it departs from the main album by having an almost 50’s feel to it. With great backing vocals, old rock rhythm guitars, etc.
REKKT brings back the abrasive side of Bowie’s album. With a dubstep influence that fits perfectly with the bizarre guitar tones of the rest of the album. With a heavy synth that calls back memories to the Bowie produced Iggy Pop album it’s a great homage, and yet at the same time a great update. There’s one thing to retain an artists music to it’s purist element. But by that time you’re doing nothing more than just being a cover band. Bowie himself was incredibly creative and innovative at nearly every point in his career. By taking such a radical departure from the original source material, and yet at the same time utilizing some aspects that were lost in the source material. REKKT is both departing, and returning, to and from Scary Monsters.
And like I’ve said before this is a creative tribute to the artist who constantly changed his style, look, sound, and image all for the sake of his art. This collaborative effort is both a living monument to Bowie the artist, and to artists everywhere who were inspired by his work. REKKT recognizes this, and by creating an entirely new sound for an old classic, he is honoring Bowie the way he should be honored.
Every single artist on this album should receive nothing short of the highest praise. It takes a lot of balls to do a David Bowie cover. The man never lost his creative edge, and continued creating even when he was battling cancer. Not only did he continue to create but he continued to innovate. So when historians look back at this period of time, Bowie will be seen as something as a Mozart or a Beethoven. Some musical anomaly that happens only once in every generation. An artist who was able to constantly push the boundaries of what it meant to be an artist.
I believe that it’s impossible for any musician to deny David Bowie’s large presence on the music scene. We all have that moment of hero worship when it comes to his vast body of work, and for a group of musicians to create such creative works to honor him is nothing but spectacular.
This is a beautiful album that any Bowie fan should love, and appreciate. It will always remind us of why we fell in love with his music in the first place. And hopefully it will shine a light on the talented artists who did such a great job at honoring a great man. I knew from the moment this album was announced that it was going to be great, and it far exceeded my expectations. You all did a great job, and should be proud of yourselves. You have my sincerest thanks.
And with that I give this album my full recc.